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Previewing the 49ers 2018 OTAs

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We’ve got a position-by-position look at what to watch for the next three weeks.

The San Francisco 49ers open their 2018 OTAs later this morning, marking the start of phase three of the offseason workout program. The team will conduct OTAs May 21-22, May 24, May 29-30, June 1, June 4-5, and June 7. That will be followed by their three-day mandatory minicamp June 12th to 14th.

The start of phase three marks a change in what the players and team can do on the field. Players can wear helmets during drills for the first time, and we’ll get to see team offense vs. team defense drills. In the previous phase, the offense could do drills and the defense could do drills, but they could not do them against each other.

This will not give us final answers on position competitions, but it will get us more information as we consider the bubble watch and 53-man roster projections. Over the past two weeks, I took a look at each position, what the depth chart looked like following the draft and undrafted free agency, and what OTAs might mean for the position competitions within. I thought I would pull out each position and the “what OTAs might mean” portion to get them all together. You can click on the link for each position to see all the details.

Quarterbacks

There is no position battle here, with Jimmy Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard likely locked into their roles. However, the next month is huge for Garoppolo’s continued development. He joined the team at the trade deadline last year, and his five starts to close the season were effectively him being thrown in the deep end.

Kyle Shanahan has talked about the offseason workout program being a chance to effectively strip down Garoppolo’s quarterbacking skills and start from the basics. This isn’t a matter of changing mechanics are how he processes things or anything like that. Rather, it’s building all that back up in the context of Kyle Shanahan’s offense. If all goes well, Shanahan and Garoppolo will be tied at the hip for the foreseeable future, so such a specific process is necessary.

This is not to short-change Beathard as well. He does benefit this time around from being the clear backup. Last year, he started out as the third string quarterback behind Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley. This year, he’s the clear No. 2, and he’s already had all offseason to start getting ready to take another step forward in his own game. Even though he has no chance of starting over a healthy Jimmy G, Beathard has plenty to gain from OTAs and minicamp.

Running backs

Matt Breida cannot let things slide between now and training camp, but he would seem to be in pretty good shape to maintain a “lead” for the first backup role. It doesn’t guarantee he won’t get supplanted on the depth chart by Week 1, but I think we see him head into training camp as the running back to beat behind Jerick McKinnon.

Joe Williams faces a huge OTA period. He’s had a calendar year now to work with Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. I don’t expect him to have it 100 percent memorized, but he’s got to show he knows what his tasks are and is ready to build on last year. With no tackling in the offseason workout program, it’s more about understanding the playbook and knowing what you’re supposed to do. Training camp and the preseason are when execution will take a big step forward.

Jeremy McNichols is sort of like a step back of Williams in this regard. The 49ers signed him to their practice squad after roster cuts, and so he has had over eight months with Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. Given that he did not join the 49ers until after training camp, this offseason is a big chance for him to impress the coaching staff.

On the other hand, Jeffery Wilson as a UDFA has arguably the most work in front of him. He was plenty productive at North Texas, but he’s working from behind. He’s likely competing for a practice squad spot, but OTAs provide a chance to show how quickly he’s getting a hang of the playbook.

Wide receivers

I’d say Kendrick Bourne has as much to gain or lose in OTAs (and training camp) as anybody on this depth chart. After Pierre Garçon went on IR, Bourne got his opportunity and showed some serious signs. He attended Eastern Washington University, and their quarter system meant he had to wait until finals ended in June before he could join the team. This year he has a whole offseason to better learn the playbook and his role in it.

Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, and Trent Taylor will all face competition in OTAs and camp, but all three seem fairly well locked in heading into the coming season. It seems like the addition of Pettis is a big challenge to Bourne in particular. He’ll need to show some progress in OTAs to build on his momentum the second half of last season.

Victor Bolden is another receiver who faces a serious challenge to his role on the team. He had only 27 offensive snaps, but he got a decent amount of work as the team’s kick returner. The 49ers added several return specialists. Bolden will need to show progress in his work in the passing game, otherwise his limited role could be on the chopping block.

