The San Francisco 49ers open training camp practice for the media to see Wednesday as the 2023 season will start unofficially with plenty of optimism in Santa Clara. The 49ers enter camp looking to continue their dominant run in the NFC and add that one missing puzzle piece to their trophy case.
So let’s take that early-in-the-season good feeling and apply it. Starting with camp and then periodically throughout the season, I will share my confidence level at each position from low to high and adjust to what happens over the next six-to-seven months.
With the camp opening, here’s my read on the 2023 version of the San Francisco 49ers.
Quarterbacks: Medium confidence
The San Francisco 49ers and uncertainty at the quarterback position entering training camp have become synonymous over the past several years. Two years ago, it was Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance. Last year it was Lance’s spot until a Garoppolo contract restructure late in August threw a wrench into the quarterback room. This year Lance is joined by Brock Purdy and newcomer Sam Darnold as the 49ers’ quarterback room turns.
Quality is the preference over quantity at quarterback, and while the 49ers have the strength in numbers, the quality is still very much in the air. Purdy is the favorite in the clubhouse, but that’s pending the health of his throwing elbow. Brock has been fully cleared for camp, although he’ll be on a throwing regimen to ease him in.
Lance has played just 282 snaps in three seasons with the 49ers and is coming off an early season fractured ankle that cost him his sophomore season, while Darnold is on his third team in six years.
Regardless of who the starter is when the 49ers head to Pittsburgh for Week 1, questions must be answered surrounding the quarterback. And once there are answers to those questions, it’ll be easier to be fully confident in the 49ers quarterback room.
It’s Brock, until it’s not.
Running back: High confidence
The 49ers’ offense has finished in the league’s top half in rushing yards in five of Kyle Shanahan’s first six seasons, including top-10 finishes in three of the last four seasons. It’s easy to have faith in any Shanahan run offense.
Did I mention the 49ers also have Christian McCaffrey?
In the six games pre-McCaffrey, the 49ers’ offense had three games where they finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards. In the 11 games after the trade, the 49ers had only one such game, finishing sixth in the NFL with 1,616 rushing yards.
McCaffrey’s presence alone makes this the best running back room entering a season under Shanahan. Still, with Elijah Mitchell and an up-and-coming Jordan Mason behind, the run game should be what we’ve come to expect under Shanahan.
Wide receiver: Medium confidence
Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk make one of the better duos of receivers in the league, but it still needs to be a better group. Samuel finished tied for fourth and Aiyuk tied for sixth in the league last year in drops.
Nine came from Samuel and seven from Aiyuk – with Jauan Jennings tied with Aiyuk in drops on 58 fewer targets and finishing 2022 with the second-highest drop percentage behind only Romeo Doubs.
Beyond Jennings, the 49ers have plenty of unproven talent in the room, with Ray-Ray McCloud, Danny Gray, and rookie Ronnie Bell filling out the room. Aiyuk and Samuel make this a top-heavy group with plenty of upside, but we’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach beyond the two big names in the position before gaining complete confidence.
Tight end: Medium confidence
You could apply what was just said about the receiving corps to the tight ends. George Kittle is a top-two tight end in the league, but there isn’t much after that. Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner have combined 12 receptions in the last two seasons. The 49ers used a third-round pick on Cameron Latu and a seventh-round selection on Brayden Willis to add some depth, so it hopes for some success from either choice.
The 49ers have tried to find a second fiddle to Kittle recently, like Jordan Reed or Tyler Kroft, but it has yet to have much luck. As long as Kittle is playing in Santa Clara, confidence can’t be too low in the position, but finding some depth at the position would go a long way for both the 49ers and the health of Kittle.
Offensive line: Medium confidence
There is a negative feeling around the 49ers’ offensive line due to the off-season departures of Mike McGlinchey and Daniel Brunskill. Both will be tough to replace, but let’s look on the bright side: Spencer Burford played well enough in 2022 to earn the right guard spot full-time after platooning with Brunskill.
The loss of Brunskill does leave some discomfort, though, as he was the Swiss army knife of the 49ers offensive line. The difference between McGlinchey and Colton McKivitz is unknown. McKivitz has played only 29 career snaps at right tackle and will be asked to step in for the solid run-blocker McKivitz.
The four other members of the line that allowed the sixth-fewest sacks and was the front for the eighth-best run offense last season will return, giving a much better situation than the 49ers were entering camp last year: Burford was penned to replace Brunskill, Jake Brendel and his 171 career snaps at center replaced Alex Mack, and Aaron Banks took over for Laken Tomlinson. The 49ers know what to expect a year after replacing the entire interior of the offensive line.
And Trent Williams is pretty good at left tackle.
We will know how the offensive line looks once the season starts because camp doesn’t tell you too much in the trenches, but let’s give this line some benefit of the doubt.
Defensive line: Medium confidence
John Lynch saw an issue with the defensive line and went out and made a splash with the signing of Javon Hargrave. Shanahan, Lynch, and new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks hope to see the type of pass rush the interior of the defensive line hasn’t seen since DeForest Buckner.
Will the additions of Hargrave and Arden Key be enough to replace what Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam, and Jordan Willis produced on the edge? That will be the looming question through camp and the early part of the season. Nick Bosa headlines the group, but the pass rush production might hinge on Drake Jackson after his rocky rookie season. Bosa will get his fill, that’s for sure, but there are plenty of things to keep an eye on here.
Linebackers: High confidence
League executives and coaches recently named Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw the No. 1 and No. 10 best interior linebackers. The duo combined for 157 tackles, earning Warner his second career first-team All-Pro honors and Greenlaw plenty of votes. Greenlaw was especially impressive, taking a considerable step in progression after missing 14 games in 2021 with a groin injury.
While the loss of Azeez Al-Shaair hurts, the 49ers’ recent track record of hitting on linebackers should give plenty of comfort. Warner, Greenlaw, and even Al-Shaair took steps with the 49ers to create one of if not the best linebacking corps in the league. There should be plenty of confidence that sixth-round pick Dee Winters can step in and produce when needed.
Cornerbacks: Medium confidence
I’m a firm believer that the step the 49ers’ defense took from 2021 to 2022 was because of the Charvarius Ward signing. He was targeted the second-most of the 49ers second but allowed a 58.5 completion percentage, seven points better than Emmanuel Moseley, who finished second out of the 49ers cornerbacks in 2022. Ward stepped in as the 49ers CB1 as well as anybody has since who? Deion Sanders?
The questions come in at the other two spots at cornerback. Deommodore Lenoir stepped in for Moseley and looked improved after his up-and-down rookie year in 2021. But can he sustain that for 2022? How do the 49ers replace Jimmie Ward in the slot? The 49ers signed Isaiah Oliver, the presumed starter, but Samuel Womack will also be in play.
Mooney Ward is the only certainty at the position right now but with plenty of youth at the
position, another step could be taken in 2023.
Safety: High confidence
Interceptions by 49ers safeties since 2019:
2019 - 0
2020 - 1
2021 - 2
2022 - 9
Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson stepped in and led the charge, with the 49ers tied for the league lead with 20 interceptions. Gipson led the team with five with Hufanga finishing with four and named to the All-Pro second team. While they were prone to the big play, especially later in the season, the number of turnovers forced added something that this iteration of the 49ers had yet to see.
Not only is the position set for 2023 with Gipson and Hufanga, but the front office traded up to make Ji’Ayir Brown the first member of the 2023 draft class, setting the 49ers up for this year and beyond at safety. Wilks will have plenty of options and spots to move Hufanga and Brown around in both the secondary and near the line of scrimmage.