Various photos-USA TODAY Sports

Various photos-USA TODAY Sports

Round Table: Which 49ers training camp battle are you most excited about?

Jul 26, 2017 at 11:49 AM0

Training camp is nearly upon us and the majority of the San Francisco 49ers' roster is filled with new faces. With that and a new coaching staff comes increased competition within each position group. A number of groups will have players battling to rise on the depth chart. We decided to ask the 49ers Webzone staff which training camp battle they are most excited to watch. That could be an entire position group or one player versus another.

Answers from our staff are shown below in the order in which they were received.

Al Sacco

In my opinion, the most wide open competition on the 49ers is at tight end, which makes it the most exciting to me. You realistically have five guys in Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, George Kittle and Cole Hikutini who could end up playing a significant number of snaps (I know Blake Bell is there too, but I don't see him being a factor).

McDonald and Celek are the holdovers and will have their work cut out for them if they want to win roster spots. McDonald, a former second-round pick, has been a disappointment thus far and hasn't been able to catch the ball consistently. He has a 15.8-percent drop rate, the worst amongst tight ends with at least 75 catchable targets since 2013. Overall, his stat line (64/866/7) over four seasons is sub par, and the fact that the new regime tried to trade him during the draft tells you all you need to know. As far as Celek, Kyle Shanahan has complimented his game, and at this point looks to be on safer ground than does McDonald.

Paulsen is a veteran who's played under Shanahan before and is familiar with his system. While Paulsen is known as a blocking tight end, he actually had a four-year stretch from 2011-2014 that was comparable to McDonald production-wise (77/791/5). Paulsen signed a one-year deal this offseason, so the 49ers could walk away from him easily if need be.

As far as the rookies, Kittle is a lock to make the roster and probably the favorite to start. He was criminally underused at Iowa (fewer than 70 targets his junior and senior years combined) but has all the skills to make an impact as a receiver and blocker. Hikutini is a classic "move" tight end, who can cause mismatches all over the defense. The 49ers made him a priority to sign after the draft, which most likely means they have every intention of keeping him around to develop.

Zain Naqvi

I'm most excited about the tight end battle. The tight ends have really underperformed in the past few years and there is a group of 3 new tight ends who all have a lot of potential in a Kyle Shanahan offense.

Logan Paulsen has played in the system, is an excellent blocker and had his best season with Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.

George Kittle is a matchup nightmare for linebackers. He ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the Combine and has the quickness to get vertical. He's extremely athletic and should make the final 53-man roster easily.

Cole Hikutini is an interesting player. He was undrafted largely because of a slow 40 time - he was rushed back from a knee injury before the Combine. He was arguably the best UDFA available (it was down to him and Lorenzo Jerome, whom the 49ers also picked up) and had a ton of interest throughout the league. He catches everything around him and is a serious red zone threat. He was 2nd in the NCAA with a catch percentage of almost 77%, so it's going to be hard to keep him off the roster.

I'm going to stick with my prediction that we're going to see an entirely new tight end group this year with the aforementioned names unseating the incumbents.

Bret Rumbeck

For good or ill, Kyle Shanahan named Brian Hoyer the starting quarterback in May. That killed any competition for the starting job but makes for a real battle for the second team spot. Hoyer has not finished an NFL season due to injuries and a benching. Whoever wins the 49ers' second-team quarterback spot has to be ready anytime a stiff breeze takes Hoyer to the turf.

I have no doubt in Matt Barkley's desire to be an NFL quarterback. But he's never struck me as a guy with the fire to compete and lead an offense, nor has he had any accomplishments during his tenure in the NFL. Rookie C.J. Beathard seems to be the new hope among the fan base and is in an ideal spot to take hold of the second-string job.

I'm looking forward to seeing Shanahan's offense in action and finally watching the pieces in Robert Saleh's defense come together. But the fight for the second-team quarterback is going to be where the action is at this summer.

Chris Wilson

With so many training camp battles to choose from -- DL, LB, CB, OL, RB and more -- due to the influx of free agents and draftees under the new regime, I'm going to go against the grain and choose the tight end position.

I'm most excited about the TE competition because my prediction of the outcome also goes against the grain. While most have concluded that after strong minicamps, Kittle, Hikutini, and Paulsen will be the 49ers' opening day TEs, I believe Vance McDonald will play a major role for the 49ers in 2017, based on the following four factors:

First, Shanahan is a proponent of heavy personnel, and he threw out of 13 personnel more than any other team in 2016, so the 49ers will need multiple capable TEs in the passing game. Second, in the last 25 years, only one rookie TE drafted after the fourth round accumulated as many receiving yards as McDonald did in 11 games last year -- so unless the 49ers are confident both of their rookies will exceed all reasonable expectations, the team will need at least one veteran receiving TE on the roster. Third, although Shanahan recently praised Celek, McDonald is better than Celek in every aspect of the game, including drop rate. Finally, I trust that the 49ers realize if they cut McDonald before he plays a snap under his new contract, in essence, they're paying him $9.1 million to score touchdowns against the team in the future. I'm excited to see McDonald prove me right during training camp.

