The San Francisco 49ers killed the draft process. This dominance is widely agreed upon among various sports experts and pundits around the league. Trent Baalke continues to show his prowess as a top flight GM, shifting around the draft at will and planting seeds for future draft success.
With a surplus of talent the Niners are able to utilize its depth by stockpiling injured players that have premier talent but have injuries heading into the draft. This recipe has been successful thus far and the Niners have ignited a new trend in the NFL. Harbaugh is a strong promoter of competition and heading into the rookie mini camp there is a lot at stake for the incoming class to perform. Here are a few heated positional battles that have rookies, veterans, and undrafted free agents all vying for a decorated spot on the NFL’s deepest squad.
Nickle Cornerback -
Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver have a strong lock on the outside corner but the #3 corner spot remains a concern. This is a wide open competition headlined by first round pick Jimmie Ward. While at Northern Illinois Ward mostly lined up at strong safety but he has experience at various defensive back positions which is valuable in today’s game. Both Jim Harbaugh and Baalke praised Ward following the selection.
“We believe he’ll compete as a nickel for us as well which is a very important position,” Jim Harbaugh said after the pick. “He’s a good hitter, but he also makes plays on the ball. He’s extremely fast and has great instincts.”
There are several players behind Ward that have a good shot at winning the job with a good camp. Veterans Perrish Cox, and Eric Wright have the closest window of opportunity having been around the league longer. The Niners picked up three relatively unknown corners in consecutive rounds; Dontae Johnson (NCSt, 4th Rd) Keith Reaser (FAU, 5th Rd.) and Kenneth Acker (SMU, 6th Rd.) Reaser is fresh off an ACL surgery and will spend the season on the NFI (Non Football Injury) list. As for Acker and Johnson a practice squad spot seems likely unless Chris Culliver is suspended for a significant amount of time leaving the corner depth in jeapordy.
Backup Running Back -
The days of Frank Gore carrying the ball 20 times a game have seen it’s time come. While he can still produce at a high level, the team is enforcing the running back by committee approach to keep fresh legs at all times. The 49ers made some noise in the draft making a surprise pick in the 2nd round by selecting former Ohio St. running back Carlos Hyde. At first this pick seemed skeptical given the already loaded backfield but at second glance the 49ers were put in a best player available spot and snatched Hyde right up.
Gore is reaching the end of his career and could be on his way out as early as next season while Marcus Lattimore still has major question marks surrounding his future. There was no power run game to speak of for the future and Baalke jumped the gun to secure his future bell cow. Hyde fits the bill when it comes to the running scheme and he should see a good amount of playing time in his first year. Kendall Hunter will provide a good change of pace with his shifty cuts and deep threat ability comparable to Hyde’s thunderous style. This leaves LaMichael James on the outside looking in as his value on the team lies solely as a return specialist.
No. 3 and 4 Wide Receiver -
Heading into the draft there was no doubt that wide receiver was a huge need for the Niners and a significant amount of mock drafts had them going with a wide out in the first round. Baalke had better ideas. Out of nowhere the Niners snagged star WR Stevie Johnson from the Bills in a trade sending them a conditional 2015 4th rd. pick. This move has all but handed Johnson the slot position but the last roster spot will be heavily debated throughout the off-season. Former 49er Brandon Lloyd, now 32, was signed to a low risk one year deal and should have the upper hand given his prior experience with the team (Played on 49ers from 2003-05).
Second year player Quinton Patton showed promise late in the season last year and will have fierce competition with rookie Bruce Ellington. Both of these players are compact and have great body control but Patton is a much better route runner than Ellington.
Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reported back in February that the 49ers organization view Patton as a “potential starting wide receiver in the future.”
Ellington was selected in the 4th rd. and is still raw as a receiver but possesses elite athleticism (played basketball at South Carolina) and good body control so his potential is sky high and his best football may be in front of him.
Starting Center -
This is a two man battle between Daniel Kilgore and rookie Marcus Martin. Baalke let Jonathan Goodwin walk in free agency and inked Kilgore to an extension to 2017. Kilgore has the edge because of his knowledge of the playbook and experience at both guard and center positions. Martin was slated as the top center on several boards coming out of USC. The draft analysts at CBS Sports, ESPN Insider (subscription required) and the National Football Post, among others, all agreed. The Niners will likely groom Martin this year as he learns the ropes but this is one of the closer battles that will be played out.
Backup Inside Linebacker -
Navarro Bowman will miss the first half of the season while he rehabs his knee which leaves a gaping hole at the inside linebacker position opposite of Patrick Willis. Although the production will be almost impossible to replicate the coaching staff will look to find a capable plug in for that time span and an insurance blanket should Bowman have any setbacks.
Michael Wilhoite brings the most playing time to the table, starting 2 games last year and recording at team high 20 tackles in that span. Nick Moody, who was drafted in the 6th rd., last year out of Florida St. is first in line behind Wilhoite. Moody is relatively undersized for a middle linebacker but excels in pass coverage. The sleeper pick for this battle is undrafted free agent, Shane Skov. He is a former Harbaugh recruit coming out of Stanford and is comfortable with the defensive philosophy. If he checks out medically look for Skov to make a lot of noise in camp and put pressure on Wilhoite and Moody to perform.
Tags: San Francisco 49ers