Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the 49ers Position Groups

Aug 14, 2017 at 7:12 PM

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With one game of the preseason in the bag, 49ers fans were able to get their first views of the 2017 squad. Despite some solid play from back-ups against other back-ups, this year does not figure to be too promising from a wins and losses standpoint. However, this should not be surprising for a squad coming off a 2-14 season and entering the first year of a true rebuild under a new front office and coaching staff.

The fact is, rebuilds take time. With a roster as talent-deprived as the 2016 team, the 49ers are still likely a couple years away from truly contending. Much of the roster, including entire position groups, needs to be rebuilt. In their first season, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan already appear to have done an admirable job of putting together a formidable front seven on defense.

This article will take a look at each position group on the 49ers, from perceived strongest to weakest, and determine how strong they are both for the upcoming season as well as how strong they should be in the coming years. A lot can change between now and the end of 2017, so no real solutions will be offered at this point. Consider this more of a needs analysis.

Defensive Line

Unquestionably, the best position group on the team in both current and future senses is our defensive line. This is to be expected when three straight first-round picks are spent on defensive linemen. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas will all factor into the team's long-term plans, which should mean this group will be a good one for a long time to come. Buckner and Armstead have already shown flashes of great play in their young careers, and much will be expected of Thomas after the 49ers made him the No. 3 overall selection in the draft.

Beyond the three marquee players (by virtue of their draft status), this group still has a lot of talent. Earl Mitchell and Elvis Dumervil were brought in as free agents. They are expected to play prominent roles as the starting nose tackle and pass rush specialist, respectively. Behind them are Tank Carradine – a former early second-round pick who is finally in a scheme that fits his skill set – and Aaron Lynch – a player who found some early success rushing the passer in his first two seasons before trailing off last year.

Even those still competing for roster spots this year are a talented group. Quinton Dial has started 32 games over the last two seasons and now appears to be on the outs only due to being a poor scheme fit for Robert Saleh's new defense. Ronald Blair and Chris Jones were both able to play meaningful snaps with the team last year. D.J. Jones was a sixth-round pick by the regime this year and looks to have a solid hold on the backup NT job. The other sixth-round pick, Pita Taumoepenu, looks to be destined for the practice squad if he is unable to win a job on the 53-man roster.

The main piece missing from this talented, young group is a monster sack artist. Even if Elvis Dumervil is able to recover from last year's injuries and play at an All-Pro level once again, at 33, he will not be considered a long-term piece of the puzzle. After quarterback, there is perhaps no more important role on a football team than having someone consistently get after the opposing team's quarterback, making this position a major need in the 49ers' rebuild.


After the defensive line, the next best position group on the team belongs to the group directly behind it – the linebackers. NaVorro Bowman returns from his second major injury since 2014 to once again lead this group and the defense as a whole. Should Bowman remain healthy and return to the play that has made him a four-time All-Pro, he will likely once again be the best player on the entire roster in 2017. Since his age is not really prohibitive for a linebacker, he could remain a great player on the team for a few more years as well. However, those questions about his health are legitimate given that injuries have all but erased him from two of his last three seasons, and another major injury would definitely be a setback to this position group.

The other marquee player in this linebacking corps is this year's other first-round pick, Reuben Foster. Foster has the potential to be one of the greatest draft bargains in history after he fell to the 31st pick in the draft. Fears about his shoulder were clearly overblown as he has been a go in camp from day one and he just played a significant number of snaps in his first preseason game. Linebacker represents one of the easier transitions for college players jumping to the NFL, so this first season should be a great indicator of what's to come for Reuben Foster.

Foster ended up the likely starter at WLB thanks to a season-ending injury to this year's marquee free agent pickup on defense, Malcolm Smith. By most accounts, Smith was having a strong training camp before tearing his pectoral muscle and ending up on injured reserve. With a five-year contract, the former Super Bowl MVP will still likely factor into the defense in the coming seasons.

