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53-man roster projection: Explaining why six running backs make sense for the season

Taking a swing at who makes the final roster

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers are off to Minnesota, where they’ll have two joint practices against the Vikings ahead of their second preseason game. Since the Niners have the day off Tuesday, let’s make some predictions.

San Francisco cut four players Monday to get down to 86. There’s still one more roster spot to fill. Today, I’ll predict the 53-man roster. Let’s get into it.

Quarterback (2): Trey Lance, Nate Sudfeld

Brock Purdy provides preseason entertainment, but he’ll serve as the practice squad quarterback this season and take over for Sudfeld next year when the veteran is an unrestricted free agent.

That gives Purdy a year to learn the system, put in the work it takes to be a pro, and play scout team quarterback if necessary.

Ideally, Sudfeld doesn’t take a snap all season unless it’s in the final few series of the fourth quarter in a blowout. This year, and hopefully the next decade, will be all about Lance.

Running back (6): Elijah Mitchell, Kyle Juszczyk, Trey Sermon, Jeff Wilson Jr., Ty Davis-Price, Jordan Mason

As tempting as it was to keep Jordan Mason over Wilson Jr., I don’t see Kyle Shanahan keeping a running back room full of first and second-year players along with Juszczyk. But, on the other hand, you run the risk of Mason getting plucked off the practice squad unless Mitchell has to miss time to start the season. So, instead of making the decision an either-or, I’ll keep both.

Would the 49ers keep an extra running back and only five receivers with Mitchell’s injury history? That’s something else to keep an eye on. I believe so, and it comes down to not losing Mason. Because of that, Mason makes the final 53.

JaMycal Hasty had another special teams blunder Friday, which has been par for the course for Hasty as a returner. Unfortunately, the value isn’t there for Hasty to keep on the roster. Mason played 11 special teams snaps Friday, covering kicks and playing on both return teams.

The extra back gives the 49ers flexibility, prevents over usage, and allows each guy to prove themselves as the competition sorts itself out during the year's first half.

Wide receivers (5): Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Danny Gray, Ray-Ray McCloud

Five wideouts might feel light — remember that the head coach was a collegiate wide receiver. Still, thinking big picture, Mason has a better chance of becoming an impact player on this roster than any sixth receiver I’d keep.

Malik Turner would be the final pass-catcher, but his five special teams snaps in Week 1 of the preseason were telling. On offense, Turner caught one pass on two targets for eight yards. He lined up in the slot on one of his 13 routes. He’s more of a 50/50 ball receiver down the field but lacks the explosiveness to run by you.

I’d rather risk losing Turner or one of the other receivers on the practice squad than Mason.

I can’t in good faith say I’d use Turner in any situation over a receiver listed above. Now, if you keep five, they better be pretty damn good. Luckily, that’s the case for the Niners. Let’s start with the All-Pro.

Fret not about the running game. Deebo will get his fair share of carries every game. You don’t see Samuel's success last year and come away thinking, “you know what, let’s give him the ball less.”

If you need a big play, you give your best playmaker the ball. That line of thinking propelled the 49ers to the playoffs and on the brink of another Super Bowl appearance last year. That’s not changing in 2022, especially as you’re breaking in three new interior offensive linemen with a new quarterback.

During Samuel’s initial media availability, after he became a much wealthier man, Samuel said I don’t mind doing whatever it takes for this team to win. Samuel lined up in the backfield on 80 snaps last year. Seventy-four of those came after Week 10. In high-leverage situations — think in the red zone or on third and short situations — the ball will find 19.

Samuel became a running back overnight, and on 59 carries, he averaged 6.2 yards per attempt, with 22% of those going for at least ten yards. Samuel is a natural with the ball. He averaged 4.71 yards after contact, with one-third of his carries going for a first down.

Samuel told Niners Nation he planned on improving his route running during the offseason. But, if training camp is any indication, Brandon Aiyuk is ready to emerge as a star. Jimmie Ward gave his stamp of approval for Aiyuk, saying he’s had the best camp of any player and that he’s taken his game to another level.

Lance has two potential #1 receivers, two speedsters to stretch the field and pick up yards after the catch, and a contested catch receiver he can trust in critical passing downs. The 49ers are set with five wideouts. Any reps a sixth receiver gets is taking away from Danny Gray’s development. No thank you.

