Training camp — the time where every NFL team begins, well, training. Teams have formed their 90-man rosters. All of the rosters are a healthy mix of rookies, seasoned veterans, and players in the middle looking to find their way. When times really get tough for teams, is when roster cut-downs begin. There are always players that are just camp bodies, as well as players that are clear locks to make the 53-man roster. However, the aspect arguably the most difficult to judge, are the players on the roster bubble. These are the guys who are truly 50/50 when it comes to making the team.
In this article, I will be making the case for one player from each position on the 49ers who has the most to prove if they want to make the roster come final cuts.
QB: Nick Mullens
For me, this is already a tough prediction, but I have to go with Mullens. The UDFA out of Southern Miss filled in admirably for QB C.J. Beathard, who was struggling mightily when starting after Jimmy Garappolo tore his ACL week 3. Although Mullens played significantly better, Shanahan still has invested a 3rd-round pick into Beathard. Generally speaking, NFL teams will give players who were invested into highly a lot more leeway when it comes to playing poorly. However, Mullens’ overall play has put Shanahan and Co. into a really tough spot. Do they dare keep Beathard and Mullens, using a valuable roster spot on a 3rd QB, or do they let either of the two go and go through the season with 2 QBs? So far in training camp, Mullens has appeared as the front-runner for QB2. Things can change, however, as Beathard’s draft status will surely impact the roster position. Last season, Mullens threw for 2,277 yards, to go along with 13 TD’s and 10 INTS.
WR: Jordan Matthews
The former 2nd-round pick drafted by Philadelphia has a lot to offer when it comes to his play ability. The 6’3” WR has had two 900+ rec. yard seasons, during both of which he compiled 8 TD’s. However, those were his 1st and 2nd seasons respectively, afterwards, his overall numbers and play have dropped off. Although his previous seasons haven’t been as fruitful as suggested, he still has the physical tangibles that could ultimately make-or-break his roster spot. One thing is certain: his spot will be the hardest to fight for. With a healthy Trent Taylor, speed threat Marquise Goodwin, newly-drafted WRs Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, as well as last year’s rookie standout Dante Pettis, there are five spots already just about guaranteed. Between Kendrick Bourne, Richie James, and Jordan Matthews, Matthews likely has the largest hill to climb. Does he have what it takes to show Shanahan that he deserves a spot on this team?
TE: Garrett Celek
The clear choice out of the TE room, Celek is past his “prime” playing days, as the 31 year old is coming off of a season in which he had a broken thumb, as well as having been put in the concussion protocol, and having off-season back surgery. Kyle Shanahan in a press conference stated that Celek will likely not be playing until week 6 of the regular season! With that being said, Celek has an extremely hard battle to fight as he won’t be showing anything throughout training camp and the off-season. With George Kittle as the clear-cut starter and rookie Kaden Smith likely securing a roster spot, Celek will have no way to show up free agent signing Levine Toilolo for the 3rd TE spot. Will Celek wind up as an IR candidate and be stashed when healthy, or could he wind up being a cut-down casualty later on? Much is to be discovered, as I do not see the 49ers keeping four spots open for TEs as it is. Celek has a lot to prove, somehow, if he wants to remain a 49er for the upcoming season.
RB: Jeff Wilson Jr.
Jeff Wilson is not Matt Breida, he’s not Coleman, Mostert, McKinnon, etc. He’s… Jeff Wilson Jr. With a skillset entirely different than the other RBs listed, Wilson has an uphill battle to climb if he wants to somehow make the team with a crowded RB room. Wilson brings to the table aggressive, downhill running that (I believe) is reminiscent of runners such as Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. I know that’s overblown, but hear me out. Wilson is a tough, gritty, old-school runner that will fight for every single inch of field in front of him. Filling in for an injured Matt Breida and Mostert last season, Wilson ran for 266 yards on 66 carries, as well as 12 receptions for 98 yards. What will be Wilson’s ultimate downfall when fighting for a roster spot isn’t just the players ahead of him, it’s a fumbling issue. He fumbled 3 times, by far too much for an RB within only 6 games. Coming into his 2nd year, he will have to show the staff that he’s fixed his fumbling issues if he wants to make the 53. He may be eligible for the practice squad, however, I would not be surprised to see another team come in and sign him right away. Wilson’s skillset may be different than the others, however, he brings to the table what I believe the other RBs lack: true RB grit.
OT: Justin Skule
The 6th-round pick out of Vanderbilt will have a lot to show if he wants to make it as the backup tackle behind either Staley or McGlinchey. Shanahan earlier in the year stated that Skule will be battling it out with swing tackle Shon Coleman for the same position. Although battling for swing tackle, I would not count out Skule for making the roster as the backup tackle. At 317 pounds, Skule matches the size for Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. A likely practice squad candidate, it will be hard for Skule to make the 53, barring any major improvements in his game. Versatile linemen such as Erik Magnuson and Mike Person are the type team covets, and being only a tackle, Skule is already playing from behind. If he develops any from the interior, his position could be possible, albeit he will likely be focusing on the tackle spot first.
OG: Joshua Garnett
Here we are again. As reported, Garnett will be missing time with a finger injury after sustaining it during training camp. As has been the case, Garnett has been oft-injured throughout his entire NFL career. The former 1st-round pick out of Stanford has a lot to show if he wants to make the team as either the starting or backup guard. Although he played very little last season, in a game that didn’t matter much, Garnett surprisingly held his own against Aaron Donald, the league’s best interior lineman. Garnett has flashed in his time when healthy, which may be his saving grace in the eyes of John Lynch and Co. With the 49ers bringing in guard Ben Garland, likely as more than a camp body, as well as Garland having familiarity with Shanahan’s system, Garnett will need every ounce of play and perfect health if he wants to remain a 49er. Garnett, who was drafted in 2016, has played in a total of 22 games over 3 seasons, starting 11 of them.