How Chip Kelly Has Built His Roster In The Past
San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly has constructed three rosters in Philadelphia. What do his picks there tell us about how he will build the 49ers’ roster?
To determine how Chip Kelly and company might set the 2016 San Francisco 49ers roster, it is perhaps most useful to go back to the past, and see how Kelly constructed his rosters in Philadelphia. Kelly’s had to put together three 53-men rosters in the past, and that might give us a clue as to where competition is wide open and where the slots are pretty much filled already.
It’s not a direct one-to-one comparison, of course. Trent Baalke has more control of the roster in San Francisco than Howie Roseman ever did. Kelly had final say over the 53-man roster in Philly, while Baalke has that authority in San Francisco. While Baalke will obviously pick players that fit Kelly’s system, his opinion of what fits might be different than Kelly’s.
In addition, the pre-existing 49ers talent is differently configured than the talent that Kelly inherited in Philadelphia. The 49ers have been in a 3-4 defense for ages at this point, going back to Greg Manusky’s term as defensive coordinator in 2007; the personnel on staff is already set to run the same basic type of defense new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil favors. Conversely, the Eagles had run a 4-3 defense since Buddy Ryan took over in 1986, so there was some square pegs to fit in round holes when Kelly started revamping the roster. There should be less of a transition period this year in San Francisco.
With all that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to go position by position, see what Kelly normally kept, and how the 49ers match up. Let’s see what Kelly has to work with.
Philadelphia kept: 3
San Francisco has: 4
Unlike the 49ers, Kelly always kept three quarterbacks on his opening day roster. As an offensive-minded coach, that makes a certain degree of sense—you want to have options at the most important position on your roster. Kelly also never had a sure-fire number one guy at the position; while Nick Foles did make the Pro Bowl in 2013, Kelly made a point of trading him away a year and a half later. Two guys to complete for the starting job and one guy to develop seems to be Kelly’s motto.
It’s pretty clear, then, what the 49ers will do at the position. Colin Kaepernick isn’t going anywhere, now that trade deadlines have passed and his contract has become guaranteed for 2016. Neither is Blaine Gabbert, who is penciled in as the guy with the first crack at the starting job. It will be an open competition, assuming Kaepernick is healthy by training camp. It may not exactly bring up memories of Montana versus Young, but that’s the top of the card, as it were.
The 49ers haven’t always kept three quarterbacks on the roster, but it looks they very well could under Kelly. Thad Lewis was Kelly’s project last year in Philadelphia and he’ll compete again for a slot this year next to sixth-round pick Jeff Driskel. Neither are particularly likely to challenge for an actual starting spot; there’s only so many first-team reps to go around.
Philadelphia kept: 3
San Francisco has: 7
Here’s where the first major difference between San Francisco and Philadelphia pops up—the existence of a fullback. Bruce Miller is one of the best of a dying breed in the NFL, and I wouldn’t be stunned if this is his last year on the roster; he doesn’t really fit what Kelly’s spread offense tries to do. He’s going to have to convert to a more hybrid h-back/tight end role to stick around in Kelly’s system, but he’s a good football player, and good coaches find a way to use good football players, even if they don’t exactly fit the system they have in mind. I think he makes the roster, but I wouldn’t count him against Kelly’s historic running back count.
Carlos Hyde is, of course, penciled in as the starter here, but then things get very vague. In Philadelphia, Kelly liked having a bell-cow back, like LeSean McCoy or DeMarco Murray, and then a shifter, pass-catching back, like Darren Sproles behind them. Ideally, they get paired with another guy who can help share the load, like Ryan Mathews last year.
So, who fits that mold on the 49ers roster? It’s hard to tell. None of the 49ers’ running backs have historic pass-catching bonifides; there is no Sproles in this group. Jarryd Hayne remains a wildcard in year two of his development; I could see him doing anything from locking down the second running back spot to missing the 53-man roster entirely. Shaun Draughn may be the closest thing to a secondary bell-cow back the 49ers have on the roster at the moment, but there is no natural fit here. I also would be surprised if Mike Davis was cut after just one injury-plagued season. It should be a wide open mess at the position, but I’d have Hyde, Miller, Draughn and Davis as the leaders in the clubhouse for roster slots, with Hayne and rookie Kelvin Taylor looking to make their mark as well. This is the position that is the most difficult to translate from Kelly’s Philadelphia teams.
