Four Training Camp Battles to Keep an Eye on in San Francisco

Al Sacco
May 23, 2014 at 10:33 AM3


Although the San Francisco 49ers appear to be set at most starting positions, that doesn't mean there won't be some interesting competition happening within the team. Questions linger as to who will replace Navorro Bowman and what lineman will be hiking the ball to Colin Kaepernick. There are also some role players that need to be identified, which could provide a clue into what the future may hold.

Here is a look at some of the camp battles to keep an eye in San Francisco:

Center

Candidates: Marcus Martin, Daniel Kilgore

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that the 49ers spent a third round draft pick on Martin, who was the top center prospect on most draft boards. Martin fits the mold of a Jim Harbaugh era offensive lineman, as his massive frame (6'3, 320 pounds) makes him ideal for the team's power running approach.

While Martin is an intriguing prospect, don't expect Kilgore to go down without a fight. He's been groomed for three years and is familiar with the offense. The 49ers wouldn't have invested the time, and signed him to an extension, if they didn't feel he was a piece of the puzzle in some form.

In the end, the loser of this battle will still fill an important role as a back up on the interior. Each player has experience at guard as well as center, so can they can be plugged into either spot if injuries occur.

Prediction: Martin starts at center while Kilgore is used as a reserve.

Inside Linebacker

Candidates: Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland, Shayne Skov, Nick Moody

There is no way a player like Navorro Bowman can be replaced, so the 49ers will have to find someone who can just hold the fort until he returns late in the season.

Wilhoite played well in Patrick Willis' absence last year, including a 13 tackle performance against the Houston Texans in Week 5. He looks to have a solid lead on the competition heading into camp.

Of the remaining candidates, Borland is the player with the best chance to unseat Wilhoite. The 49ers invested a third round pick on last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, so they obviously feel he's someone who can contribute right away. If he shows enough in the preseason, there's a chance he could find himself with the first team come Week 1.

While Skov was an impact player in college, he found himself going undrafted. It makes sense that the 49ers were willing to take a chance on him though, because he played under Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford in 2010. While it's a long shot that he could challenge for the starting spot, he does have a chance to bump Moody of the roster if he proves to be valuable on special teams.

Prediction: Wilhoite begins the season as a starter despite a push from Borland. Skov beats out Moody for the last spot and plays on special teams along with Borland.

Backup Cornerback

Candidates: Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Eric Wright, Dontae Johnson, Darryl Morris, Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser (PUP candidate)

It's no secret that, barring injury, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward will begin the season as the top three corners. The only player in that group who could end up on the fence is Culliver if he is slow to return to form after missing 2013 with a knee injury.

That will leave Cox, Cook, Wright, Johnson, Morris and Acker to fill the remaining spots. Reaser, who is recovering from ACL surgery, will begin the year on Physically Unable to Perform List.

Cox played well when called upon in 2013 and earned enough trust from the coaching staff that he was used as the team's fourth corner in the playoffs. Given past performance, he should have the early lead over the rest of the group heading into camp.

Cook will have a lot to prove, as he is coming over from the Minnesota Vikings after a season that saw him give up nine touchdowns in coverage (tied for worst in the league) and allow opposing quarterbacks to post a 140.3 rating throwing his way. He will have to be exceptional camp to make the roster, given the fact that his one-year contract his not guaranteed.

Morris proved to be valuable enough on special teams to make a case for him to win the final spot on the depth chart, while Johnson could make a serious push for playing time as a rookie. Acker does not look like a candidate to make the team at this point.

The wild card of this group is Wright. He never looked fully comfortable in 2013 after missing the beginning of the season due to a suspension, and was benched in favor of Cox in the playoffs. Despite the disappointing results of last year, Wright is still a veteran who has 81 NFL starts under his belt. A full offseason and a clear head could go a long way in him regaining his old form.

Prediction: Cox, Wright, Johnson make the roster, while Morris goes to the practice squad. Cook and Acker are released

Backup Runningback

Candidates: Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James

After how well he's played over his first three seasons, it seems crazy to think that Hunter may not have a role with the 49ers this year. In 262 career attempts, Hunter has averaged 4.6 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. However, given the competition that's been brought in, his days in San Francisco could be numbered.

How it all plays out will depend on the performance of two players who have never set foot on an NFL field before.

In Lattimore and Hyde, the 49ers now have two former collegiate stars who have the ability to be prolific runners at the next level. Obviously, Lattimore will have to prove he still has the same burst after two major knee injuries as, while there is a lot of excitement around him, no one knows for sure if he can still play at a high level.

Hyde is a different story. He comes to the team as a second round pick and was arguably the best runningback in the 2014 draft. Considering where he was taken and the talent he brings, it's safe to say the 49ers see him as the heir apparent to Frank Gore. He'll get his touches this season, which could leave only scraps for Hunter and Lattimore.

James, although talented, appears to have completely fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. If he can't retain his role as the team's primary return man, he doesn't seem to have a place on the roster.

Prediction: Hyde gets the bulk of the work behind Gore, while Lattimore and Hunter play small roles in the offense. James is traded or released.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


3 Comments

  • Frank M
    Prior to the draft I thought Kilgore would be the starting C...but after seeing Martin at the draft, how big/imposing he is, how articulate, etc. I began to waiver. Now, I can see MM beating Kilgore out. Borland also has a shot to beat out Wilhoite...he reminds me so much of Zach Thomas, who similarly was told he wasn't fast enough, too short, etc. Those kind of players consistently over-achieve. At CB, I think all bets are off...agree Johnson should make the team. Cook was grossly misused w/Vikes...Baalke signed him to play press coverage. Coupled w/Johnson, they'd give Fangio two big CB's to play that coverage. We'll see how it shakes out. Agree, Hyde's Gore's heir apparent...Lattimore's the wild card...if healthy, he could make a strong bid for PT.
    May 27, 2014 at 7:36 AM
    0
  • frank 9er
    I hope ur right
    May 26, 2014 at 10:46 AM
    0
  • Max
    "Acker does not look like a candidate to make the team at this point." Do you think they traded down to get this pick 180 just so they could automatically cut him? Of course Acker has a shot. Picked top of the 6th in a deep CB draft, runs a 4.4, 6' 200 lbs, lots of pbu's and int's
    May 25, 2014 at 9:09 PM
    0
    Response: It's a numbers game...could make practice squad but has to beat out three of Johnson, Cox, Cook, Wright, Morris to make the team.

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