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.
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.