49ers: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit After 1st Week of Camp
The San Francisco 49ers' training camp is almost a week old, with their preparations for the 2014 season well underway.
Jim Harbaugh's men have lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, coming agonizingly close to fulfilling the dream of securing a sixth NFL title.
It has long been accepted that the 49ers have one of the best rosters in the league.
And their resources were boosted significantly by a draft that saw San Francisco bring in 12 rookies and strike a trade to acquire wide receiver Steve Johnson from the Buffalo Bills.
There is depth in almost every area of this team, but already there have been changes made to the roster following some early injury setbacks.
So which position group stacks up as the strongest following the first week of camp?
Here I try to answer that question by grading every 49ers position unit by evaluating the quality of its starters at that spot and the strength in depth San Francisco has at its disposal at each position.
Quarterback: C +
The position unit on the 49ers that is perhaps the most difficult to gauge is the quarterback spot.
With his frightening speed and rocket of an arm, Kaepernick is perhaps the most exciting of all the dual-threat signal-callers in the NFL, although division rival Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks can afford to call himself the best of that group following his Super Bowl success.
Although Kaepernick has one of the best all-around skill sets in the NFL, he still has a long way to go if he is to establish himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the league.
The former Nevada man ended the 2013 season with over 3,000 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions, earning a passer rating of 91.6, and while there continue to be concerns over his tendency to stare down receivers and fail to go through progressions, his time in San Francisco to date has been mightily impressive.
Save for the game-ending interception against the Seahawks in last season's NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick has been superb when it counts in the playoffs and has four postseason wins to his name at this stage in his young career.
The 49ers will still hope to iron out the kinks in Kaepernick's game; however, it is the lack of depth below him that drags the 49ers down to a C at the game's most important position.
Last season Colt McCoy served as the primary backup and was never called into action; this year Blaine Gabbert is the man tasked with the role of main reserve.
A first-round pick in 2011 out of Missouri, Gabbert endured three disastrous seasons in North Florida, playing just three games in his final year with the Jags as Chad Henne took the reins.
Gabbert is arguably one of the worst backup quarterbacks in the league but may not have to do much to ensure the No. 2 spot due to the lack of experience behind him.
Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson are the signal-callers competing for the prospective third-string job after undrafted free agent Kory Faulkner was waived.
Harbaugh recently complimented the group by stating that he has "four NFL quarterbacks" on the roster.
But, despite Harbaugh's apparent faith in Gabbert, Johnson and Bethel-Thompson—the latter of whom does not have any regular-season experience—there is little to suggest that any of the trio could fill in should Kaepernick go down, and that is why this unit cannot receive anything more than a C.
Running Back: A
Heading into training camp, the 49ers may have had the best running back depth in football.
However, it can be argued training camp injuries have somewhat altered that fact after Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James both went down.
Those injuries have forced the Niners to bring in another body at the position in former Arizona Cardinal Alfonso Smith.
Looking at the bigger picture, Hunter's injury puts more pressure on the other young 49ers backs who are competing for carries behind an ageing Frank Gore.
Gore put up a seventh 1,000-yard season in eight years in 2013 and was once again pivotal to the fortunes of a San Francisco offense that relies first and foremost on the ground game.
San Francisco will be delighted if Gore can continue that kind of form at the age of 31, but the 49ers' all-time leading rusher could well need some help in wearing down defenses from the younger members of the backfield.
In Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore the 49ers possess arguably the two best backs from the last two drafts, although the latter has already been placed on the physically unable to perform list.
Hyde has an intriguing blend of size, vision, patience and toughness, and although he does not have blistering speed, he appears to have the best skill set of any of the players hoping to eat into Gore's workload.
Meanwhile, Lattimore—who missed the entirety of his rookie year as he recovered from the second of two serious knee injuries sustained in his collegiate career—also possesses a number of traits that should have Niner fans salivating.
Lattimore's speed and elusiveness led him to rack up to over 2,600 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns with the South Carolina Gamecocks.
It will be up to that pair and James—once he returns from injury—to fill the void left by established backup Hunter.