The other starter on the strong side of this corps is set to be Ahmad Brooks. Brooks is quietly entering the final year of his contract, and at 33, it is likely that this will be his final season with the 49ers. He appears unchallenged for the starting position, and despite being much maligned by certain segments of 49ers fans, he's had a pretty solid career with the team. With 51.5 career sacks, Brooks ranks behind only Charles Haley and Bryant Young on the 49ers' career list.

Behind the starters is some pretty decent depth, though many of the other players are fighting for final roster spots. Ray-Ray Armstrong appears set as the backup WLB after entering the 2016 season as the starter. Eli Harold goes from starting 13 games last season to potentially clawing for one of the final roster spots on the team. Brock Coyle and Dekoda Watson are also competing for spots on the roster as backup linebackers, but much of their value comes from work on special teams. Taumoepenu was mentioned earlier with the defensive line, but he's also gotten some work as the SLB in camp. And one of the stronger performances delivered in the first preseason game was by newcomer Austin Calitro, who could be ticketed for the practice squad.

The most interesting development in this group will be what happens in 2018. With Brooks likely gone, this would open up a spot on the strong-side of the defense. Neither Bowman, Foster, nor Smith appear to be fitted for that strong-side spot, but it could make for the most logical way to get all three players on the field at the same time. Alternatively, the team will need to look to free agency or the draft to fill it for the long haul.


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The first two groups were pretty easy to single out, but it gets pretty complicated from there. My choice for the third strongest group is the safeties, but it is more due to the general disarray of the team's roster. Still, with two former first-round picks set to start at the safety spots, it would make sense that this unit would be pretty strong.

Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward each entered the year as the unquestioned starters at their respective positions, but each has some pretty significant questions about his long-term role with the team. Reid had a very solid rookie year, but then had his play tail off over the next few years and now enters his final year under contract with the squad. Reid is finally playing as the in-the-box safety this season, and that's a role that should finally allow him to play to his strengths. With a solid season, there is no reason for the team not to bring him back.

Ward, on the other hand, has finally moved back to safety after playing through a few injury-shortened seasons at cornerback. Ward is expected to be the team's ballhawk this season, and that's a role that should suit his playing style quite well. When on the field, there is no question that Ward is a solid player capable of great play, but remaining on the field has been his biggest issue as injuries have caused him to miss much of two of his three seasons and the beginning of training camp this year. The team did pick up his fifth-year option, so he's under contract for next season, but questions about his ability to stay healthy may prevent him from signing a long-term extension if he's unable to stay relatively healthy in 2017.

Behind Reid and Ward is another early Baalke pick, Jaquiski Tartt, the former second-round pick from Samford. Tartt has shown that he's capable of playing either safety spot in training camp, but he is much better suited for the in-the-box role where Reid plays. Regardless of being a back-up, Tartt will see a lot of action in his backup role, and with a strong season, he could potentially show the team that it can safely move on from Reid.

Beyond those three is a host of unproven players. Lorenzo Jerome came to the team as an undrafted rookie and has been a surprise early in camp. He has already worked his way up to the ones with Ward out of action by showing great instincts and a nose for the ball and has likely solidified a spot on the 53-man roster. Vinnie Sunseri and Don Jones, who have each bounced around the NFL before ending up with the 49ers, are fighting for spots on the roster.

It is hard to say what the long-term needs at safety are, as this group could be set for the foreseeable future, or it could wash out completely and need a total overhaul. Regardless, health permitting, Reid and Ward should make for a solid tandem in 2017, and their relative youth leaves a lot of promise for the future as well. That keeps them high in these rankings.


This is certainly not a marquee position group to have rated so highly, and yes there are a bunch of questions surrounding it. However, on year one of a rebuilding team, there are going to be some highly ranked position groups by default that don't necessarily deserve to be there otherwise. This group consists of three players, Robbie Gould, Brad Pinion, and Kyle Nelson, and all three will likely hold those same positions unquestioned in 2018.

Gould has been a solid kicker throughout his career, and while he only attempted 10 field goals in 2016, he made all of them. In 2015, he was seven of nine on field goals each from 40-49 yards and over 50 yards. He may not be the kicker Phil Dawson was, but it is reasonable to expect him to hold down this position throughout his contract.

