A week from today, we’ll have a couple of training camp practices under our belt, and we’ll begin to have an idea. Heading into camp, our staff says which 49er position battle they’re looking forward to the most.
Marc Delucchi: Cornerback
Honestly, I’m most excited about the prospect of no quarterback controversy, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself since Jimmy Garoppolo is still on the roster.
Safety and guard will probably be the most important competitions this preseason, but that makes it harder to be excited. Problems at either spot could have dire consequences on the Niners’ competitive chances. On the other hand, the cornerback competition should have many exciting options that should give defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans some tremendous creative opportunities.
Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, and Jason Verrett all have shown the ability to be top outside corners on elite defenses in recent years. In contrast, Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas each had intriguing flashes as rookies last year.
Samuel Womack, one of the 49ers’ fifth-round picks this spring, also could compete for playing time at the nickel corner spot. Who will end up playing where? I’ll be watching closely this preseason.
Secondary injuries have consistently derailed Niners’ defenses, but San Francisco has usually skimped on their depth at corner. That’s not the case this year. Even if Verrett’s injury issues return, Ryans still has several intriguing options to deploy. If he’s healthy, the 49ers’ secondary has a chance to be their best unit of the 21st century, usurping the peak of the Jim Harbaugh era.
Tyler Austin: Interior Offensive Line
The position battle I’m most interested in may not be the sexiest, but when everything’s said and done in 2023, it might prove to have been the most vital to the team’s success.
When you look at the right guard spot, a roster spot that’s consistently been a rotating door of stopgap options under Kyle Shanahan, you can see how this season might solidify a player’s standing with the team or lead to a domino effect that includes center.
If the Niners feel confident in Jaylon Moore’s ability to take over for Daniel Brunskill, it frees the former undrafted free agent and AAF vet to assume center responsibilities. That only might matter depending on the results of the Jake Brendel experiment come training camp.
The entire interior line could end up looking very different compared to the one that was minutes away from a Super Bowl appearance. Considering the system’s reliance on those players to execute complicated blocking assignments on run plays and a young quarterback about to take the reins of the offense, this might be the biggest battle.
Xavier Dixon: Strong Safety
San Francisco’s defense will be different after the departure of Jaquiski Tartt. Before you say it—I know Tartt has struggled to stay healthy in his seven years in the NFL, but he’s proven to be valuable when healthy. On the other hand, I’m eager to see who will take charge of the starting spot. DeMeco Ryans
Yinon Raviv: Wide Receivers
Beyond seeing practice clips of Danny Gray catching deep bombs in practice (and then over-drafting him in fantasy while he gets two touches a game until Week 10) - I think wide receiver, in particular, is easier to evaluate during training camp. If a dude isn’t burning guys regularly on the practice field, he won’t do it in the game. (Keeping in mind that there’s still a chasm they have to cross once the regular season starts when it comes to actually getting in Kyle’s game plan.)
The main “battle” per se is likely Gray against Ray-Ray McCloud. If one of them steps up and shows real chemistry with Trey Lance, it’ll be super exciting to think about their speed paired with Lance’s arm power. Beyond those two, it’s a big mish-mash of randos, which I personally find a lot of fun because any of those guys can make their dreams happen during training camp. Maybe there’s the next hidden gem somewhere in there? Either way, next week can’t come any sooner.
Jordan Elliott - Defensive Line
The 49ers’ defensive line is absolutely loaded, and the unfortunate reality is they have too many good players and not enough roster spots to keep all of them. I think it’s safe to pencil in Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, Drake Jackson, and Javon Kinlaw as locks to make the roster at this point.
Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess at this point. If the 49ers plan on rostering 11 along the defensive line, that means there are six spots up for grabs, with eight or nine players remaining who would all likely be rostered on the final 53 on the majority of NFL teams.
How does Maurice Hurst look now that he is healthy? Is Kemeko Turay the next Kris Kocurek reclamation project? Can Kerry Hyder Jr. rediscover some of the magic he found in a 49ers uniform in 2020? These are all questions I cannot wait to have answered, as my focus will be heavily pointed towards the position group that has been the driving force behind the 49ers’ last two deep playoff runs in recent years.