Prior to his injury, James had bulked up to 208 pounds in the offseason, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, adding more power to his frame to go with his blistering speed.
Should he recover as expected, James has the potential to give the 49ers another dynamic option in the backfield after largely seeing his playing time restricted to special teams in 2013.
The absence of Hunter could also bring Jewel Hampton, who had previously been seen as little more than an outsider in the running back competition, into the fray.
There is no doubting that Hunter's injury is a big blow to the 49ers' cause; however, their backfield remains one of the most dangerous in the NFL, especially when you factor in the presence of fullback Bruce Miller, who has proved to be an extremely useful threat in the passing game.
The grade may drop should the likes of Hyde and Lattimore fail to deliver, but for now this is a position unit with stacks of talent and potential and one that is fully deserving of an A grade.
Wide Receiver: A -
Last season, it would have been difficult to contemplate giving the 49ers wide receiver corps an overly positive grade.
With Michael Crabtree out injured for much of the campaign, the only wideout Colin Kaepernick trusted was Anquan Boldin, who posted a 1,000-yard campaign following his trade from the Baltimore Ravens.
Boldin has been retained for a further two years, giving San Francisco an experienced and physical receiver with the ability to compete on the outside and in the slot.
Furthermore, Crabtree now appears to be fully fit, having looked back to his best during the 2013 playoffs.
Harbaugh lavished praise on his other leading receiver in the postseason, labeling him as the "best catcher ever," and the former first-round pick has already received plaudits from Kaepernick for his showings in training camp.
What was evident last season is that the 49ers did not have much in the way of depth beneath Crabtree and Boldin, but now on paper they have one of the top receiving cores in the NFL.
San Francisco achieved this by acquiring Steve Johnson in a draft-day trade with the Buffalo Bills.
Before last term, Johnson had been one of the most consistent wideouts in the league, recording 1,000-yard seasons in the three previous campaigns.
The 49ers will hope that returning to his hometown will help Johnson rediscover that form, but while their top three receivers are as good as any in the NFL, what bumps the Niners down to an A- is the fact that they still do not have a definitive deep threat.
Bruce Ellington was drafted if the fourth round, and Brandon Lloyd was brought back in free agency, joining the team as potential candidates to stretch the field.
There is little risk in giving Ellington or Lloyd—who totaled 911 receiving yards and scored four touchdowns with the New England Patriots in 2012 before taking a year out of the game—a shot to try to become the go-to guy on deep routes.
Yet, there is a danger that the Niners passing attack will have a lack of variation if neither Ellington nor Lloyd is able to impress enough to win a significant role on the offense.
Quinton Patton is another who will be out to impress following an injury-plagued rookie year in a receiving corps that now has considerable strength in depth.
The lack of an established deep threat demotes this group from receiving an A, yet there can no longer be any doubt that this is one of the top crews in the league.
Tight End: B
With his holdout now over, Vernon Davis will attempt to prove that he is worthy of a contract extension by displaying the quality he has demonstrated for the majority of his time in the NFL.
A player with a frightening combination of size and speed, no one in the league would argue that Davis isn't one of the best tight ends in the game.
However, much like the situation at quarterback, there appears to be little for the 49ers to get excited about behind the starter at the position, and that is why this position group only receives a B.
For the unit to receive an A, Vance McDonald needs to show significant improvement on his performances in 2013.
McDonald excelled as a run-blocker, ranking at No. 19 among all tight ends in the league in that aspect of his game, according to PFF.
However, he was never really a factor in the passing game, struggling to fill the void left by the departure of Delanie Walker.
San Francisco will hope that is the case and that McDonald is able to make strides and provide its offense with another substantial threat in the passing game.
Behind McDonald, Garrett Celek, Derek Carrier and Asante Cleveland will be competing for the No. 3 spot.
Harbaugh has already made the 49ers' high expectations for McDonald clear, and for San Francisco to receive an A at this spot in 2015, he will have to meet them.
Offensive Line: A
With three former first-round picks starting on the 49ers offensive line, it is not difficult to see why the unit is rated as one of the best in football.
