As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take the field for training camp, they’ll have a handful of positional battles that need to be worked out. Linebacker, right guard, wide receiver, running back, and a few backup positions to determine who gets which role. NFL.com listed the top 20 training camp battles for the NFC, and the Niners were listed second and third.
#2 San Francisco 49ers
WR · Brandon Aiyuk vs. Jalen Hurd vs. Dante Pettis vs. Trent Taylor vs. Richie James
This battle royale looms large, in light of the recent revelation that starter Deebo Samuel could miss the beginning of the season. Kendrick Bourne is not listed above because he’s locked in as a quality slot receiver. Aiyuk, a yards-after-the-catch monster in college and rookie first-round pick, will be asked to develop quickly. Kyle Shanahan’s system manufactures rushing yards on command (see below), but it’s asking a lot to turn this many question marks at wide receiver into a cohesive group. James, a third-year pro, has been placed on the reserve/COVID list.
Training camp will be much different than in years past. We would have daily access, could see how the wide receiver rotations work, and who is getting playing time and who is being left out. That’s not going to happen this year. Most reporters are going to attend a handful of practices at most.
John Lynch didn’t sound so optimistic that Deebo would only miss a few games. How detrimental would it be if San Francisco was without their top wideout for half of the season? That would put pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo and every other wide receiver. Aiyuk and Hurd would have to grow up fast, while Pettis and Taylor would need to turn their flashes into consistency.
As for Bourne, is he locked into the slot? I’d imagine Bourne would play on the outside, and the combination of Hurd and Taylor would man the middle, with Aiyuk on the outside as well. They’re all interchangeable, but without Deebo—who was at his best in the slot last year—the 49ers only proven threat on the outside would be Bourne. An extended absence from Samuel could be a blessing in disguise for Pettis.
The other positional battle the article mentioned was at running back:
#3 San Francisco 49ers
RB · Raheem Mostert vs. Tevin Coleman vs. Jerick McKinnon
The 49ers and their playoff hero, Mostert, settled their financial issues, but it’s worth keeping in mind when projecting this backfield that Shanahan ultimately paid more to bring Coleman from Atlanta in 2018. Once an even bigger-ticket free-agency purchase, McKinnon is now just trying to keep his career going after losing two seasons to injury and restructuring his once-lucrative deal. Mostert is the only one of the trio under contract beyond 2020.
We saw what Mostert could do last season. I haven’t seen a player get to top speed as fast as Mostert since Chris Johnson from the Titans. Mostert can flat out fly, and his speed was an asset for the offense. Coleman seems like a player that is at his best when he’s the primary back, but that’s not going to happen with Kyle Shanahan.
McKinnon looks fantastic in his offseason workouts. I know, I know. You can’t help but watch him run routes and think how he can help the 49ers offense go to another level. McKinnon’s going to make life easier for everyone if he can stay healthy. He opens up the passing game, and provides a much-needed check down option for Garoppolo in the event he’s pressured. Will San Francisco be able to get a full season out of McKinnon?