Tight ends (3): George Kittle, Charlie Woerner, Ross Dwelley

I could give you 85 more reasons why five receivers are plenty. Woerner, the team’s number two tight end, should practice this week. He came on strong late last year as a blocker.

Dwelley remains TE3 and will make the roster thanks to his special team’s play. Dwelley didn’t miss any tackles in 69 kick coverage snaps last year. Had he remained healthy, Jordan Matthews would have given Dwelley a run for his money. You hate to see injuries take away an opportunity.

Offensive line: (9): Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Mike McGlinchey, Jaylon Moore, Jordan Mills, Daniel Brunskill, Nick Zakelj

Nine offensive linemen ensure the 49ers keep their draft picks. Obviously, Burford starts, but Zakelj isn’t ready. Thankfully, he won’t have to be.

Brunskill can play any of the three positions in a pinch, and Moore can play guard or tackle. So the team is protected from any injury twice over.

The hype train for Burford isn’t slowing down any time soon. There will be plays where not even Lance’s athleticism can escape Burford or Banks’s mistakes. Who knows what to expect from Brendel at center.

You’d be irrational if you weren’t somewhat worried about how the interior offensive line would look. Remember, the 49ers stormed back in the second half of the season with journeyman Tom Compton at right tackle and Brunskill at right guard, who has been replaced by a Day 3 pick.

In theory, your tackles, talent at the skill positions, and scheme will be good enough to offset any interior woes.

Defensive line (10): Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu, Kevin Givens, Hassan Ridgeway, Drake Jackson, Kemoko Turay

Kyle’s update, 10:45 AM PT: Knew this would happen at one position but forgot to add Samson Ebukam, who will start opposite Bosa.

“Yeah, I want him.”

“I’ll take him, too.”

“Nope, not letting him go.”

That’s how it went when selecting the defensive line.

This is the first time in his career that Arik Armstead will play 17+ games at defensive tackle. Javon Kinlaw is coming off season-ending surgery. Drake Jackson is a late second-round pick. Ten defensive linemen allow Kris Kocurek to preserve his starters for the fourth quarter and, better yet, the end of the season and a playoff run while Jackson can develop at his own pace.

The 49ers will win games this season because of their defensive line. It’d be wise to invest an extra body up front. We’re betting on Ebukam to take a leap in Year 2 under Kocurek while Nkemdiche’s energy and upside are worthy of a flyer.

Linebackers (5): Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Oren Burks, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles

This is the most straightforward position on the team. There are three linebackers that would start on every team. Then, the new special teams ace and the hybrid linebacker that can backup either three starters.

Marcelino McCrary Ball had an interception Friday, but that had more to do with Talanoa Hufanga than the linebacker. There are a couple of intriguing young backers on the roster, but they are a year or two away from contributing.

Cornerbacks (5): Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Samuel Womack, Ambry Thomas, Ka’Dar Hollman

Assuming Jason Verrett starts on the PUP list, Hollman has been ahead of Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir all camp. Hollman started over Lenoir Friday. It sounds hollow after Hollman gave up a long touchdown, but he seems like what the team had hoped to get out of Lenoir with Hollman’s size, speed, versatility, and potential.

Thomas is saved by his draftHis draft status saves Thomas for another season. Thomas has underwhelmed since the start of camp. But, to his credit, he came a long way in one season.

Tariq Castro-Fields lands on the practice squad, while Womack earned a starting job in 28 plays. The rookie impressed, but it was a preseason game. This team goes as Ward and Moseley’s health do.

Safeties (5): Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga, George Odum, Tarvarius Moore, Dontae Johnson

A “pretty bad” hamstring isn’t something you brush off for a 31-year-old safety. Moore is the next man up. And as someone who believes the 49ers can get the job done with Moore on the field, you can’t replace Ward.

If Ward misses multiple games, you go from having safeties who were high school teammates and worked off each other in unison to an inexperienced tandem. Ward and Jaquiski Tartt gave up next to nothing deep. That’d be the worry with Hufanga and Moore on the field.

Moore’s speed and Hufanga’s instincts, paired with each’s willingness to tackle, should keep the defense elite when you factor in the nine other players on the field and who is calling the plays.

Special teams (3): Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowsky, Taybor Pepper

The kicker, punter, and long-snapper remain unchanged from 2021. Gould making a 50+ yard field goal is a great sign, even if it’s the preseason.