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Predicting the Winner of the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Training Camp Battles

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJuly 21, 2014

Predicting the Winner of the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Training Camp Battles

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    LaMichael James is one of the 49er veterans on very thin ice.
    LaMichael James is one of the 49er veterans on very thin ice.Harry How/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers have largely a veteran roster with few openings. However, with the influx of new talent acquired from the draft, via fee agency and trades, there will be fierce competition for the few open jobs on the roster.

    With training camp opening later this week, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff will be doing extensive evaluations and making some very tough decisions.

    Let's take a closer look at what should be some of the most hotly contested jobs on the 49ers' 53-man roster. We will pick a winner for each of these competitions and tell you why that player will win the job.

5. Fourth Wide Receiver

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    Quinton Patton was a fourth-round selection in the 2013 draft.
    Quinton Patton was a fourth-round selection in the 2013 draft.USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco 49ers have bolstered their wide receiver corps. Starters Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are back, and newly acquired Stevie Johnson appears ticketed to be the third receiver.

    There is stiff competition for jobs after those top three, with several viable candidates fighting for the fourth wide receiver spot. These candidates include Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington.

    Lloyd is the most intriguing of the three. He played 10 seasons in the NFL, including a stint from 2003-2005 with the 49ers. Over his career, Lloyd has 385 receptions for 5,695 yards and 35 touchdowns. He even led the league in receiving yards in 2010.

    However, Lloyd sat out the entire 2013 season and is attempting a comeback at the age of 33. He looked good in minicamp and OTAs, but that's a far cry from actually making plays in an NFL game.

    In his prime, Lloyd was a dynamic and productive receiver. Unfortunately, he has not always seen eye-to-eye with his coaching staff or team management. In the past, Lloyd has proven that he can be a malcontent and divisive presence if he's not happy.

    If Lloyd is to win a roster spot, the 49ers must use him and get him the ball. Failure to do so could serve to raise the level of drama in the 49ers' locker room and on the field.

    Unlike Lloyd who is a mercurial veteran, Quinton Patton is coming into his second NFL campaign. Although he showed promise in 2013 when given the chance, injuries dramatically limited his playing time.

    Patton was one of the most prolific receivers in college at Louisiana Tech; however, he made very minimal impact in his first NFL season.

    Unless Lloyd clearly outshines Patton, the 49ers will likely go with the younger player. Patton has more upside at this stage of his career than Lloyd. With Patton, there is also a lot less risk, as uncertainties about Lloyd being a team player are always lurking.

    The wild card in this competition is Bruce Ellington, who was selected in the fourth round of the recent draft. Trevor Woods of NinersNation.com breaks down Ellington's game.

    In his final season at South Carolina, Ellington caught 49 passes for 775 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Ellington has good hands, speed and quickness. He lasted until the 106th overall selection largely due to his small stature. Ellington is only 5'9" and 197 pounds.

    Ellington could ultimately be a fine slot receiver. However, to break into an established lineup as a rookie will prove to be very tough road for him. Look for Ellington to make his contribution on special teams this season.

     

    College stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

    NFL stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.

4. Return Man

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    Bruce Ellington will battle LaMichael James for his job as the 49ers' punt and kickoff returner.
    Bruce Ellington will battle LaMichael James for his job as the 49ers' punt and kickoff returner.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Two players will battle it out for the 49ers' punt and kickoff return job. The incumbent is LaMichael James, who is languishing deep down the depth chart as a running back. The challenger is fourth-round draft selection Bruce Ellington.

    The 49ers selected running back Carlos Hyde in the second round, which further pushes James down the depth chart. With a deep stable of running backs, including Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and Hyde, James' spot on the roster is very precarious.

    In 2013, James returned 12 kickoffs for 321 yards and 23 punts for 251 yards. Neither of these stats are particularly exciting. It appears as though the 49ers know what to expect from James, and, thus far, he has not done enough to stand out.

    If Ellington shows well in training camp, he stands a good chance of beating out James as the 49ers' main return man. His potential to ultimately contribute as a wide receiver is also greater than James' potential to contribute as a running back.

    Ellington was just placed on the non-football injury (NFI) list with an undisclosed injury. However, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, via KFFL, the injury does not appear to be serious. 

    Assuming this is nothing serious, look for Ellington to win this battle, and barring injury to any of the other running backs, James could be out looking for a job.

     

    Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.

3. Starting Right Cornerback

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    Chris Culliver missed all of the 2013 season with an ACL injury.
    Chris Culliver missed all of the 2013 season with an ACL injury.USA TODAY Sports

    The defensive backfield is the one area of the team that is very uncertain. The 49ers have plenty of bodies available, but the question is can one or two of those players rise to the challenge and seize the opportunity.

    No other position group on the San Francisco roster has so many question marks. Arguably the biggest question is who will start at the right cornerback position.

    There appear to be three main candidates, Chris Culliver, Darryl Morris and Chris Cook.

    Culliver is the favorite to win the starting job, but he is not a sure thing, at this point. Culliver last played in Super Bowl XLVII, following the 2012 season. He was torched by Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, as the Baltimore Ravens went on to a 34-31 victory.

