Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have a tough challenge, rebuilding a roster that was almost completely depleted. Sure, they have a lot of salary cap room and a few extra draft picks, but there’s no doubt it will be a multi-year process. It will be very interesting to see how far they get on the road to respectability this year.
Stars are easy, in a sense. They’re expensive and may require a high draft pick or a trade to acquire, but it’s easy to project that Myles Garrett will be a good player. Where GMs and coaches earn there money is scoring on the unknown guys, the 2nd and 3rd day players who turn into starters and sometimes Pro Bowlers. What made Seattle a power was nabbing guys like Russell Wilson (3rd round), Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor (5th rounders), and Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse (UDFAs).
So what about the new players that Lynch and Shanahan have scooped up? I don’t mean the established veterans, like Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Brian Hoyer or Kyle Juszczyk; they’re going to make the team. Likewise, Jeremy Kerley has earned a solid spot on this team. What about the Earl Mitchells and Jayson DiManches, the guys whose position you had to double check just now?
Just spitballing here — I wasn’t there when the team worked them out, for example — but here is how I break them down.
Don’t get your hopes up for these guys. Anyone in camp has a chance, but I’d bet against their making the team.
DeAndre Carter is a local WR who has never made it off a practice squad. He might be getting a chance to show kick return ability.
Logan Paulsen played for Shanahan in Washington and blocks well, but he had a total of three receptions (on 10 targets) last year while being one of the league’s most penalized TEs. He may be a camp player-coach more than a roster threat.
Fighting for a roster spot:
New coaches, new system, new teammates — Lynch will want to see how they look on the field before making a decision.
A lot of Niners were released or let go, so signing a one-year contract is a good sign, but it’s not a great sign. If the team was really sold on them, they’d have been tied up longer (as Kerley was on a three-year deal). So Chris Jones, DuJuan Harris, Mike Purcell and Carl Bradford (a mid-December pickup last year who you might have missed) had best be giving it everything they’ve got in their strength and conditioning workouts this week.
In case you’re wondering, Jones is not the Chris Jones whose penis fell out on national TV during the combine. That guy plays for Kansas City, and he’s a DE, not a DT.
CB K’Waun Williams didn’t play last year after a messy dispute with Cleveland, who thought he should play in the preseason despite an ankle injury. He disagreed, and the fact that he failed a physical after the Chicago Bears claimed him off waivers seems to support his argument. He is competing for a nickel back role in a lengthy depth chart.
Jayson DiManche is another inside linebacker depth option, but even as a special teamer he’s facing a lot of competition (see next three players). On the plus side, his name means “Sunday” in French, so maybe he’s fated to play in the NFL.
Matt Barkley may be the third QB if the team drafts somebody (meaning he’ll be inactive or practice squad), but he’s a good bet to make the final roster, and could remain the #2. After a great career at USC, Barkley has struggled in the pros, perhaps because of a shoulder injury his senior year that left him with questionable arm strength.
In Philadelphia, he got significant game time as a rookie when Mike Vick and Nick Foles were both injured; he moved the ball well enough but turned the ball over (by interception or fumble) on nearly every drive. His situation hit a low point when he challenged sportswriter Jimmy Kempski to a throwing competition on Reddit, then didn’t follow through when Kempski eagerly agreed.
Barkley was a surprise success for Chicago last year, though again he had four turnovers against Green Bay (one on a Hail Mary). One factor may have been getting a couple of years to rest up. Barkley is one of the few guys to start four years as QB in both high school and college; he came into the NFL with a lot of miles (and helmet hits) on him.
The team is high on DT Earl Mitchell, though frankly it’s not easy to figure out why. GM John Lynch said “As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign. A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team.” What’s he’s not is a man of high statistics, with 17 combined tackles in just 9 games last year for Miami after returning from a lingering calf injury.
Mitchell had his best year for in 2013 playing for Houston, where current Niners DL coach Jeff Zgonina was the assistant DL coach, so presumably Coach Z saw some potential that Miami couldn’t tap.
Center Jeremy Zuttah, a nine-year veteran, made the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year. (Also, he has an adorable pit bull who was one of the groomsmen at his wedding.)
Baltimore had signaled that they were likely to release him, in part for cap reasons, but the Niners nabbed him in return for swapping 6th round picks. Kyle Shanahan did well adding veteran center Alex Mack last year in Atlanta and may be looking to do the same this year. With lots of change on the roster, starting every play with a savvy veteran makes sense.
Opinions on Zuttah are mixed; despite his Pro Bowl slot, he had a rough start to last season and PFF rated him middle of the pack (15th in run blocking, and 22nd in pass protection). It’s not guaranteed that he’ll beat out incumbent Daniel Kilgore for the starting job, but Kilgore has missed at least three games every year due to injuries, and both players can slide over to guard. He’ll be part of the rotation one way or another.
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Aldrick Robinson blossomed under Shanahan in Atlanta last year, and played for him in Washington as well. The new coach is more comfortable with shorter receivers than Chip Kelly was. Along with Marquise Goodwin, Robinson gives the Niners two deep threats with serious speed who should deliver some highlight plays next year. Now, if they can find someone to deliver the ball to them...
Tim Hightower did a good job navigating the controversy over (temporarily) getting Frank Gore’s number, and he’s a good bet to be the No. 2 RB after Carlos Hyde. In New Orleans, he averaged four yards a carry and four TDs a year for two season, after being out of the league for three full years with a complicated ACL tear. He was an effective receiver as well, with 200 yards and 11 first downs in 22 receptions (on 26 targets) last year. Paradoxically, major injuries sometimes give players a rare chance to heal up the rest of their bodies, and that may be a factor for Hightower.