Pinion was a fifth round pick a few years ago as the best punting prospect in that draft, but since that time has struggled with consistency. For a young punter, this is not necessarily unusual early in his career. Even the great Andy Lee struggled consistently during his first few seasons. These next two years will be the key ones in determining whether he's worth keeping around for the long haul, or if another punter needs to be found in the draft.

Perhaps the unsung hero of every team is that team's long-snapper, as he only seems to get noticed whenever something goes horribly wrong. Nelson has been a solid snapper for a few years, and likely will not be going anywhere. With these three set, there is no need to find any replacements in the immediate future, and, certainly, replacements can always be found on the free agent list if necessary.

Running Backs

This is one of the hardest units to judge in training camp and the preseason, because poor play can be attributed to one-on-one offensive line play and the lack of a dedicated game plan, and good play can be attributed to the same lack of a game plan on the defensive side combined with players generally showing the ability to run over and through guys who will have a hard time latching onto even practice squad spots.

Carlos Hyde entered this offseason with some major questions, but any hesitations about his spot on the roster seem to have been put to bed through his solid performance in training camp. Due to some questionable blocking, he did not have the ability to show much of his improvements in the first preseason game. That questionable blocking has arguably hindered Hyde throughout his career, as he has never had the strong run blocking lines that had been afforded previously to the great Frank Gore. Hyde's bigger concern is his ability to stay healthy, however, as he has yet to play in a full 16-game season. If he is able to do that and finally break 1,000 yards, he could possibly earn a second contract with the team, but even that appears to be in question.

Behind Hyde, the future could still be strong with the emergence of two rookies. It was expected when Joe Williams was drafted in the fourth round that he would be Kyle Shanahan's pet project and a favorite to unseat Hyde in the future. However, he struggled early in training camp and has only recently started turning it on (including a strong performance in his first preseason action). Matt Breida has been the true surprise of camp, however, as he has routinely wowed those present with his impressive running abilities. Both could be in for a strong future together.

Joining them in the backfield is a handful of veterans. Tim Hightower was the first running back the regime brought in during the offseason, and he appears set for a major role on offense should he make the team (which is looking more and more likely). Kapri Bibbs, on the other hand, was a part of one of the odder draft day trades made by John Lynch and has not stood out in any real meaningful way this training camp. He now faces long odds to even make the roster. The third veteran back is Raheem Mostert, who would appear to have next to no chance of making the roster, but it should be noted that he returned the team's first kickoff of the game, and was also on the starting kick coverage teams.

Behind a lot of this uncertainty is one long-term anchor at fullback, however. Kyle Juszczyk is one of the best fullbacks in football and was brought in to be the roster's swiss army knife. After a standout year last year as a receiver (for a fullback anyway), Juszczyk could be in for an even greater year this year. He'll have the opportunity to line up outside, at tight end, and even in the H-back role on this team.

It seems likely that the 2018 starter at running back is already on the roster, whether that be Hyde returning on a second contract, or one or both of Joe Williams and Matt Breida taking over the reins. However, that lingering doubt about the position is what mostly accounted for this ranking. There is unquestionably a lot of talent and potential already here on the roster. If Hyde does leave, however, the team will likely want to add another back next offseason.

Wide Receivers

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The twelve receivers on this team have combined for a grand total of two single seasons of 1,000 yards receiving, so it is not really a good thing that they are ranked above four other position groups in this ranking. Granted, only four of those receivers have more than a season of experience (discounting Smelter's 2015 IR season), but it is not like any of the young players are "high-promise players" based on their draft pedigrees either. There are a handful of mid-to-low-round draft picks and a bunch of undrafted players rounding out the squad.

Pierre Garçon comes in as the prized free agent acquisition of the Lynch/Shanahan-era in year one. He is responsible for both of the previously mentioned 1,000-yard seasons by a wide receiver (including his best ever year under Shanahan with Washington in 2013). He was given a five-year contract, and his playing style is not one that should deteriorate much due to age over the next few seasons.

Behind Garçon, however, is a lot of uncertainty. Marquise Goodwin is coming off of a career year for him in Buffalo, but that still resulted in only 431 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He looks to play a much different role here than in Buffalo, however, and that has led to a reportedly stellar training camp in which he has solidified himself as a potential breakout player for the squad.