    Prior to that game, Culliver was skewered by the media for his homophobic remarks, and that may have played a role in his abysmal performance. Then, in 2013, Culliver tore his ACL prior to the season and missed the entire year.

    Earlier this year, Culliver was involved in an alleged hit-and-run vehicle accident. In the incident, he is also alleged to have threatened another motorist, who was trying to detain him, with physical harm, while wielding brass knuckles. The outcome of this case is still pending.

    It has been a very tumultuous 16 months for Culliver and getting back on the football field would likely be a sanctuary for him. 

    Culliver will need to prove that his knee is fully healed, and he has the same speed and explosiveness that he possessed prior to his injury. In addition, the durability of that knee will be an ongoing question mark. 

    In the 2012 season, Culliver showed signs of becoming a decent cornerback. His style can best be described as brash and high risk. He typically plays with an edge, much like Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. The one difference is that Sherman is an elite cornerback, and Culliver is not.

    Culliver's overly aggressive style would periodically get him into trouble, as he would tend to "bite" on short out or hitch moves, making him susceptible to getting beat deep. 

    Culliver also did a lot of trash-talking and sometimes crossed the line with his extracurricular antics. Not only does trash-talking look bad when you're getting beat, but his overly aggressive play sometimes resulted in penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct or personal fouls.

    In addition to playing the nickel cornerback spot, Culliver also started six games in 2012. He had two interceptions and 40 tackles. 

    Culliver will get the first shot at holding down the right cornerback spot, and only time will tell if he can handle it, both from a physical, as well as an emotional and professional perspective.

    If Culliver wavers, the door will burst open for Morris and Cook. Morris was on the San Francisco roster in 2013, but he rarely played, save for some special teams appearances. He is a good athlete but very raw and unproven.

    General manager Trent Baalke signed former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook as a free agent. A former 2010 second-round draft pick, Cook struggled in his four seasons with the Vikings.

    The 49ers are hoping that a change of scenery and Ed Donatell's coaching will enable Cook to fulfill his earlier promise. If so, Cook will become a viable candidate for the starting job.

     

    All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.

2. Nickel or Slot Cornerback

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    Jimmie Ward will compete for the 49ers' nickel cornerback job.
    Jimmie Ward will compete for the 49ers' nickel cornerback job.USA TODAY Sports

    The 49ers' first-round draft pick, the 30th overall selection, was defensive back Jimmie Ward. He was expected to compete with veteran Eric Wright for the nickel or slot corner position. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Wright surprised everyone by retiring, leaving this position very thin. 

    Ward attended minicamp, but he did not get on the field. He had surgery on his foot in March, which was still healing. Via Marc Sessler of NFL.com, Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reported Ward has been cleared for full participation in training camp. 

    It will be important for Ward to get out on the practice field and get the reps needed to prove to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio that he can do the job.

    The nickel corner is used in roughly two-thirds of the 49ers' defensive plays, so this is a critical position. If Ward has a setback with his foot, or incurs another injury, this spells big trouble for the 49ers.

    With Wright no longer on the team, Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris will also compete for playing time at the nickel corner spot.

    Cox has been on the fringes of the 49ers defense for the past couple of years, but he has not really made an impact. He seems best suited for a dime-back role, but he could be thrust into the nickel if Ward falters.

    Morris is largely unproven but has a lot of athleticism. He basically sat on the sidelines and watched in 2013, his first NFL season. If he learned his lessons well, he will also have a chance to win the job, if he is not starting at right cornerback.

    Make no mistake, however, the 49ers would like to see Ward emerge as the clear winner of this competition. They invested their first-round pick in him, and like in 2013 with Eric Reid, the hope is that Ward will become an impact player.

1. Starting Center

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    Marcus Martin will challenge Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job.
    Marcus Martin will challenge Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    For the past three seasons, Jonathan Goodwin started and played in every game as the 49ers' center. This offseason, Goodwin departed via the free-agent market, and the 49ers started looking for options at the center position.

    Daniel Kilgore has been a reserve lineman since 2011. He has worked at both the center and guard positions, but he saw his primary action as a blocking back in the 49ers' run-oriented jumbo package.

    In three NFL seasons, Kilgore has yet to start a game. When injuries opened up playing-time opportunities on the line, the 49ers went with Joe Looney or journeyman Adam Snyder. This is a red flag, as Kilgore was not called upon when the 49ers needed a lineman.

    Baalke made USC center Marcus Martin the first of their two third-round selections. Martin was the 70th player chosen and will compete with Kilgore for the starting job. This will be one of the most important decisions that head coach Jim Harbaugh will need to make.

    The center makes all of the offensive-line blocking assignment calls for blitz pickups. So, in addition to being able to handle the job physically, he must also make the correct calls for the line. Offensive-line continuity and being in sync is critical to the success of the 49ers' offense. 

    As a rookie, Martin will have some growing pains, but by the same token, Kilgore is also unproven. He has also never played a full NFL season, so durability may become an issue. 

    Martin may win this job outright, but even if he doesn't, look for him to be the starter at some point this year.

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