The 49ers report to training camp next Tuesday, then take the field for their first official practice of the season the following Saturday. Football is coming.
To get a better idea about the players on the roster, I thought it’d be a good idea to grade San Francisco’s roster using a color grading system. One of my favorite writers, Mark Bullock, who covers Washington’s Football team, has done this for the past couple of years.
The seven colors we’ll reference are blue, red, purple, green, orange, yellow, and gray. The player is placed into one of the color categories based on performance, with their potential factoring in as well. As is the case with anything, this is subjective, but that’s what makes football fun, and it’s why we can talk about it nonstop.
Here are the colors and how they are defined:
Blue - These are elite players that are among the best players in the league at their position.
Red - Starter level players with production to go along with it. These players can win games for their team.
Purple - Solid players that the team can win games with, but might not necessarily win games for their team. Often they might be red level players in one aspect of their game, like run defense, but struggle in another, like coverage. Ideally, this is the lowest level of player the team wants as a starter.
Green - Young players with talent and upside, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to prove themselves. They need development time before being moved to another category.
Orange - Back up players that can be replaced, typically needing a special teams role to make the team.
Yellow - Lack the ability to play on a consistent basis, but could potentially develop into a back up.
Gray - Injured players that can’t currently be evaluated due to a long-term injury.
Now that you have an idea what the colors stand for, here’s how I’d slot the 49ers 2021 offense as we approach training camp:
Placing Lance, someone who has never taken a snap at the NFL level, in a category above Jimmy Garoppolo will undoubtedly ruffle feathers. I understand the resistance to placing Lance over Jimmy G, but this one is pretty simple.
The team traded heaven and earth to move up to select Lance. They’re banking on their quarterback of the future to perform like a player who can win games for you right away. Lance’s physical tools made it easy to place him where he’s at, in addition to his draft slot.
Garoppolo listed as a solid player feels fair. We’ve seen him perform at a “red” level. Think back to 2019 against the Cardinals (those games were closer to blue than anything) and Week 17 against the Seahawks. There are too many inconsistencies in his game outside of injuries to place Garoppolo higher.
If Mostert stayed healthy, there would be an argument that he should be in the blue. It’s impossible to game plan for Mostert’s world-class speed. When you are a threat to score every time you touch the ball, you belong in the red category.
Sermon could serve as the bell cow by the end of the season. He’s the definition of the green category. Nobody would be surprised if Sermon were the leading rusher on the Niners by the end of the year.
Mitchell feels like a trendy player, but he was a Day 3 pick, and I don’t believe his skill set is as complete as Sermon’s, which says more about Sermon than Mitchell. The rookie is speedy, can catch out of the backfield, and has an inside track to becoming the 49ers' third-down back once we get into the season and everyone’s role is figured out.
Gallman is a replacement-level player who could shine in the right system, but he’s not someone that is going to blow you away. Instead, the team drafted two running backs, which tells us what they thought about Hasty’s brief stint in 2020.
*Kyle’s note: I forgot to add Kyle Juszczyk. I made a mistake. I didn’t think you would be calling for my head because of it. I apologize for that. Some of the comments were over-the-top, especially thinking I don’t cover the team because of a mistake. Again, my bad. Woosah.
In any other offense, Juice would be lower, but Kyle Shanahan dictates a lot of what he does around a fullback and the team asks Juszczyk to execute difficult blocks. He’s also a capable receiver who makes some tough over-the-shoulder catches.
After this season, Aiyuk will be in the blue. Call it a bold prediction if you must, but the way he won as a rookie wideout in the NFL paired with his athleticism makes it easy to see why. Aiyuk remains in the red for now, but it won’t last long.
Placing Deebo Samuel in the purple is the harshest grade out of all of the offensive players. He’s unquestionably talented enough to be in the red, and he’d be placed there had it not been for his 2020 season where Samuel only appeared in seven games. Samuel will be bumped up if he gets to run routes beyond the line of scrimmage and not be relegated to a role where he’s a glorified running back.
His hands must get more consistent, as does his route running. I’m not worried about Samuel, and neither should you. You cannot say the same for the rest of the wide receivers, though.
The three receivers in the green present the highest upside for the 49ers' third wideout spot. However, they’ll need a chance to prove themselves and do so consistently to move higher than the green tier.
The next four all feel like they’re serviceable backups at best. Sherfield and Benjamin have the speed to make a difference, while Sanu, Fowler, and Watkins can potentially serve as a “power slot.” Sanu and Sherfield have the best odds to make the roster out of the bunch.
I’d be stunned if Cracraft or White is on the team come Week 1.
Kittle is one of the best players in the NFL, and we don’t have to waste time on this. Dwelley isn’t a bad player, but there isn’t anything he does that would make you put him in a higher tier than orange. Based on the contributions from Dwelley and the other tight ends, this is easily the biggest talent gap position-wise on the roster. Let’s see if Woerner can jump Dwelley this season as TE2.
The same words that applied to Kittle apply to Williams. Him remaining elite after taking a year off is further proof that Williams “left the hospital with more than others.”
McGlinchey will be in red after more stability next to him and assuming he doesn’t allow sacks this season at the worst possible times that have the worst possible outcomes.
If Jaylon Moore turns into anything more than a swing tackle, then he was a great selection on Day 3. He has the leg up over Coleman and Gutierrez.
The first thing that comes up when you talk about Laken Tomlinson is his durability, but he’s a high-quality offensive lineman who had an off-year in 2020. He’s been above average in pass protection every year but last, which is why he’s in the red. This year, playing next to a veteran center, we should see the best version of Tomlinson.
Aaron Banks being sandwiched in between two veterans should make his transition into the NFL easier than expected. I’m not sure what to expect from Banks or how good he’ll be, but that’s the joy of the green tier: the unknown.
Without having played a snap, Banks figures to be a significant upgrade over the rest of the guards on the roster.
Jordan Elliot had a great line about Alex Mack in his offensive line breakdown on Wednesday, saying, “the consistent level of slightly above-average play is invaluable to a team that has had a revolving door at the position.” Mack will give the 49ers what they hoped Weston Richburg could do for 17 games.
Daniel Brunskill’s best position could very well be at center. It’s that or tackle, but it wasn’t guard. He or Dakoda Shepley could be placed in the green as both are still “green” enough to have upside left. Either one is likely the center of the future for this organization.
Which players do you disagree with? Who should be higher? Lower?