8 Dark-Horse Candidates to Make the San Francisco 49ers' Final 53-Man Roster
The San Francisco 49ers have a stacked roster heading into their 2014 training camp. The competition for jobs will be intense, and general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh will have some extremely tough roster decisions.
With a 53-man roster, one key question will be how many players the 49ers keep at each position.
In addition, will special teams aces make the squad over other players who could provide more positional depth?
The 49ers will carry three specialists, so the actual roster drops down to only 50 players. Phil Dawson, Andy Lee and long snapper Kevin McDermott are all in line to make the team.
Let's take a closer look at some dark-horse candidates who will be fighting for a spot on the team. We will also assess the relative chances for each player.
Josh Johnson, Quarterback
Josh Johnson largely owes his NFL career to Jim Harbaugh. He was largely overlooked as a high school recruit out of Oakland and played his college football at the University of San Diego. His head coach and mentor was Harbaugh.
Johnson is entering his sixth NFL season and hopes to win a job backing up Colin Kaepernick. This is Johnson's second attempt at making the 49ers' roster, as he was one of the last cuts in 2013.
Johnson will need to beat out both McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Kory Faulkner as the 49ers' third quarterback. Then he must hope that San Francisco goes with three and not just two signal-callers.
Over his career, Johnson has completed 96 of 177 pass attempts, for a 54.2 completion percentage. He has thrown for 1,042 yards and five touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
The odds are stacked against Johnson, but he has the mobility and arm strength that have enabled him to hang around on the fringes of the NFL for several years.
Lawrence Okoye, Defensive End
Lawrence Okoye is a freakishly impressive athlete. He competed in the discus throw for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics.
Okoye was signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2013 season. He spent the year on injured reserve, which allowed the 49ers to work with him.
Okoye is an impressive athlete at 6'6" and 304 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds. The issue with Okoye is not size, speed, strength or athleticism but whether he can learn the techniques to become an effective defensive lineman.
There is tremendous competition on the 49ers' defensive line which will make it tough for Okoye to crack the roster. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Tank Carradine, Ian Williams, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs and Quinton Dial are all ahead of him at the present time.
As Eric Branch of SFGate.com reports, Okoye may have his best chance on special teams with the 49ers' coverage groups.
On special teams, Okoye does not need to use the more advanced football techniques that a defensive lineman must master such as leverage, hand-fighting and reading his keys. He can simply use his speed and power, then search for the ball-carrier.
As a defensive lineman, Okoye is probably not ready to play in the NFL. A spot on the 49ers' practice squad is also an option. The 49ers would risk losing him to a waiver claim if they elected to go that route, however.
Kassim Osgood, Wide Receiver
Few players in the league can make the type of impact on special teams that Kassim Osgood did last season without ever carrying the football.
The 49ers are stacked at wide receiver with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin, Bruce Ellington and Chuck Jacobs all battling for playing time.
The way things look now, the likelihood is that Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson, Lloyd, Patton and Ellington will make the team. The question is whether the 49ers will allocate one additional roster spot for Osgood, who is a star on special teams.
Osgood had seven tackles and assisted on three others, all on special teams. In addition, he was frequently the first man down in punt coverage to down a punt inside the opposition's 10-yard line.
In 2013, special teams coordinator Brad Seely was blessed with several stars; Osgood headed that list. Looking ahead to this season, if there's any way for the 49ers to carry Osgood on their roster, he will make a positive difference and help them win games.
Quinton Dial, Defensive Tackle
Although Quinton Dial made the 49ers' 53-man roster in 2013, he was usually inactive on game day and only played in three games.
Dial was drafted in the fifth round in 2013, the 157th overall selection. Dial was behind nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and his backup, Tony Jerod-Eddie. Dial rarely played and looked fat, slow and out of shape on those few occasions when he did get in.
Looking at the competition this year along the 49ers' defensive line, Dial is on very thin ice. He must perform much better than he did last year in his rookie campaign. At this point, heading into training camp, it is very realistic to consider Dial a long shot to make the 49ers' 53-man roster.
Shayne Skov, Linebacker
Shayne Skov was one of the most productive defensive players for the 2013 Pac-12 champion Stanford Cardinal. Skov was recruited by Jim Harbaugh, who coached at Stanford from 2007-2010.
Skov played for Harbaugh as a freshman and sophomore. In 2013, his final season at Stanford, Skov accumulated 67 tackles and 47 assists, including 5.5 sacks, per Sports-Reference.com.
