With rookie mini camps around the corner and OTAs around the bend too, let’s rank the Niners top-10 offseason battles in reverse order.
10. Michael Crabtree vs. his left foot. Will Crabtree win the battle against his left foot this offseason? He’s 1-2 in his professional career when he’s faced the foot in the summer. It beat him in ’09 when it sustained a stress fracture and held him out of the Combine. It beat him with a stress fracture again last season, and he missed all of training camp. In ’10 he won the battle with his foot, but he lost the battle with his neck, so he missed the entire preseason. No matter which body part he’s faced as a Niner, he’s lost and missed every offseason. He has to reverse that trend this summer. If he wants to be a starter, he’s got to win the battle with his left foot. He can’t afford to miss any OTAs or training camp and neither can his foot.
9. Randy Moss vs. himself. Moss has no serious competition for a roster spot – he’s the only wide receiver who’s taller than 6-1. The Niners need him for their red-zone offense, which was atrocious last season, as you well know. Moss has a roster spot all but locked up as long as he doesn’t quit and his old, rickety knees don’t give out on him.
8. Ted Ginn Jr. vs. the field. If Ginn makes the team, he probably won’t see any snaps on offense – he’ll strictly be a return man. How many special-teams specialists can the Niners realistically carry on their roster? Rock Cartwright could be one. C.J. Spillman could be another. If Ginn is indeed going to be a third, he’s going to have to show that he’s way better returner than his competition.
7. Darius Fleming vs. Parys Haralson. It’s the battle of the backup outside linebackers. Aldon Smith will start and play all downs this year, so Fleming and Haralson won’t play many snaps on defense, barring injury. That means this competition could come down to which player performs better on special teams.
6. Perrish Cox vs. Tramaine Brock. When the Niners signed Cox, I assumed they wanted him as a backup punt returner, but then they drafted LaMichael James in the second round, so forget Cox as a backup punt returner. If he’s going to make the team, he’s going to have to do it on the merit of his cornerbacking, so he’s got to show he’s better in coverage than Brock, who runs a 4.37 40-yard dash, compared to Cox who runs a 4.56.
5. Joe Looney vs. Daniel Kilgore. The battle for right guard. Kilgore’s the favorite because he’s been on the team for a year and Looney’s a rookie. Kilgore’s 310 lbs. and potentially a very good pass protector for a guard. Looney’s bigger – 320 lbs., and presumably the better run blocker. The Niners traded up in the fifth round last year to draft Kilgore. This year, they gave Looney a third round grade, but they traded back a couple of times to draft him in the fourth round because they were confident no other team would draft him that high, and they were right. If the Niners view Looney as a third-round talent and Kilgore as a fifth-round talent, Looney might have a better chance to win this competition than you’d think. He’s going to have to fully recover from a Lisfranc foot injury first, though.
4. Anthony Dixon vs. Brandon Jacobs. Some people around the league refer to Jacobs as the softest big running back in the league. He’ll be 30 years old this season, so he’s only getting softer. Still, he’s scored 16 touchdowns the last two seasons. Anthony Dixon, the incumbent goal line back, has scored just four. To make the team, the 24-year old Dixon will have to completely outshine Jacobs in training camp.
3. LaMichael James vs. Kendall Hunter. If James is going to get snaps on offense his rookie season, he’s going to have to show in training camp that he’s a better player than the Niners other tiny tailback – Hunter – who has a year of NFL experience. This competition will have three parts – running, blocking and receiving. If James wants to back up Frank Gore on first and second down, he has to show he’s a better runner than Hunter, which is questionable – Hunter’s very good. If James wants to get in the game on third down, he has to show he’s a better blocker and a better receiver than Hunter, who isn’t great in those two areas.
2. Kyle Williams vs. A.J. Jenkins. This is a one-way competition. For Jenkins, there is no competition – he’s the Niners first-round pick, and he will be higher on the wide receiver depth chart this season than Williams, who probably won’t even make the team. But Williams is no slouch. In fact, he might be a better receiver than Jenkins right now. He’s quicker, he runs better routes and he’s a better blocker. If Williams can consistently outperform Jenkins this offseason, he’ll have a good chance to make the team.
1. Josh Johnson vs. Colin Kaepernick vs. Scott Tolzien. The battle for the backup quarterback job. Alex Smith is the incumbent 14-game winner, so there’s no way he loses his job in the preseason. The quarterback competition will be among the backups for the opportunity to replace Smith during the season if he struggles or gets hurt. If Johnson has an advantage, it’s that he knows the offense already because he was with Jim Harbaugh for three seasons at the University of San Diego. If Kaepernick has an advantage, it’s that the Niners traded up in the second round last year to draft him, so they’re invested in him. Also, he’s the best athlete with the strongest arm of the bunch. If Tolzien has an advantage, it’s that he’s performed the best of the three in preseason games, for whatever that’s worth.