The 49ers have arrived in Santa Clara and have opened training camp as they get ready for the upcoming season. The buzz around the team is at a tremendous high, similar to the first year of the Jim Harbaugh era. After Jed York decided to fire both the head coach and general manager, we have seen both the front office and the roster completely rebuilt this off-season which has created endless question marks and several intense camp battles ahead. Summer vacation and the Lynch/Shanahan hiring honeymoon is over and it is now time to get back to work.
It was clear as soon as John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were brought in that they wanted to create and mold this roster to fit the new schemes as well as John’s overall vision of what direction the franchise should be moving. The returning veteran’s face a gruesome battle with learning yet another system and added competition with all of the new arrivals. Some of them will certainly have trouble making the team and will have to prove themselves to Kyle and the rest of the coaching staff. I truly believe that Lynch will give Shanahan the leeway to make all of the decisions on the roster for at least the first year. I am really excited to not only see the new players but also the newly implemented offensive and defensive schemes that should benefit the returning players as well.
I’m often asked who I think will breakout this year for the team, my surprise cuts and how the team will fare. I can’t remember an offseason that I’ve had as much trouble as I’ve had this year. At the same time teams don’t usually blow up their roster completely in one off-season. It is a crap shoot for me to try to predict any potential surprise cuts and a projected record until we see more live action as camp goes on.
Here are some of my most intriguing training camp battles/storylines that I think you should keep an eye on, diamonds in the rough and breakout players of this year.
*Opinions are subject to change
For the majority of the offseason I have been hearing rumors that Carlos Hyde is in trouble of not only losing his starting job but his spot on the roster as well. Many act like he had a down year last season but he was one of the team’s lone bright spots gaining 988 yards in only 13 games. With a much improved coaching staff and o-line, the 49ers would be foolish not to give him a chance to prove himself and to turn into the star player that he has the skills to become.
Would it make sense to just release or to trade him?
Absolutely not, he is a starting caliber rb and I don’t see the advantage of just releasing the former 2nd round pick on a team that is viewed by most of the mainstream media and many fans as one of least talented teams in the league. I not only think that he’ll be on the roster but I believe that he will gain well over 1000 yards this year.
What would they gain from doing so?
Money is not an issue for the 49ers so the cap savings is not much of a reason to get rid of Carlos this year. In terms of a trade, I don’t see the value that the team would receive in return to make it worth dealing him. Joe Williams is an electrifying runner who should receive a good amount of playing time if Shanahan follows his formula in Atlanta of using multiple running backs. I would rather wait until after this season and see how it plays out before making any unnecessary moves with Carlos Hyde.
Aaron Lynch is another player that often frustrates the Niner Empire because he’s so up and down. At his best he is a pretty good pass rusher but his lack of efforts on some plays, injuries and his constant battle controlling his weight are huge issues. Lynch will have a tough battle on his hands to land the LEO role in the team’s new 4-3 defense. He will have to compete with newly signed Elvis Dumervil, Arik Armstead and Eli Harold among others. Lynch is an inconsistent player and I could see why a lot of people would like to move on from him. Nevertheless, I’d keep him on the roster for at least one more (make or break) season because pass rushers are hard to come by.
Vance McDonald is viewed by most 49ers as an overpriced and underperforming tight end that should be cut or traded (rumors swirled that the team fielded calls to trade him). While he’s had a history of having inconsistent (stone) hands, he does have pretty good athleticism and is a solid blocker. Even though I believe that he may not be in the future plans for the team, I would recommend keeping him for this year. I could see the team keeping 4 tight ends, I’d love a group of George Kittle, McDonald, Logan Paulsen and Cole Hikutini (He might be practice squad bound). I don’t see Blake Bell or Garrett Celek bringing anything more to the table than those guys and should be released.
Starting CB opposite Rashard Robinson
Dontae Johnson and Ahkello Witherspoon should be the main candidates to take the second cornerback role. Dontae has some experience and could start the season as the starter, he has played pretty well in his limited playing time. Ahkello is a rookie who has exceptional size and speed but he is still extremely raw and will have to improve his strength before I’d trust him out there covering one of another team’s top wr’s. I think that he might be best in part time situations until he gets more on the field NFL experience. Jimmie Ward is also an option to remain at cornerback if his transition to safety doesn’t pan out. I think that could be the best thing that could happen to both him and the team as he is an improving cornerback with a slight frame which could lead to more injuries.
Who will the WR’s be (Total)
I think that the team will keep 6 wide receivers (Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Jeremy Kerley, Trent Taylor, Aldrick Robinson and DeAndre Smelter)
The only receiver spot that could change is the final one which I have Smelter winning. I chose him because he has something that the rest of them don’t, and that’s size. Other options for the sixth spot are Bruce Ellington, Aaron Burbridge, BJ Johnson and Kendrick Bourne.
Diamonds in the rough
The undrafted linebacker out of Colorado is very athletic and uses his long frame to leverage himself past the offensive lineman. As a senior, he finished with 51 tackles, 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He will have to gain overall strength and improve on defending the run to get on the field. I don’t believe that he’ll make the initial 53 man roster but he should land on the practice squad and could make a future roster or get promoted if any injuries should occur.
Lorenzo Jerome is becoming a fan favorite among 49ers fans but otherwise he’s fairly unknown. Lorenzo doesn’t have the prototypical size and speed that the NFL usually looks for at safety but he’s a very instinctive player who doesn’t shy away from getting physical and he is a ball hawk. I project that he will not only make the team but could make an instant impact in his first year. It will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with the safety position in general with returning veterans Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt that could see more time in the box. Tartt’s versatility at being able to play both positions notwithstanding, it would appear that the team has less depth at free safety than strong safety, giving Jerome a serious chance at the 53.
Along with Joe Williams, the Matt Breida hype has been pretty unreal the last few months. The 49ers signed the quick-footed and agile Breida as an UDFA out of Georgia Southern. When watching film on him, you can certainly see that he has the athletic ability (4.37 40 yard) and great balance that could lead into some electrifying plays, especially with the help of running backs coach Bobby Turner. With all of those positives I must warn you to be cautiously optimistic to not fall into the preseason hype (remember Kory Sheets??) as he will be trying to transition into a much higher level of competition than he was playing against in the Sun Belt conference. He will have to beat out multiple veterans such as Tim Hightower and Kapri Bibbs. He could help his case out by contributing on special teams where as a veteran like Hightower will most likely not play. If the team decides to keep four RBs, I hope that it’s Hyde, Williams, Hightower and Breida.
It’s quite crazy for a former 1st round pick to be considered underrated or to be projected to have a breakout year but I believe Arik will surprise a lot of people this season. He looked really good pairing up with Deforest Buckner last year before a shoulder injury ended his season prematurely. There was a ton of chatter on social media to trade Arik after the 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas but I think that would be pretty foolish. He is rumored to be trying to transition to the Leo position and looks like he has gotten much leaner in this offseason and I think that he will be able to be very effective off of the edge. It will be interesting to see how fast he learns and adapts to the new position.
The lightning fast and former track star receiver that the team signed in free agency from Buffalo should benefit tremendously from Shanahan’s offense. He will get the opportunity to run more of a variety route tree than he was asked to do with the Bills. Even though he lacks ideal size, he doesn’t shy away from going over the middle of the field. He is really underrated and was poorly used with his former team and should excel this year. I believe by years end he will be a solid number two receiver opposite of Pierre Garcon who will be able to stretch the field for the offensive and deliver some explosive plays.
I can’t explain how excited I am to see the guys get back onto the field and watch how this training camp plays out!!
So celebrate with me…
FOOTBALL IS BACK!!!