Skov comes to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent. He has excellent football instincts, but his size, speed and athleticism are question marks, and he was passed over by every team in the recent draft.
The injury to NaVorro Bowman opens up a roster spot, at least to open the season, but Skov still faces an uphill battle. Starting inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite are entrenched, but Skov will need to beat out either Nick Moody or 2014 third-round draft pick Chris Borland.
With Bowman likely to return around the midpoint of the season, it is improbable that San Francisco will keep more than four inside linebackers on their 53-man roster to open the season.
Special teams are also a possibility for Skov, but roster spots become extremely scarce for players who are mainly used on special teams. The 49ers already have Kassim Osgood, Bubba Ventrone and Blake Costanzo who are proven standouts.
Kenneth Acker, Cornerback
On paper, the one major weakness on the 49ers' roster appears to be at cornerback. There is a lot of competition for spots, but there are several major question marks in this position group.
The 49ers have Tramaine Brock starting at one corner, while Chris Culliver has the inside track opposite him. Culliver is coming off an ACL injury in 2013, so it remains to be seen how his knee holds up to the rigors of an entire NFL campaign.
First-round draft pick Jimmie Ward will get the first chance to win the job at nickel corner, especially now that Eric Wright has retired. Ward did not practice with the defense during minicamp, as he was rehabbing his injured foot. Ward is far from a sure thing at this point.
Other cornerbacks in the mix for roster spots and playing time include Perrish Cox, Darryl Morris, Chris Cook, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker.
Acker was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft with the 180th overall pick. In workouts, Acker showed marked improvement, as reported by Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
With eight cornerbacks already in the mix, the real question is: How many cornerbacks will the 49ers keep on the roster?
Acker's future with San Francisco may well rest on the answer to that question.
Raymond "Bubba" Ventrone, Safety
Raymond "Bubba" Ventrone was a major force on special teams for the 49ers.
Brad Seely built excellent units for the 49ers' special teams, and players like Ventrone, Kassim Osgood and C.J. Spillman played important roles.
Ventrone is an outstanding coverage man on both the kickoff and punt teams. In 2013, Ventrone made eight tackles, plus three assists and one recovered fumble.
The key factor for players like Ventrone and Osgood will be the number of players the 49ers retain who are primarily specialists.
Ventrone, like Osgood and Spillman, is a difference-maker on special teams. The 49ers' special teams were much better in 2013, and players like these are a major reason for that improvement.
LaMichael James, Running Back
In the 2012 draft, the 49ers surprised many draft experts by selecting LaMichael James with their second-round pick. General manager Trent Baalke hoped that James would become a player much like Darren Sproles.
Unfortunately for James and the 49ers, that has not happened.
In 2012, James did not see action until Kendall Hunter was injured. James got into four games that season.
James hoped to play a more integral role in 2013, but with Hunter back he was largely relegated to kickoffs and punt returns. James carried the ball from scrimmage only 12 times, gaining 59 yards. He also caught two passes for 16 yards.
One of James' problems is his propensity to fumble. He fumbled the ball three times last year, which is far too often considering how seldom he played. In 2013, James had 12 kickoff returns for 321 yards, an average of 26.8 yards. As a punt returner, James had 23 returns for 251 yards, an average of 10.9 yards per return.
Expected to be an explosive threat, James has yet to find the end zone in two seasons. In addition, James is not a strong blocker, which also limits his plays from scrimmage.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has not done a good job utilizing the speed of James and Hunter out of the backfield on pass plays. Even a simple swing pass could turn into a big gain with the speed and elusiveness of these two.
James is now fighting what looks to be a losing battle to make the 49ers' 53-man roster.
The 49ers currently have Frank Gore, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde and Hunter all ahead of James at the halfback position. In addition, Jewel Hampton has looked good when given the chance to play in exhibition games in prior seasons.
The 49ers also drafted wide receiver Bruce Ellington, who will compete with James for punts and kickoff returns. Ellington, a fourth-round selection, has an excellent chance to win this job.
As reported by David Fucillo of NinersNation.com, Anquan Boldin had high praise for Ellington following the 49ers' three-day minicamp.
If James is sent packing, which is a real possibility, the 49ers' 2012 draft will have been a colossal failure. Only Joe Looney, a reserve guard, would remain from that entire draft.
The lack of players from the 2012 draft has now caught up with the 49ers, as salary-cap constraints, coupled with the fact that nobody is there to make an impact from that draft class, will hurt the 49ers, especially over the next two seasons.
At this point, it would have to be considered a surprise if James makes the 2014 roster.