Philadelphia kept: 5-6
San Francisco has: 12
Your number one receiver this year will be Torrey Smith, and after that, your guess is as good as mine at this position.
Kelly kept only five receivers on his first 53-man roster; he loaded up on defensive backs that year and didn’t have the room to fit in a sixth. Since then, however, he’s consistently kept six receivers on the roster as often as possible, and that’s where I would predict the 49ers’ final number to be.
Kelly also made sure to have specific guys for the slot position, with Jordan Matthews and Seyi Ajrotutu filling that role last year. Matthews had 90 percent of his routes run from the slot position under Kelly, and it’s likely he’ll try to have a receiver or two on the 49ers specifically designated for regular slot work. That’s not something the 49ers have really had in recent years; they rarely go to three wide receivers at all, so having a specific slot guy is something of a new concept for them.
Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton were the go-to slot guys in recent years, but both are rather small for Kelly’s normal type; he likes big-bodied guys with sure hands. Ellington, at 5’9”, is almost specifically the kind of receiver Kelly does not want; all six of the receivers on his squad last year were 6’1” or taller. That’s a mark against Ellington, Patton, Smith and DeAndrew White; height isn’t everything, but all four would be bucking Kelly’s trends.
Ellington will be battling for a slot position with CFL star Eric Rogers and sixth-round rookie Aaron Burbridge; Kelly’s history indicates you can probably pick two of those three to make the final 53-man roster. Burbridge’s practice squad eligibility may make him the odd man out there.
That leaves everyone else battling for three slots behind Torrey Smith as an outside receiver. I’d cross Devon Cajuste off that list—he’s going to make the team as a tight end hybrid, if anything—but that still leaves seven guys fighting each other. Patton probably earns a starting slot based on his experience, and I wouldn’t be shocked if last year’s fourth-rounder, DeAndre Smelter, is right up Kelly’s alley, but it’s the very definition of open competition.
Philadelphia kept: 4
San Francisco has: 5
You can probably knock Kelly’s Philadelphia total down by one here; keeping Bruce Miller on the roster kind of fills one of these slots already. With Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, the Eagles were lucky enough to have two talented pass-catching receivers on their roster; the 49ers don’t really have the same luxury, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the 49ers only keep three of their five tight ends when the final results come out.
That would logically lead to Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell being the three on the roster neither Je’Ron Hamm nor Busta Anderson are likely to provide much competition. McDonald and Bell will fight for the primary catching tight end spot, while Celek will be Kelly’s blocker of choice. I don’t see much competition at this spot.
Philadelphia kept: 9
San Francisco has: 16
Chip Kelly’s history makes this position very simple.
Almost like clockwork, Kelly keeps his five starters, one backup each at tackle, guard and center, and one swing player who can cover multiple positions. Precisely who is the first off the bench changes—sometimes that swing player comes onto the field before the tackle—but the actual roster composition stays pretty much constant.
The penciled in starting lineup for the 49ers, from left to right, is Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Joshua Garnett and Trent Brown, though Brown’s slot is the least firm. Guard Andrew Tiller played more than well enough last season to be kept as the primary backup inside, and fifth-round selections John Theus and Fahn Cooper were drafted too high for them to not make the 53-man roster in at least one season. That’s eight slots already, and leaves the team without a backup center, which would imply Marcus Martin would get the last position.
Tiller’s probably the most likely to miss the final roster of those nine. He’ll compete for a roster slot with Erik Pears—a more versatile veteran—and Brandon Thomas, who is bound to be healthy one of these days. Had the 49ers not drafted Garnett so high, I think Tiller’s spot would be safer than it is.
Philadelphia kept: 7
San Francisco has: 14
On all his Philadelphia teams, Kelly kept two nose tackles and five defensive ends. There’s no reason to believe that won’t happen again in San Francisco.
At nose tackle, Ian Williams would be a stone-cold lock if we were 100 percent sure about his health. As we’re not, it’s likely Quinton Dial spends more time inside. Assuming Williams is healthy to start the year, those are your two nose tackles. Mike Purcell is the name to watch there if Williams isn’t healthy; Kelly’s not going to go into the year with only two guys on the nose.