Aaron Erickson

There are a good handful of position battles to be excited about during this training camp. I'm pretty pumped for the obvious battles between Malcolm Smith and Reuben Foster for Will Linebacker and between K'Waun Williams and Will Redmond at Nickel Cornerback. Both of those battles feature tremendously talented young players trying to unseat veterans who have a history with one or more members of the coaching staff, and I expect youth will be served in both cases, sooner or later. My choice for the best battle is more fun (to me) and considerably messier.

The 49ers have assembled a lot of talent at edge rusher, and I have little confidence predicting who will emerge at the top of the heap. Elvis Dumervil has dominated the edge for years, but he's two years removed from double-digit sacks, and the combination of injury and age could keep him from regaining form. Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas are young, exciting edge rushers who will try to adapt to life on the edge. Pita Taumoepenu and Jimmie Gilbert are explosive and flexible, but both appear to be undersized and at least a year away. Aaron Lynch is dominant when he is fit and focused, but that does not appear to be his default setting. Eli Harold has impressive tools that he has never put together for long stretches, but he collected three sacks last year, and his newly healthy foot has appeared to allow him freer movement and better acceleration. Ahmad Brooks is probably among the most gifted pass rushers on the team, and he seems to be a perfect fit at Sam LB. He has delivered more big-moment sacks for the 49ers than any other player on the roster, but he's getting old, and he seems to top out in the six-sack range. I imagine that Armstead, Brooks, Thomas, and Dumervil will get the first, best opportunities to earn time, but this battle could stretch out through the season, with Jeff Zgonina and Robert Saleh emphasizing rotation along the front.

Justin Wong

The entire secondary is undergoing a makeover with new roles under Robert Saleh. Last year, it allowed 30 receiving touchdowns (25th) and it's not like the 49ers added any new pass rushers outside of 33-year old Elvis Dumervil to help the pass coverage.

Rashard Robinson is now the presumed top cornerback while rookie Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson will duke it out opposite of Robinson, Johnson's role has diminished every season and Witherspoon has tackling concerns at the next level. Even at nickel, you're talking about K'Waun Williams--who has been out of the league a year--versus Will Redmond, who stands as the last Trent Baalke pick on the All-ACL team.

Filling out the secondary, Eric Reid switches from free safety to strong safety, allowing Jimmie Ward to roam as the single-high safety--both new roles for them at the NFL level. So yeah, you could say I'm a bit intrigued to see how the secondary comes along in training camp.

Peter Panacy

I'm most intrigued by the No. 2 corner camp battle.

Robert Saleh's Seahawks-like defense puts cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage quite a lot. It works, as long as the pressure is working up front and coverage guys don't give up separation too soon.

Rashard Robinson showed a lot of prowess as a possible shutdown corner last year, and I think most are fine with him being the No. 1 option this camp.

But No. 2 is even more compelling. Both Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson are holdovers from the Trent Baalke era, and neither defensive back has shown worthiness to start on a regular basis. Considering rookie corner Ahkello Witherspoon may not be ready to go right away, seeing who actually gets starting reps in a very important role will be fun to watch.

Richard Madrid

The quarterbacks: Brian Hoyer vs. Matt Barkley - This is a battle that will likely play out through the duration of training camp with Hoyer coming away as QB 1 though I am not convinced he retains the job and we could see a quarterback change by mid season in Kyle Shanahan's attempt to see what he has going forward. There's also still the possibility of signing Kirk Cousins in the offseason, adding further competition. It should be no surprise by now, though, that Hoyer is a bridge quarterback who can safely and somewhat competently run Shanahan's offense, but, as I have detailed here, he's nothing to be excited about. The truth is, Barkley is the better quarterback and while he did throw 14 interceptions as the Bears starter last season (about half were actually his fault), he also threw the ball downfield more than Hoyer. Per Football Outsiders' Cian Fahey, Barkley ranked third in the NFL at "average depth of target" (aDOT) at 10.23 yards, behind only Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. The difference in the passing game for the Bears was noticeable on film as the Bears tended to push the ball downfield at all phases of the game more under Barkley than they did with Hoyer, who ranked 25th in aDOT with 7.78 yards. Barkley also graded as the better, more accurate quarterback, especially on intermediate (11-20 yards) and deep (21+ yards) downfield throws. Combined with better pocket presence and awareness than Hoyer (that I will detail in a later article), look for Barkley to make a name for himself in camp and by midseason.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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