Football is full of unknowns, and that is a big reason why we keep coming back. If last June we had told you that Brock Purdy would start every game after the second week of December, you would have assumed the 49ers were picking in the top 10 of the NFL Draft.
Players sometimes lose their jobs to performance. Other times it’s to injury. Deommodore Lenoir made the most of his reps after the Niners lost Emmanuel Moseley to an ACL injury early last year. Now, Lenoir is projected to start at cornerback.
Let’s play the guessing game. Which current projected starter is most likely to lose their job by the end of the season? When we posed this question a year ago, Samson Ebukam ran away with the vote at 41 percent. Obviously, he was a mainstay in the defensive lineup. So, that goes to show you how off we can be with our preseason predictions.
Here are four options.
It’s too obvious to ignore. Purdy has a lot going for him. He has the support of the organization, a brilliant play-caller, and a group of weapons most quarterbacks would trade their souls for.
But there are still just enough question marks about Purdy’s play to wonder if he can continue to play at the terrific level he did a year ago. All season, the opposition waited for the other shoe to drop and Purdy to turn into the last pick in the draft, but it never happened.
Will Purdy’s exceptional touchdown ratio and turnover luck regress to the mean? Will his Johnny Manziel-ish backyard football style of play get in him into more trouble than good? Those are the two traits I’d worry about the most. At his size, there’s always the concern for injury, too.
Then again, Purdy needs to “stick to the script,” and all should be fine.
The depth at cornerback for the 49ers is a bit questionable, which bodes well for Lenoir. He must stave off the likes of rookie Darrell Luter Jr., or last year’s fifth-round pick Samuel Womack. Other than those two, it’s between Ambry Thomas or a couple of undrafted free agents, as Isaiah Oliver looks poised to handle the nickel position.
Lenoir came on strong in the playoffs, was an exceptional run defender all year, but there were enough holes in his game to make you wonder whether the 49ers could do better opposite of Mooney Ward.
He had nine tackles for loss, but also had a broken tackle rate of nearly 20 percent, per Sports Info Solutions. Lenoir only surrendered one touchdown, but when he did allow a reception, it was nearly for a first down, while allowing north of a 62 percent completion percentage.
Lenoir has the ideal demeanor, as he’s confident and is generally in a position to make a play. Athleticism matters in athletics, especially at cornerback, and Lenoir doesn’t have the plus attributes the top-tier cornerbacks do, which puts more emphasis on his technique.
The 49ers have said all the right things about Jackson, the player many expected Ebukam to lose his job to a year ago, this offseason. Jackson’s added muscle, so now he can hold up against the run. After going through his first full offseason, he understands the rigors of the NFL.
Will his lack of playing time as a rookie hurt Jackson in Year 2? That wasn’t the case for Talanoa Hufanga, who played sparingly as a rookie then morphed into an All-Pro last year. But this is a different position and there’s no hiding in the trenches. You’re either built for it or you aren’t.
Ebukam played with a tireless energy and effort that waned on opposing offensive lineman as the game went on. Jackson’s speed was his calling card coming out of college. He did a fantastic job as a rookie batting passes, but will that be enough?
It’s unlikely that Jackson loses his job given the 49ers investments at edge rusher since the end of the season. The lack of moves tells us that they want Drake to play.
Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are his backups, while rookie Robert Beal Jr. is likely to be brought along slowly if the team had its choice. Jackson not being a starter by mid-season would be more of an indictment on him than anything.
Gipson is the obvious choice after the 49ers traded up in the third round to select Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who made some noise during minicamp. If Gipson’s play takes a step back, or he isn’t as consistent as he was a season ago, new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks may elect for the rookie.
As was the case with Lenoir, Wilks doesn’t have any ties to Gipson. Playing Brown in 2023 would be more about the future and developing him in real-time as opposed to giving those reps to a player on a one-year contract.
If Brown can continue his knack for finding the ball, it’ll be tough for Wilks to keep him off the field, and Hufanga isn’t going anywhere. All that makes it easy to see the path toward playing time for Brown, which means Gipson loses playing time.
Which projected starter is more likely to lose their job this year?
This poll is closed