Outside, first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner aren’t going anywhere, and fifth-round pick Ronald Blair looks like the fifth defensive end; a jack-of-all-trades guy who will play every position on the line as the seventh defensive lineman on the roster. That leaves us needing two primary rotational ends.
One, presumably, will be Glenn Dorsey—if he is healthy. He could well end up on the PUP list and miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from his torn ACL. Tank Carradine probably gets another; there’s talk about him moving back to outside linebacker as he’s leaner and lighter this offseason, but if Dorsey isn’t ready to go, I could see him filling the role of defensive end until he’s back. The other slot probably would go to Tony Jerod-Eddie, though I wouldn’t count out Kaleb Ramsey taking that role.
Philadelphia kept: 8-9
San Francisco has: 13
The only season Kelly kept eight linebackers was his very first year in Philadelphia. As I mentioned earlier, the Eagles were switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so that was likely at least in part due to not having all the right players for his system in place. Since then, he’s always kept nine, but the exact composition has changed; the ninth guy can be an inside or an outside guy, and likely will depend on special teams contributions.
The linebacking position is very open. NaVorro Bowman’s the only lock on the inside. There’s rumors and speculation that the 49ers might ease their overloaded secondary by moving Jaquski Tartt to an inside linebacking role, but I doubt he’d earn a starting spot this early at a new position. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine—Michael Wilhoite’s the starter on history alone, but Gerald Hodges deserves just as much consideration. Those could be your three main inside linebackers behind Bowman, with Shayne Skov fighting for a spot as well.
Things are a bit more settled outside. Aaron Lynch is obviously the star at the position, and if the 49ers were going to not keep Ahmad Brooks, they likely would have cut him by now. Eli Harold is still developing at the position as a second-year player, and if Carradine does indeed move to outside linebacker, there’s your top four. That would leave Skov likely fighting Nick Bellore and Corey Lemonier for the final linebacking spot, a spot which would probably come down to a players’ ability to produce on special teams.
Bellore and Skov both were on the field for more than 75 percent of San Francisco’s special teams snaps last season, while Lemonier was only on the field for nine. Nine snaps, that is, not percent. It might be Lemonier’s only hope to make the 53-man roster if Dorsey starts the season hurt, forcing Carradine to play as a defensive end until he’s healthy again.
Philadelphia kept: 9-11
San Francisco has: 15
Kelly only kept 11 defensive backs in his very first season; in both of the last two years, he kept nine, so that’s probably the more logical target. The nine have always been five cornerbacks and four safeties, so that’s the number to look for here.
The 49ers are filled to the brim with defensive backs. They have, if anything, too many defensive backs. If third-round pick Will Redmond is ready to go on opening day, I don’t think the 49ers have any open slots. Tramaine Brock and Keith Reaser are penciled in as the starters on the outside, with Dontae Johnson and fourth-round pick Rashard Robinson as the backups. Jimmie Ward and Redmond cover the slot position, with Ward also backing up Eric Reid at free safety. That leaves Antonie Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety, and no more room at the proverbial inn.
Maybe you move Tartt inside to linebacker, but that only really opens up a need for a safety. The players left off that quick list of nine aren’t safeties, primarily—Keith Reaser and Marcus Cromartie are cornerbacks, first and foremost. Perhaps one of them bumps Dontae Johnson off the team—or, again, Redmond might open the season on IR—but there’s just not very much wriggle room here. That’s what happens when you draft eight defensive backs in three years.
Philadelphia kept: 3
San Francisco has: 4
As part of his bold, league-altering coaching strategies, Kelly kept one kicker, one punter and one long snapper on the roster in Philadelphia. Viva la revolución!
Your special teamers for the 49ers will be Phil Dawson, Bradley Pinion and Kyle Nelson; John Lunsford is just a camp leg.
More interesting will be who earns the returner slots, and Kelly’s history doesn’t tell us much there, either, other than he likes players who do the job well, regardless of their other responsibilities. He used DeSean Jackson as a punt returner even when he was a starting receiver in 2013, for example.
It’s probably Bruce Ellington’s job to lose, and the final leg-up he’d need over Rogers and Burbridge as the slot receiver of choice. Don’t count out Jarryd Hayne; that might be how he earns a roster slot in the crowded running back field, and DeAndrew White might use it to overcome Kelly’s bias against receivers under 6’1”.
Next: Wide Receiver May Be a Problem
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