There are a number of intriguing battles to keep track of as the San Francisco 49ers kick off training camp this weekend. Picking just five was difficult as there are more worth mentioning. For example, the battle at tight end could be interesting with former fullback Bruce Miller now in the mix. He has reportedly looked solid, especially considering that this is his first year learning the position.
Another battle to keep an eye on thanks to the suspension of Aaron Lynch would be at the outside linebacker/edge rusher position. Lynch was a top 5 talent among 3-4 outside linebackers and just one spot behind Super Bowl MVP Von Miller according to advanced statistics site Pro Football Focus and he will be very difficult to replace for four games. It will be interesting to see who competes to replace one of the team's best players.
Then you have two first-round selections out of Oregon in rookie DeForest Buckner and second year player Arik Armstead, who look to become bookends along the 49ers' defensive line for years to come.
With that, let's take a look at the five most intriguing training camp battles about to kick off this weekend in Santa Clara.
No. 5: Anthony Davis vs Erik Pears, Trent Brown
Prior to the announcement of OT Anthony Davis finally filing for reinstatement into the NFL, this spot may have been reserved for the battle about to occur next door as rookie guard and first-round selection Joshua Garnett works to secure the starting job on the right side. However, news of Davis' return and reports that he has "patched things up" with the 49ers after repeatedly sounding off on the organization over the past year supplants this spot.
There are a lot of questions surrounding Davis, none of which are more important than his physical status. Is Davis in football shape? Prior to Davis announcing his return, videos emerged of him working on his technique. While his footwork looked solid, Davis was noticeably smaller. "For a right tackle in the NFL, which is considered more of the power position, that might be a concern," said Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area this week via 95.7 The Game.
For now, his competition will be Erik Pears, who is not exactly a fan favorite due to his poor play in 2015. Pears has spent significant time at the position during the team's offseason program. He was the team's second-lowest graded offensive lineman in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus, behind only Marcus Martin. If Davis cannot beat Pears or others competing for that spot, that would say a lot about his readiness to return to the NFL.
Trent Brown, a seventh-round selection in 2015, will likely also be in the mix as will rookie John Theus.
Technically, Pears may enter training camp as the frontrunner, but the team is likely eager to upgrade that position so Davis will be given every opportunity by this new coaching staff. It would be very difficult to list Pears as the frontrunner here.
Training camp frontrunner: Anthony Davis
No. 4: Jimmie Ward vs Other Youngsters
One of the more surprising players of the 49ers' offseason program was 2014 first-round selection Jimmie Ward, who saw considerable time at the right cornerback spot during practices.
"They just want to see everything that I can do," said Ward this offseason. "The more you can do, the better off you are. Basically, I'm getting reps everywhere but I'm working more with the corners."
Ward's work as a starting cornerback will likely continue once practice begins this weekend. "I know he's one of our best 11 [players on defense]," said defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil in May. "That I do know. So, we're trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field. So far, what he has shown out on the practice field, I'm confident that he could do it out there."
The coaching staff obviously sees some great potential in Ward, who finished 2015 as the team's highest graded corner according to Pro Football Focus. Chris Biderman of Niners Wire went as far as to rank Ward as the fourth best player on the 49ers roster heading into the 2016 season. "He's already one of San Francisco's most intelligent and physical defenders, pound for pound," said Biderman.
His competition will be ... every other young corner on the roster. The team has only one cornerback with more than three years of experience. That would be likely starter Tramaine Brock with seven. Not counting the team's rookie class, some other intriguing youngsters on the roster include Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, and Marcus Cromartie. Of this group, Johnson finished 2015 as Pro Football Focus' highest graded corner. Chris Davis spent much of the offseason program working at nickel.
Training camp frontrunner: Jimmie Ward
No. 3: Wilhoite vs Hodges, Armstrong
"As far as the guys that are going to play next to [NaVorro Bowman], it's a three-man race right now," said Jim O'Neil in May. It's easy for fans to dismiss Ray-Ray Armstrong from that race, but O'Neil would urge against it. "He's smart, athletic ability, he's tough, competitive. He's done a great job learning the scheme. He can blitz. So, there's not a lot to not like about him. I'm very excited about him," O'Neil explained.
Of the three, Armstrong was actually the highest graded linebacker in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus. Although, none of the trio graded particularly well and Armstrong accounted for just over 15 percent of the total snaps between the three. Most of that was with the Oakland Raiders prior to the 49ers claiming him off of waivers at the end of November. The next highest graded linebacker of the three would be Gerald Hodges, who rates as the group's best pass rusher.
In October, Hodges was acquired via a trade that sent center Nick Easton and a sixth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings. He appeared in 10 games for the 49ers in 2015, starting four.
From a continuity and experience standpoint, Michael Wilhoite might be the frontrunner as camp kicks off this weekend, but it is certainly conceivable that Hodges might overtake him. Wilhoite has played in 44 games over the past three seasons and started 30 over that timeframe. So for now...
