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49ers position battles 2017: Handicapping the defense heading into training camp

The 49ers have a lot of changes in store, and it reflects in the position competitions on the defensive side of the ball.

The San Francisco 49ers rookies and veterans reported to training camp Thursday morning, and the first practice of the season takes place on Friday. At that point, we’ll start to get some insight into how each position competition is shaking out.

Earlier today, I took a look at the various offensive position battles, and now I thought I’d take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

2nd cornerback

Participants: Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Ahkello Witherspoon

Rashard Robinson is starting on one side, and these three are competing to start on the other side. The 49ers spent a third round pick on Witherspoon, while Reaser and Johnson were both 2014 draft picks. All three got some time with the first string defense in OTAs and minicamp

Favorite: Reaser - Johnson has the better build for the team’s press defense, but his stock has declined each season. It’s a new coaching staff, but I’m sticking with Reaser for now. I do think Witherspoon plays a decent-sized role in 2017, however.

Nickel back

Participants: K’Waun Williams, Will Redmond, Will Davis, others

The 49ers drafted Redmond last year and saw him spend the season on IR. Williams was the first free agent John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan signed. Davis was the second to last free agent signing of the offseason, happening on June 2. “Others” means the group that doesn’t win the second cornerback job, and a handful of other players. By all accounts, Williams was the primary guy in the role during the offseason workout program.

Favorite: Williams

LEO/edge rusher

Participants: Arik Armstead, Aaron Lynch

It seems like Armstead is all but certain to claim the LEO role, but it will be interesting to see how the team rotates on the edges in all situations. Guys like Elvis Dumervil, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, and others will get opportunities on the edge in the nickel, but LEO would seem to be primarily between Armstead and Lynch.

Favorite: Armstead

Edge rushers

Participants: Arik Armstead, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Pita Taumoepenu

This is where things get really interesting for the 49ers defense. Arik Armstead has slimmed down for the LEO role, but it seems like he could still shift inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. If he does, he is not in the mix here, but maybe the 49ers are envisioning a whole new role entirely on the edge. We’ll find out in the next couple weeks. Otherwise, the team’s last free agent addition, Elvis Dumervil, appears to be a favorite to get time on the edge. Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch are the primary incumbent options, but Tank Carradine, Eli Harold, and Pita Taumoepenu are all in the mix as well.

Favorites: Dumervil & Lynch, but we see plenty of rotation

Weak side linebacker

Participants: Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster

Foster has been fully cleared for the start of training camp. This makes the competition for time next to NaVorro Bowman a fascinating one. The likely result is Smith plays in the base defense and Foster comes in as the second nickel linebacker, but if Foster is ready to go, he’s sufficiently talented that he could very well surprise and claim a starting job sooner rather than later.

Favorite: Smith (base), Foster (nickel)

Dime back

Participants: Jaquiski Tartt, K’Waun Williams, Will Redmond, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Ahkello Witherspoon, Will Davis, Adrian Colbert, others

The 49ers will offer up a variety of looks, and the dime will provide one of the big opportunities. Jaquiski Tartt makes a lot of sense in a Deone Bucannon role. We could see him in the nickel, but the dime is a good opportunity when the 49ers go for the bigger dime. When the 49ers go with a fourth cornerback in the dime, my guess is early in the season, Ahkello Witherspoon has that role if he has not claimed a starting job quite yet. But the 49ers have brought in a lot of bodies to compete for this expanded secondary.

Favorite: Tartt (big dime), Witherspoon (normal dime)

Defensive line rotation

I’m honestly not sure how best to view this group. DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas all seem like the most likely to have a fairly firm role. Earl Mitchell is likely settled in as the nose tackle role next to Buckner. The biggest question is where guys like Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine, Ronald Blair, Chris Jones, and D.J. Jones will be settling in. Dial is likely playing inside, while Tank has been getting work at strong defensive end until Solomon Thomas potentially replaces him. Defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have both said there will be extensive rotation, which means there are a lot of moving pieces here.