49ers’ top five position battles

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looks to pass during NFL football practice in Santa Clara, Calif., Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

The 2021 NFL season is fast approaching. While the San Francisco 49ers will report to training camp on Tuesday, things won’t heat up until later in the week. That is when the players will finally hit the practice field to begin preparations for the upcoming season.

With a full slate of rookies and free agents set to fight for spots on the final 53-man roster, here are the top five position battles to keep an eye on throughout training camp and the preseason:

5. Right Guard

The 49ers selected former Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks in the second round, but they have held off on anointing him as the starter. Throughout OTA practices, it was Daniel Brunskill getting the first-team reps.

Brunskill was penciled in as the starter at right guard at this point last season, but he was forced to bounce between that position and center throughout the season due to an injury to Ben Garland and ineffectiveness of Hroniss Grasu. While Brunskill is the veteran presence, the 49ers would love to have Banks earn the starting position.

Despite being bigger than most of the guards that have played in Shanahan’s system, Banks showed the ability to move well during his time at Notre Dame, which will be very important given the 49ers zone running scheme. In addition, Banks looks to have a mean streak and ability to punish defenders when finishing his blocks. Banks’ movement ability shows up in pass protection as well, along with his ability to anchor and stop pass rushers in their tracks.

4. Running Back

San Francisco has added three new faces to this group, bringing in Wayne Gallman through free agency and then selecting Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell during the draft. All three have one thing in common: Size. Each is bigger than current 49ers starting running back, Raheem Mostert, weighing in at over 210 pounds compared to 196 pounds for Mostert.

Expect for Raheem Mostert to be the first man up if he is healthy. Despite his injury history, Mostert is still among the most explosive players in the league.

Behind Mostert, look for Gallman and Sermon to compete for the second running back role. Both have shown to be physical and grinding runners that can wear down the defense while also having the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. This is the role that the 49ers originally envisioned for Tevin Coleman.

Don’t forget about Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty. These two have shown the explosiveness and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield that the 49ers originally envisioned for Jerick McKinnon as the third down back. Mitchell may have the advantage here due to his ability to run between the tackles.

3. Cornerback

Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams are penciled in to be the starting cornerbacks, although all three have dealt with injury issues throughout their careers. As a result, rookies Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir need to get up to speed as fast as possible because they will likely need to be ready to play at some point this season. Thomas may even be able to push Moseley for a starting role.

One of the strengths for both of the rookies is their ability to play tight man to man coverage. Thomas and Lenoir fared well in coverage during the 49ers rookie mini-camp but this will be their first true test. With first year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans expected to utilize more press-man coverage this season, the two rookies could make an impact.

2.Third wide receiver

Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are certain to hold down the top two wide receiver spots heading into the regular season, but the competition for the remaining roster spots is up in the air.

The 49ers’ most consistent receiver throughout Kyle Shanahan’s tenure had been Kendrick Bourne. The big bodied receiver fit in perfectly with Shanahan’s approach and may provide some insight into how this position battle will play out.

The two receivers leading the competition following OTAs appear to be Mohamed Sanu and Jauan Jennings.

Sanu spent the first three weeks of last season with the 49ers and played under Shanahan with the Falcons in 2016.

Throughout the offseason, Sanu has impressed coaches with his performance. Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel noted while speaking with the media during OTAs, “You can tell that he doesn’t expect anything to be given to him, and he’s trying to earn his spot on this team. So, it was very exciting to see him perform. He was doing very well. And, if he comes back to training camp in that same shape, he’s going to be a guy that is going to be tough to beat out for that final roster.”

Jennings joined the team as a seventh-round draft pick in 2020. With no offseason work before training camp, the rookie wide out struggled through camp and eventually landed on the practice squad. Jennings was making strides toward being promoted to the active roster before being sidelined for the season with an injury in late October.

Based on reports from OTA practices, Jennings appears to be making strides. If this continues throughout training camp and preseason, Jennings may be able to unseat the veteran.

One additional name to keep an eye on here is Richie James Jr. While not the big slot receiver that Shanahan has leaned towards over the last four seasons, the 5’9” James has performed well when given the opportunity.


Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance? This is the decision that will garner the most attention throughout training camp and may carry over into the regular season.

In reality this isn’t a battle. Instead, it is all about Trey Lance. From the moment San Francisco invested three first-round draft picks and a third-round pick to draft the former North Dakota State quarterback, this became all about his readiness to play. Once Lance shows that he is at least at the same level or close to Garoppolo, he will become the starter. Until that point, the position will belong to Garoppolo.

It’s worth noting that Kyle Shanahan has found success in the past with rookie quarterbacks. As an offensive coordinator with Washington in 2012, Shanahan called an offense that would score the fourth most points in the NFL with rookie Robert Griffin III at the helm. There are a lot of similarities between Lance and Griffin, which makes the idea of going with the rookie over the veteran who led the team to a Super Bowl just two seasons ago not as wild as it may sound.

This article has 38 Comments

  1. Yaaay – a new read!!!!

    Fred Warner has secured his bag.

