The 49ers will take to the field for the first practice of the 2021 season today. There are a number of interesting battles throughout the roster, especially at quarterback, wide receiver, running back and in the secondary.
In addition, the news from yesterday that Dee Ford and Jalen Hurd will not be placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). The versatility that both players bring to the team adds another layer of difficulty to predicting who will make the final 53-man roster out of training camp.
Here is my prediction on how the battles will play out:
Quarterback (3): Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, Josh Rosen:
Although the 49ers invested heavily to trade up for Lance, Garoppolo will enter training camp as the starting quarterback. How long he is able to hold on to that position will depend almost entirely on Trey Lance’s development.
The other competition at quarterback will be between Josh Rosen and Nate Sudfeld. Neither are signed past this season, but it’s likely that one or both could be in the 49ers plans depending on how they perform. While Rosen has flamed out during previous stops in Arizona, Miami and Tampa Bay, he is still a better quarterback than Sudfeld and should show that during training camp.
Running Back (5): Raheem Mostert, Trey Sermon (R), Wayne Gallman, Elijah Mitchell (R), Kyle Juszczyk:
Mostert will be the starting running back, but things will be interesting behind him. Trey Sermon and Wayne Gallman are both bruising runners that should help to wear down defenses, however Sermon’s history suggests that he will be the better player off the bench given his performance in college at Oklahoma and Ohio State. With the Sooners and Buckeyes, Sermon was often capable of hitting a big run right off the bench, whereas Gallman seemed to get better the more he touched the ball during his time in New York.
Mitchell’s power both inside and out, along with his ability as a receiver will help him earn the final roster spot over JaMycal Hasty.
Wide Receiver (6): Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Richie James, Mohamed Sanu, Jauan Jennings, Jalen Hurd:
Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Richie James are the easy predictions for the 49ers at wide receiver. Mohamed Sanu will make the roster after impressing the coaching staff during OTA’s. His ability to provide veteran leadership to a position room that is very young also plays into his favor.
Jalen Hurd will not be starting training camp on the PUP list, and will be brought along slowly during training camp. The plan is to have Hurd doing only individual work over the course of the first week of training camp. If Hurd is not healthy enough to go, look for River Cracraft and Trent Sherfield to battle for the final roster position.
Tight End (4): George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, MyCole Pruitt, Charlie Woerner:
There isn’t much competition at tight end with only five on the roster and the 49ers usually keeping four. MyCole Pruitt has a $500,000 guarantee which would seem to ensure his spot on the roster, but he could be competing for a spot on the 46-man game day roster with Charlie Woerner. The two would appear to be battling for a role similar to how Shanahan utilized Garrett Celek, the blocking tight end that can do some damage in the passing game when called upon.
Offensive Line (8): Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack, Aaron Banks (R), Mike McGlinchey, Colton McKivitz, Daniel Brunskill, Jaylon Moore (R):
The only competition for a starting spot on the offensive line will feature Banks and Brunskill vying to be the right guard. Assuming that Banks wins out, look for Brunskill to focus most of his time on center to ensure better depth behind veteran Alex Mack.
Colton McKivitz has shown the ability to play both guard and tackle, and will need to fend off Shon Coleman for the swing tackle role. Coleman opted out of 2020 and hasn’t played since he suffered a dislocated ankle and broken fibula during the first preseason game of 2019.
Defensive Line (10): Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead, Arden Key, Zach Kerr, Samson Ebukam, Kevin Givens, Dee Ford, Maurice Hurst:
Last week Fred Warner said of Dee Ford, “He looks great — he’s back,” and today it was John Lynch delivering the news that Ford would not start training camp on the PUP list and that the team was “cautiously optimistic.” According to Lynch, Ford will be focusing on individual work for about the first week of camp and not taking part in team drills. A healthy Dee Ford would create too many potential defensive line combinations to fit them all here, and would put the 49ers pass rush squarely in the discussion for best in NFL.
The interior of the defensive line may be the deepest that it has ever been in San Francisco. The 49ers hope to see big improvement from Javon Kinlaw in year two.
Linebacker (4): Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, James Burgess:
The core of the linebacker group is obviously Warner and Greenlaw. Al-Shaair did a good job as the third starter a season ago after the 49ers traded Kwon Alexander to New Orleans and he will compete with Burgess for the starting SAM linebacker role. Both Al-Shaair and Burgess will be expected to contribute heavily on special teams as well.
An additional piece to look for here is how the 49ers have shown the tendency to use safeties as the third linebacker at times. In 2017 they utilized Eric Reid in this role, and last season Marcell Harris moved into this role against teams that were more dependent on the passing game. Harris could reprise that role again this season if he makes the team, or look for rookie Talanoa Hufanga to get onto the field this way. The fifth-round draft pick did this often during his time at USC and looks to be a perfect fit here.
Defensive Back (10): Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, Ambry Thomas (R), Deommodore Lenoir (R), Tony Jefferson, Talanoa Hufanga (R), Tavon Wilson
The questions in the secondary are whether their starters can finally stay healthy and who the backups will be at safety.
Although they are rookies, Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir will likely be the primary backups at cornerback, with Thomas possibly backing up Williams in the slot as well. Emmanuel Moseley being forced to miss time at the start of camp due to being placed on the Reserve/Covid-19 list will mean additional reps for Thomas which could help the rookie close the gap towards a starting position.
Veterans Tony Jefferson and Tavon Wilson will likely be the primary backups at safety and could push Marcell Harris off of the roster.
Specialists (3): Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowsky, Taybor Pepper:
The only question surrounding the 49ers special teams is who will be returning kicks, especially kickoffs. In 2020, San Francisco fell to 29th in the league in kickoff returns averaging only 19.3 yards per return. One explanation for this could be the move to utilizing Jerick McKinnon as the primary return option instead of Richie James. On the way to the Super Bowl in 2019, James returned all but one kickoff and averaged 21.4 yards per attempt, including with a long of 81 yards.
Let’s see how you think the roster will look when the team finalizes their 53-man roster after training camp.
Jack Hammer is a lifelong 49ers fan who shares insights on the team, and leads discussion on all football and team topics. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackHammer_NFL and subscribe to his YouTube Channel, YouTube.com/c/JackHammer49.