Tight ends

Geoge Kittle will look to build on a solid first season, but the biggest question is what to make of Cole Hikutini, Cole Wick, and Ross Dwelley. Hikutini has a year in the system, which would seem to give him a huge leg up on Wick or Dwelley. The latter has the most ground to pick up given his more recent addition to the roster. Expectations might be lower for him with the coaching staff heading into OTAs, but maybe that means a strong showing gives him that much bigger a bump.

Can any of these three do more than just claim that third tight end job?

Offensive linemen

There are three things to take from this. The first is the starting guard competition. We won’t see fully padded practices, but who is getting the most first string snaps could be useful information. Of course, watch the 49ers have an even rotation throughout.

The second is getting whatever the starting line is a chance to build some chemistry. Again, the opportunities are not the same in OTAs as they are in training camp and preseason games, but it’s valuable time together.

The third is the reserve competition. Reserves need to show versatility, so whomever is best picking up their assignments across positions will be in position to take control heading into training camp. Erik Magnuson and Garry Gilliam are the early front runners, but Mike Person and Darrell Williams are two guys to keep an eye on.

Defensive linemen

Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas both dealt with injuries last season that limited their impact. Armstead will play big end in base downs, and likely move inside on passing downs. Thomas will play LEO on base downs, and then move to strong end on passing downs. Last year, the team tried to get Armstead into the LEO role, but that didn’t take. This year marks his first full offseason learning this particular role.

Given that the 49ers did not add any edge rushers for 2018, Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Eli Harold will all be worth watching to see how they rotate in the team’s pass defense. There’s not a lot we can take from OTAs with no contact or full pads, but we’ll get some ideas about the depth chart.

Speaking of the depth chart, I am curious to see how the interior rotation works next to DeForest Buckner. Earl Mitchell was settled in as the base guy next to him, but Sheldon Day will get some opportunity, and D.J. Jones or Jullian Taylor could also work their way in.

Linebackers

Brock Coyle, Korey Toomer, and Fred Warner seem to have the most to gain heading into OTAs and minicamp. Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha have opportunities as well, but realistically, Coyle, Toomer, and Warner are the three looking to seize the opportunity. If Foster ends up suspended or released when Week 1 arrives, one of these three will join Malcolm Smith and Eli Harold in the starting lineup.

Speaking of Smith, I am curious to see if he ends up working at middle linebacker the next few weeks, or if we see some other kind of rotation. Foster’s status is up in there even if the charges are eventually dismissed. He could avoid a suspension entirely, or the NFL’s investigation could lead to a personal conduct suspension. And he also faces potential discipline his Alabama marijuana case. That means next few weeks of OTAs and minicamp will be helpful in determining the contingency plans the 49ers have in place.

Cornerbacks

This is a bit of an odd one to figure out. Richard Sherman is rehabbing his Achilles and is unlikely to take part in on-field work the rest of the offseason workout program. He thinks he’ll be ready to go in June, but the team is not going to rush this before training camp.

That opens the door for a host of opportunities, and the 49ers have added a lot of bodies to the mix. Tarvarius Moore is getting his first work as a cornerback, after spending his college career playing safety. How he takes to the technique changes required in this move will be a big part of OTAs. Tarvarus McFadden slid out of the draft thanks in large part to lack of speed. He was a priority free agent, and the team clearly thinks they can get something out of him.

One of the 49ers most interesting storylines of the offseason is Jimmie Ward’s transition back to cornerback. The team likely will look at him as a utility guy who can play outside cornerback, nickel back, and free safety. However, with Sherman sidelined for OTAs, Ward is expected to get a lot of run opposite Witherspoon in the secondary. How much can he take advantage of that opportunity?

Safeties

Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt are the two starters at this point, so there will be the matter of making sure they’re on the same page heading into training camp. But I am most fascinated by Chanceller James. The UDFA seemed to have a decent chance at earning a roster spot, but a torn ACL in mid-August ended his season before it began. I don’t know right now what his physical status is for OTAs, but if he is back on the field, he has a chance to rebuild some momentum heading back into training camp.

Former free safety Jimmie Ward is expected to focus on cornerback in OTAs and minicamp. He could still end up getting safety work, but it sounds like we will not see him at safety for the next month.