The other vets on the team are Aldrick Robinson, Jeremy Kerley, and Louis Murphy. Robinson played with Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta, and looks to be dependable depth. Kerley was the star of the receiving corps last year and was one of only a few free agents brought back to the roster this year. Murphy was brought in for depth in the middle of training camp, but might actually have an outside shot at sticking due to the general lack of overall depth.

The rest of the corps is young and unproven. The most promising of that bunch would be Trent Taylor, one of this year's fifth-round picks, who has had an impressive camp and looks to be a roster lock and may push Kerley for the starting role in the slot. Victor Bolden, Jr. and Kendrick Bourne have been two promising undrafted rookies in training camp and could be headed for the practice squad. Aaron Burbridge is a bigger wide receiver (in comparison to the rest of the potential roster), but is likely nothing more than a special teams player in the mold of Kassim Osgood.

This is definitely an area in which the team will need to invest in upcoming offseasons. Marquise Goodwin could potentially mute this need somewhat with a breakout season, but there is currently nobody on the receiving corps representing a red zone threat. In reality, there is likely nobody on the roster who would make a go-to, playmaking #1 WR either, making this a pretty major need moving forward.


This is the marquee position, and it has undergone a complete overhaul for 2017. Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley were both brought in as free agents to replace a couple of quarterbacks on the roster, and C.J. Beathard was added as a surprise third-round pick as a developmental player. All three are generally pocket passers, so even the type of quarterback in San Francisco has undergone a complete renovation.

Hoyer is a 32-year old journeyman quarterback who is now with his sixth team in his ninth season and is the unquestioned starter for 2017 as long as he remains healthy. His total career passing touchdowns in those nine seasons is fewer than Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have all thrown in a single season. That should tell you much of what you need to know about the long-term health of this position.

However, that is not completely fair to Hoyer. He is a relatively mistake-free quarterback, and his numbers over his last 17 starts are actually pretty solid for a game manager-type. He was also 7-4 with the Browns in 2014, with Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. So, he does have some relatively good qualities. However, he has struggled to stay healthy and at this point in his career, he likely is what he is. He's a stopgap-type of player, and it is hard to imagine that lasting more than the current two years of the contract he signed this offseason.

Barkley and Beathard are both currently in competition to see who gets to be Hoyer's primary back-up in 2017. Barkley is already on his fourth team and has struggled with interceptions in the limited playing time he has received. In the first preseason game, Beathard was able to show a lot of the poise that talent evaluators saw in him. He looks to be a player who will be developed for a potentially larger role in the future.

Depending on how the 2017 season shapes up, this group might see another talent overhaul in 2018. Rumors about Kirk Cousins have been unstoppable since Kyle Shanahan has been the head coach and he would make a lot of sense. The 49ers may also have one of the least talented rosters overall in the NFL, which will undoubtedly lead to a high draft pick in what is shaping up to be a particularly strong 2018 quarterback class.

Tight Ends

This is another position that is likely to see a complete overhaul in 2017. Unlike the quarterbacks, the 2016 tight end depth chart is actually still around, but they do not look to factor into the team's future.

The favorite to be the starter of this group is one of the team's fifth-round picks, George Kittle. Kittle had a strong offseason, but an injured hamstring has limited him some in camp. The fact that he is already penciled in as the starter is more of a sign of how limited the rest of the roster is.

Behind Kittle are two other newcomers to the roster – Logan Paulsen and Cole Hikutini. Paulsen was brought in as a free agent to serve mainly as a blocking tight end and has a history with Kyle Shanahan. Hikutini was a more prominent undrafted free agent and had a fairly prolific career as a pass catcher at Louisville. If Hikutini is unable to win a roster spot, he seems likely to stick around on the practice squad.

After that are the roster holdovers from 2016. Despite the 49ers shopping him around during the draft, Vance McDonald is the most likely of these holdovers to stick around due to the inexplicably large contract Trent Baalke handed out in his final weeks on the job. Garrett Celek and Blake Bell, on the other hand, do not seem to have much of a chance.