Training camp frontrunner: Michael Wilhoite
No. 2: Quinton Patton vs Bruce Ellington
Of those discussed to this point, the position across the field from Torrey Smith, who will almost certainly start the season as the 49ers' number one receiver, is likely the most wide open. To say that this group is young would be an understatement. Other than Smith and Jerome Simpson, no receiver on the 49ers' roster has more than four years of experience and between them, they have a combined 57 catches in the NFL. All but two of those 57 belong to Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. The two remaining catches are courtesy of DeAndrew White.
Gone is Anquan Boldin, who signed this week with the Detroit Lions. During his three seasons with the 49ers, Boldin had 237 catches for 3,030 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The competition for that Z spot on the outside will likely be between Patton and Ellington. However, don't be shocked to hear Eric Rogers' name thrown into the mix. He is the former Canadian Football League player who was Chip Kelly's first free agent acquisition following his hiring in San Francisco as the team's new head coach. Rogers led the CFL with 1,448 receiving yards in 2015 and tied for the league lead with 10 receiving touchdowns. At 6-foot-3 and 210 lbs, Rogers certainly looks the part of a big receiver and, according to team beat writers, has looked solid during the 49ers' offseason program.
When we polled 49ers fans on who they felt would start opposite Smith when the 49ers kick off the regular season against the Los Angles Rams on September 12, an overwhelming 50.6 percent voted for Rogers with Ellington and Patton coming in second and third respectively.
For now, Patton has to be considered the frontrunner with Ellington a candidate in the slot. Patton is coming off of his best year with the 49ers and outside of Boldin, was the team's highest graded receiver according to Pro Football Focus. In 2015, he had 30 receptions for 394 yards and a touchdown through 16 games.
Another young receiver to watch would be DeAndre Smelter, who spent last season recovering from surgery to repair his torn ACL. He was limited during the 49ers' offseason program, but like all injured players, will be re-examined by the team's medical staff on Saturday.
Training camp frontrunner: Quinton Patton
No. 1: Colin Kaepernick vs Blaine Gabbert
The media has been hyping this competition during the entire offseason with most saying that the frontrunner is Blaine Gabbert. Of course it is Gabbert. Colin Kaepernick is coming off of multiple surgeries and rehab. His first work with the 49ers this offseason came during the team's minicamp in June, which was also the last time the team gathered together. Even then, he was held out of 11-on-11 drills and participated only in the team's 7-on-7 and individual drills. Gabbert has to be considered the frontrunner right now because he has been healthy.
Kaepernick is coming off of his worst season statistically – a season in which he was benched in favor of Gabbert and placed on injured reserve shortly after. Then there was the offseason drama of Kaepernick wanting out of San Francisco and his flirtation with the Denver Broncos.
Following the team's final minicamp practice in June, Kaepernick departed from his typically closed off demeanor and was both engaging and open in his first interview with the media since the end of the 2015 season. "I'm a 49er. Once again, excited to work with Chip and this coaching staff," he proclaimed during that discussion.
"Chip brings a lot of excitement with this offense and what he's been able to do in the NFL and I think everybody on the team is excited to play for him," said Kaepernick during that interview. When asked what he would have to do to win the quarterback competition, his answer was very simple. "Compete. That's all I know how to do. Every year that I've stepped on the field, it's a competition whether people like to say you're the number one or not," said Kaepernick.
While Gabbert has been praised for his leadership and rapport with the locker room, the opposite has been said of Kaepernick. "Blaine Gabbert's doing a great job taking control of the offense and leading the offense," said center Daniel Kilgore in May.
"From my standpoint, I have a great relationship with my teammates," Kaepernick said in regards to various reports stating that he is distant. "I really can't answer that for them, how they view me. That's a better question suited for them."
When you discuss the 49ers quarterbacks, you have to address the team's 2015 offensive line, which had to rank as one of the worst in franchise history. Last season, Kaepernick was pressured nearly 40 percent of the time behind that offensive line while Gabbert was pressured nearly 38 percent of the time. They allowed the quarterback to be sacked 53 times last season with Kaepernick going down 28 times and Gabbert accounting for the other 25. Out of 624 drop backs, Kaepernick had an average of 2.55 seconds per pass attempt according to Pro Football Focus. Gabbert had just 2.38 seconds.
However, things seem to be slowly improving this offseason. The team signed Zane Beadles to replace Alex Boone, who is now with the Minnesota Vikings. They drafted Joshua Garnett in the first round to help solidify that porous right side. That left only Erik Pears, who thanks to the return of Anthony Davis, may no longer be the frontrunner to start at right tackle.
Gabbert was clearly the better quarterback last season when given time. His passer rating of 102.7 eclipsed Kaepernick's rating of 69.6 when given 2.6 seconds or more to throw. While under pressure, Gabbert's completion percentage was 51.8 percent compared to Kaepernick's 35.2 percent.
Kaepernick will have a legitimate shot at the starting quarterback job for the 49ers – especially if he is completely healthy. His athleticism makes him an intriguing option for Kelly's offense, but Gabbert's offseason participation, leadership, and edge on accuracy makes him the frontrunner heading into training camp ... for now.
Training camp frontrunner: Blaine Gabbert