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The San Francisco 49ers kicked off organized team activities today. It was an opportunity for many 49ers players to get introduced to the fast pace of Chip Kelly practices. There are a lot of new players on the roster as well as some that went through the disappointing 5-11 2015 season, which resulted in the ousting of the previous coaching staff.
While many within the media are projecting another disappointing season for the franchise, it will be interesting to see if certain players flourish within the new 49ers offense or defense. There may even be some that surprise fans and help the 49ers perform better than most are predicting.
Who does the 49erswebzone.com staff believe those players might be? They were asked to identify the players that might emerge as a pleasant surprise during the upcoming season. Below are their choices.
Al Sacco: WR Bruce Ellington
While he hasn't had many chances, Ellington's shown a knack for making plays when he actually gets the ball in his hands. Three of his 13 receptions went for 30 yards or more last season, and he could prove to be a versatile threat in Chip Kelly's offense moving forward. An untapped talent, Ellington will surprise in 2016, as he'll be given every opportunity to contribute in a variety of formations.
Brandon Graham: LB Eli Harold
Harold gradually worked up his snap count as the season progressed in 2015, and I believe he'll be tapped to start opposite Aaron Lynch in 2016. Athletically he's a perfect fit as an edge defender in Jim O'Neil's defense, and now that he's reportedly added 20 plus pounds he should be better suited to shed blocks and make plays. Getting to play behind an improved defensive line, headlined by space-eating rookie DeForest Buckner, should free up Harold to make a major jump in his second season.
David Barclay: TE Blake Bell
I'm tabbing tight end Blake Bell to be the most improved offensive player of the 2016 season. Chip Kelly's offense favors featuring a tight end in the passing game, and Garrett Celek will not be the man.
Though it's going to be just his third season at the position, Bell showcased continuous progress through last year's disastrous season – the 24-year-old finished with 15 catches for 186 yards. Watch for him to at least double those figures this season.
Stewart M. Cockrell: QB Colin Kaepernick
Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me, but for some reason I feel like Colin and this offense were made for each other. I really think that he could put together a really special season that will make all the drama of the last two years seem like an after thought. I know there are concerns about his leadership ability, his attitude, his accuracy problems, etc. But I think this is the first time that Chip Kelly has a QB that can potentially scare other teams with his feet. A lot of this really depends on Colin himself as it appears the 49ers are at least on the surface going to let him have a chance to be the starter.
John Croston: TE Blake Bell
I think a player to keep an eye on this season would be TE Blake Bell. He showed signs of promise last year, and could very well be the starter by the end of the season. He has the size and athletic ability that I think will really intrigue Chip Kelly, and seems to be a much more natural receiver than Vance McDonald at this point. In spite of the fact that he is still learning the nuances of the position, I have a feeling that the coaching staff will find creative ways to get him involved and contributing.
Zain Naqvi: WR Quinton Patton
The 4th year wideout will have a breakout season playing in Chip Kelly's offense. Patton has never quite been able to get significant playing time up until now because he's been buried on the depth chart. When given the chance, he's shown that he can make plays with the ball in his hands. He's deceptively fast, but needs to polish his route running. If there's one thing we know about a Chip Kelly offense, it's that he can get it done without elite receivers (See: Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews). Kelly's offense is designed to get receivers open early and to get the ball to them in space, which will serve #11 well. Patton still has serious potential, but has yet to build off of the two big seasons that he had in college at Louisiana Tech. I will say that last year was kind of a pass for everyone because of the awful coaching and the circumstances surrounding the team, so Patton will get a chance to reboot and will do well in this offense - provided the 49ers can find a quarterback to get him the ball.
David Bonilla: WR DeAndre Smelter
After spending his rookie season recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Smelter is an unknown commodity for the 49ers. That may make him a rather unorthodox answer to this question. Early on, he drew comparisons to Anquan Boldin, who the team has yet to re-sign – perhaps partially due to the fact that Smelter is on the roster. The 49ers want to see what they have with their young receivers, so much so that they were willing to let their leading receiver over the past three seasons walk. Smelter's 11-inch hands were the largest of his draft class and he has the size to be a physical threat at receiver for the team. If he fulfills his potential, he could do a lot to help the 49ers offense keep drives alive and could be a pleasant surprise at receiver. I'm really interested to see how he looks in his first on-the-field action during preseason.