    All-Pro inside linebacker has agreed to terms with the 49ers on a five-year contract extension through 2026. The deal is worth $95 million with $40.5 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league

  2. Congrats Jack,
    I’m glad the PD finally decided to get off their ass and get someone to post some blog articles.

  3. Jack Hammer you da man!

    Love watching your film breakdowns. Stoked to see you on PD now!

    RG3 situation is valid but who was his backup? Also Lance did not win a heisman trophy like RG3. I think once the pads go on and the big boys are on the field the gap between Lance and Jimmy will be quite apparent.

    1. Thank you, James. The breakdowns will start up during the preseason games.

      You’re right about the Heisman, but Lance won the Walter Payton Award (FCS Heisman) and the Jerry Rice Award (Top FCS Freshman) in 2019.

      Looking forward to seeing it play out.

    2. Also. RG3: 41 collegiate games played. Trey: 19.
      Also. RG3: Big 12. Trey: Division I-AA

      I expect a learning curve. As I mentioned on Inspired, I hope the team doesn’t use Trey like the Saints used Taysom Hill. The ideal situation in giving him NFL speed exposure would be be garbage time

      1. Yes exactly what I am saying. I honestly don’t think this is even a QB competition. It’s Garoppolos job.

  4. Good. Glad the NFL is playing hardball with the anti vaxxers.

    ESPN: Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Rick Dennison is no longer employed by the team after refusing to be vaccinated against COVID.

  5. Nice work Jack!

    Good to see the PD make a great decision and bring you on board. Another feather in your cap, and recognition for your excellent work over at SI, Hammer & Nayls Show, and with your youtube channel.

    I will probably keep posting over at Inspired 49ers, but at least there is now a reason to check out the PD occasionally.

  6. Wow. Great to see Mr. Hammer doing the PD 49ers blog. Welcome and congratulations. This is going to be fun.

  7. Nice! This wasn’t a name I had expected to see on the PD byline, well done Hammer. Like the Niners following a Chip Kelly coaching stint, Inside the 49ers is coming in from the cold :)

    Does this mean you are a union man now? (wasn’t there some discussion a while back as to whether PD is a closed shop?) Also full media credentials? Will you be giving eyewitness “good and bad” from closed to public/open to media camp sessions?

    1. Thanks, Rib!

      No union.

      Covid-19 has made the credential process more restrictive, but working on it. As of now I can say that I’ll for sure be at practice on Friday. Keep you posted on the rest.

  8. Hammer, maybe you can get the PD webmaster to change the pages title?

    Inside the 49ers | San Francisco 49ers news, discussion & opinions from Grant Cohn

  9. Many of the position “battles ” aren’t really battles but rather foregone conclusions .

    5. RG. Banks will be the starter. OTA are not a strong indication of things to come. Now if Brunskill is running with the 1s in late August …
    4. RB. Sermon will be the starting lead back and Mostert will be the 3rd down back. I expect Mostert to get 6-10 carries per game . The real battle is for RB 3 and dont forget that Jeff Wilson Jr and Hasty are in the mix.
    3. CB. We are thin here. Probably our weakest position group. “the two rookies could make an impact.” The two rookies must make an impact or the Niners are in trouble.
    2. WR. The additional name I’ll be keeping an eye on is Kevin White.
    1. QB. I agree Trey is only a matter of time . There are several points in the season when they can make the switch: after the 2 game road trip to start the season, after the week 4 game versus Seahags, after the week 6 Bye …
    Reminder that the trade deadline is Nov 2 which is after the week 8 game @ Bears.

  10. What a great move! You guys have a real one in Jack Hammer. Jack knows his stuff and is not only a lifelong fan but a fresh voice for the 49ers. He has an extensive knowledge of the NFL and the 49ers past & present but also has a modern outlook of what teams need to do now to have success. Oh and to top it off he also knows how to watch film and educate fans on what to pay attention to, can’t wait!

    1. Swan, we all know Hammer from when he was just another one of us here. I didn’t always agree with his takes, but can’t deny he knows his stuff.

    2. As SwanSong mentioned, I have a YouTube channel which has an extensive collection of film breakdowns for the rookies, along with a weekly fan call-in show every Tuesday night at 6 Pacific and the Hammer & Nayls Show every Thursday night at 6:30 Pacific.

      Here’s the link. Subscribe and like so you don’t miss any new content.


  11. Jack Hammer’s ready to nail this blog into something better and stronger than before. I too will still keep the Inspired49ers site rolling with Scooter and friends, but I’m ready to hear the many 49ers voices that were forced to go radio silent making noise again. Congrats, Hammer!

    PS. Please keep the BS politics out of here!

    1. RAZOR!! Thank you! That is absolutely the goal. Looking forward to reading your takes.

      Agree, no politics.

    1. Thank you, Waruna! Hope to get a chance to talk with you during Niner Chatter on Tuesday night.

  12. With Covid/Delta raging all over the country thanks to numbskulls not getting vaccines, Jack, how do you this effecting the players? Especially since there is a threat of forfeit being implemented.
    Are journalists kept away from the locker room?

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