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What’s the most important 49ers position battle on defense?

A new defensive alignment and several new players creates a lot of competition for the 49ers.

The San Francisco 49ers have run a defense featuring a modified 4-3 alignment for a lot of the time over the past few years and defensive coordinators, but Robert Saleh’s hiring brings the first official change to it as a base alignment in a very long time. There are different positions to consider, and some players have new responsibilities.

Yesterday, we talked about the offensive side of the ball and the most important position battles going into training camp. Today, we’re going to do the same for the defense.

There’s a battle going on just about everywhere, something that’s most evident in the fact that the defense’s best player (before considering injury, something we cannot ourselves add to the equation with any certainty), NaVorro Bowman, is battling for one of two starting linebacker spots.

Bowman is competing with Malcolm Smith and first-round pick Reuben Foster for the inside linebacker spot and one of the outside spots. Ahmad Brooks likely has the other outside linebacker spot, and his is actually one of the safer jobs on the roster right now, surprisingly.

On the defensive line, I think the most interesting question is how Quinton Dial fits. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Earl Mitchell could be labeled “starters,” but Aaron Lynch, making the switch to defensive end, will do his best to bump one of them or earn as much playing time as possible. Mitchell, the veteran, is probably safest there.

Dial, though, seems like the odd man out. I love Dial’s skillset and think it fits Saleh’s scheme perfectly, but he’ll have to unseat some very promising rookies to have a shot. The battle on the defensive line seems like it could be the most important from where I’m sitting, though all of the guys above should see the field in 2017.

One could argue that the younger players impressing is most important above all, and that could technically make these battles have the highest stakes, even if their starting jobs aren’t necessarily on the line.

At safety, Jimmie Ward seems to have the free safety spot locked down while the strong safety job is going to Eric Reid. Jaquiski Tartt will do his best to beat out Reid, who is playing a new position but one that should suit him well. The 49ers may also want to go with Tartt if they feel the difference is negligible given Reid’s expiring contract at the end of the season.

Cornerback is the most crucial position, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know much about Rashard Robinson, but he’s been getting plenty of hype and there’s a good chance he has one of the starting spots locked down.

The other spot will go down to Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser, both likely looking at their last shot to earn a starting role with the 49ers, and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. I love Witherspoon’s skillset and would love to see him play. K’Waun Williams, Will Redmond and perhaps Reaser will be competing at the nickel.

What position battle is the most important in training camp?