Before training camp, we put out a 53-man roster prediction. Those predictions saw the 49ers only keeping four running backs, two receivers that won’t make the final roster, Shon Coleman, and a few other players that I’ve changed my opinion on after training camp. What else has changed in a month? Let’s get into.
Quarterback (3): Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard
No changes at quarterback. The odds that your No. 3 quarterback takes a snap during the regular season are slim. Last year, Jimmy Garoppolo was coming off an injury, so you could understand the argument. This year? I’m not sure, but that won’t stop Kyle Shanahan from holding onto three quarterbacks. Could a team pluck C.J. Beathard from the practice squad? Sure. Could one of the QBs test positive for COVID, and now you need another QB? That could be true as well.
Those are risks I’d be willing to take as I’d rather lose one of these two than a talented positional player thanks to a stacked roster. Shanahan disagrees, though.
Running back (4): Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Kyle Juszczyk
I was torn between adding Jeff Wilson Jr. or JaMycal Hasty as the fifth back, so I left both off. The Niners entered the season with four running backs last year. One red zone period won’t put Wilson Jr. on the roster, though that doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. Hasty ended practice multiple times, breaking a defenders’ ankles, but he’s insurance at this point, and the rest of the NFL didn’t see that, thanks to no preseason games.
Both players should be safe on the practice squad as insurance in the event of an injury. We talk about McKinnon’s health a lot, and rightfully so, but the other two running backs have a history of being banged up as well. I’d be surprised if either Hasty or Wilson Jr. weren’t on the active roster at some point during the regular season.
Wide receivers (7): Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis, Tavon Austin, Shawn Poindexter
Previously, I had Hurd and Jauan Jennings making the roster. Hurd is on the IR, and Jennings did nothing to separate himself from the competition. At this point, Poindexter brings more to the table than Jennings. I doubt we see this as Jennings was a draft pick, and he’s more of a Hurd clone than Poindexter is. In the red area and especially near the goal line, Poindexter gives Jimmy Garoppolo a target that’s unlike anyone else on the roster. I was more impressed with Poindexter, so I’m going with him. Arguing about the seventh receiver is silly, but here we are.
Pettis had a rollercoaster of a preseason, but he earned a roster spot. I wouldn’t rule him out as the starting punt returner. I still think he has a chance to contribute this season. Thanks to injuries, Austin makes the roster, but he did enough during practice to show he’s worthy of making the team.
A healthy J.J. Nelson would have been on the practice squad. Now, I’d expect Kevin White and either Jennings or Poindexter to join White on the practice squad.
Tight end (3): George Kittle, Jordan Reed, Charlie Woerner
Shanahan said last month, “we usually keep three tight ends,” which stuck with me. The team kept three tight ends last year, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We know Kittle and Woerner are making it. Reed brings so much more to the table than Ross Dwelley that I cannot believe I have to defend this stance. Dwelley’s been out with a foot injury, which doesn’t help his case. I think once he’s healthy, we see Dwelley go on the practice squad. Woerner is a significantly better blocker, while Reed is the better route runner. I know he’s beloved on the team, but if you’re picking the best players and only keeping three tight ends, Dwelley is the odd man out.
Offensive line (8): Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland, Daniel Brunskill, Mike McGlinchey, Justin Skule, Tom Compton, Colton McKivitz
The line is pretty straight-forward as Weston Richburg will start the season on the PUP list. That opens up a roster spot for the 49ers for the first six weeks, or whenever Richburg is healthy enough to return. We may have to wait until game day to find out who the starting center is. It could be Brunskill, but I’d guess the Niners stash either Hroniss Grasu or Dakoda Shepley on the practice squad and call them up each week until the offense figures out their rotations.
Get ready for musical chairs upfront the first couple of weeks, especially if there are protection issues.
Defensive line (10): Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, Kerry Hyder, Ronald Blair, Kentavius Street, Kevin Givens
Coming into August, I said Street or Givens hadn’t done enough to warrant a roster spot. After August, I’d be surprised if those two didn’t play anywhere between 15-20 snaps. Street is finally healthy, and Givens is noticeably bigger. Both made strong impressions during training camp.
The play of Thomas made UDFA NT Darrion Daniels expendable. Thomas played so well that he’s playing more 3-technique, allowing Javon Kinlaw to slide inside as the 1-technique. I wouldn’t rule out Daniels being called up while Blair continues to rehab. That decision would come down to either Daniels or a true edge rusher like Dion Jordan, but Jordan didn’t give the team a reason to call him up.
Linebacker (5): Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Mark Nzeocha
The first four spots are locks. Last time, I had Joe Walker on the first prediction as he’s a younger version of Nzeocha, but Nzeocha stood out more, went in ahead of Walker in team drills, and is a Richard Hightower—the special teams’ coach—favorite.
Cornerback (5): Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett
There’s no reason for Jamar Taylor to make the roster if Williams is healthy, and Williams returned to practice on Monday. Tim Harris is still a work in progress and a candidate for the practice squad. Verrett received first-team reps at times and looked like the team’s third-best cornerback. If Taylor makes it over Verrett, it’ll be because of his durability and Special Teams work. If Williams were to go down, Moseley could slide inside—something he did during camp—and Verrett could play on the perimeter.
Safeties (4): Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, Tarvarius Moore, Johnathan Cyprien
Cyprien versus Marcell Harris is a tough decision. Common sense says you go with the younger player, but Harris was battling an injury last week. Cyprien was also vocal about not wanting to go on the practice squad. I believe the team goes with his experience and versatility, not to mention Cyprien has played under Robert Saleh before, over Harris, who will land on the practice squad. I was impressed by both safeties at training camp and didn’t think there’s a wrong answer. Harris has more upside, but you can’t ignore the mistakes he made last season. Cyprien is safer and could play both safety spots in a pinch.
Specialists (3): Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowsky, Kyle Nelson
Jerick Mckinnon will be your kick returner. Austin will back him up. The punt returner will come down to a trio of wideouts. Trent Taylor is the safest, sure-handed option. Tavon Austin has experience as well, while Pettis is your big-play option. I don’t think the 49ers need to be married to one guy here. If it’s a situation where you want a big play after the offense is pinned back into their territory, I’d throw Petis back there. Yes, he dropped a punt, and Shanahan hasn’t shied away from saying that’s been an issue for Dante. There’s no denying Pettis’s talent as a returner, though.