As two of the players expected to lead the way in receiving in this group are rookies, it is hard to gauge what the long-term health of this position actually is. Kittle and Hikutini could prove to be reliable targets and stick around long-term, or they could flop entirely and the team might need to start over again from square one. Likely, this is a position group that will stick together through at least 2018, as there are far too many needs elsewhere to focus on the tight end position.

Offensive Line

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The offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL last year, and four of the five starters are returning in 2017. The group did not necessarily get off to the best start in the first preseason game either, indicating that this could be another long year up front.

The best player returning to the team is left tackle, Joe Staley. Staley enters his eleventh season with the team and has started every game he has played. He is set up to once again be the best offensive lineman in 2017, but he'll also turn 33 once the season starts, and it is reasonable to question how much he has left in the tank.

The other returning starters, for now, are Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, and Trent Brown. Of the three, Brown has the most long-term promise and has proven to be a very reliable pass blocker, somewhat masking his failures as a run blocker. Beadles is long past his former Pro Bowl-caliber play, but proved last year to be a reliable guy to have on the roster by virtue of his ability to play any position on the line. Kilgore has ranged from average to impressive when he's been on the field, but he's another player who has struggled with injuries in his career.

The other returning player to the team is Joshua Garnett. Garnett was the final Trent Baalke first-round pick for the team, and despite struggling in 2016, he remains one of the only long-term promising players in the position group. He had been holding onto the starting left guard spot throughout camp, but an injury has set him back some.

Joining the team this year are newcomers Brandon Fusco, Garry Gilliam, and Tim Barnes. All three are veterans who have had their struggles in recent years. Fusco is currently the guy holding onto the other starting guard role on the right side of the line. Gilliam and Barnes are still technically in training camp competitions for a starting role, but will likely fill out the depth at the position. None of these three appear to be long-term solutions, and only Gilliam will be under 30 in 2018.

There is no questioning the importance of a great offensive line and what it can do for a team, and this is an area in which the 49ers will definitely need to invest in 2018. While there are a couple of promising young players and Joe Staley is under contract through 2020, it would be wise to add some solid young talent to this group in 2018 to help turn around the low-ranked unit.


Finally, we come to the cornerbacks, the lowest-ranked position group on the team. Last year's starters outside were Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward, but Ward has moved to safety and Brock is no longer with the team. This has left a lot of young and unproven talent in the group for 2017, and that makes for a relatively weak unit (as of now).

Rashard Robinson opened camp as an unquestioned starter at one cornerback stop, which is not bad for a fourth-round pick last year who started six games due to injury. Robinson played very well when given the chance, and despite some struggles in the opening preseason game, he is still the most reasonable choice to start.

After Robinson are a bunch of question marks. Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser are the relative veterans of the group, coming to the team in 2014. Neither has been all that impressive in their careers thus far, but appear to be the only two in contention to start opposite of Robinson. The only other player who seems to be in contention right away is this year's third-round pick, Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon has excellent size for a cornerback, but still needs some time to develop.

In the nickel cornerback role, the battle to cover slot receivers already seems won by K'Waun Williams, a former Brown who missed last season due to an injury. His main competition for the spot is Will Redmond, a third round pick last year who also missed the entire season due to injury. Not only is Redmond competing for this spot, but possibly a spot on the final roster as well.

Some of the depth at the back end of the depth chart is made up by young players possibly competing for roles on the practice squad. The seventh round picks of 2016 and 2017, Prince Charles Iworah and Adrian Colbert, respectively, likely have no real shot at sticking on the 53-man roster this year. Colbert might have more value on the practice squad as he has been seeing split time at safety. Also on the roster are a pair of veterans, Will Davis and Asa Jackson, but they do not come with a significant amount of game experience.

This is a position group that could potentially use a lot of help. Robinson seems like he'll stick around as a starter for some time, and Witherspoon will likely eventually get a look or two, but after that, there is not a lot of long-term depth at the position and no real standout player who looks to be a lockdown cornerback. K'Waun Williams shows promise as the nickel cornerback, but other than that more talented players need to be brought in to compete.
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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