One of those first-round picks, Joe Staley, has developed into arguably the top left tackle in league, receiving a two-year contract extension for play that has seen him named as an All-Pro for each of the last three seasons.
On the other side of the line Anthony Davis has shook off early difficulties and is now a consistent performer, while on the inside Mike Iupati and Alex Boone have been key to the 49ers' proficiency in running the ball.
There is cause concern on the interior line, however, with Boone holding out from training camp and no definitive starter at the center position following veteran Jonathan Goodwin's departure.
At center the fight to replace Goodwin will be between Daniel Kilgore and exciting rookie Marcus Martin, rated by many as the best center in the 2014 class but a player the 49ers managed to pick up in the third round.
It is perhaps a risk to have a rookie and a third-year player who has yet to start in his career as the only candidates for a key position in the middle of the line.
But the positive for San Francisco is that both Martin and Kilgore have the versatility to play guard, meaning the prospective loser of that battle could fill in for Boone should his holdout remain unresolved come Week 1.
Despite the issue surrounding Boone and the lack of an experienced center, this is a unit stacked with depth, potential and versatility and is fully deserving of an A grade.
Few players illustrate the Niners' depth on the line better than backup guard Joe Looney, who saw the first action of his career against the Washington Redskins and St Louis Rams last season and has already been credited by Harbaugh with delivering "a wow moment" in camp, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Furthermore, veteran Adam Snyder—in his second stint with the 49ers—and Jonathan Martin provide further flexibility with their ability to play at either guard or tackle.
Beyond that duo the likes of Ryan Seymour, Al Netter, Dillon Farrell and Carter Bykowski have slim chances of a roster spot.
The 49ers offensive line has some issues to deal with in the lead up to the season, yet even if Boone is not lining up at the start of the regular season, it is still one of the best protection units in football.
And what is most impressive is about this group is that with tackle and third-round pick Brandon Thomas—who may have been a late first or early second-round selection if not for a torn ACL suffered in this year's predraft process—likely to compete for playing time in 2015, this is a line that has plenty of scope for improvement and will likely remain as an A-grade unit for many years to come.
Defensive Line: B +
The 49ers are not as deep on the defensive side of the trenches as they are on the offensive line.
San Francisco's defensive line is still one of the top units in the NFL, with Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey forming a formidable trio up front.
This defensive line unit is more than deserving of a B+ and perhaps in some people's minds an A.
Yet what prevents this group from receiving the top mark is that it is an ageing group that will require some quality performances from its second string for the 34-year-old Smith and the soon-to-be 30-year-old McDonald to remain consistently effective.
That should not be a difficulty at the nose tackle spot, with former first-round pick Dorsey—who excelled at the position in Ian Williams' stead last term—set to battle with Williams for the starting spot for the second year running.
The presence of Dorsey and Williams gives the 49ers a strong-looking rotation at nose tackle, although that is not such a guarantee at defensive end.
Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs both performed well in reserve last year; however, it is debatable whether either will be able to have the same impact in 2014 or if the latter will even be on the team.
Instead the 49ers may have to bet on the potential of the likes of Quinton Dial and Cornellius "Tank" Carradine coming to fruition after each endured injury-hit rookie years.
Dial played in just three games in his maiden season, while former Florida State star Carradine effectively redshirted and did not play a single down.
Both players are thought of highly by the 49ers and, per Williamson, have already impressed at camp, with Carradine described as "fantastic" in the early part of camp.
Former British Olympian Lawrence Okoye has also caught the eye, while seventh-round pick Kaleb Ramsey looked strong in offseason workouts, according to Williamson.
There is no guarantee the signs of promise in the offseason will translate into consistent performances once the real action gets going, yet the talent their young linemen possess should excite the 49ers and could be what bumps them up to an A at this position come next year.
Is any team more stacked at linebacker than the 49ers?
The short answer is a firm and emphatic no.
Last year, the 49ers had two All-Pros in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman starting on the inside, with pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith and another Pro Bowler in Ahmad Brooks on the outside, although Smith missed five games due to his well documented off-the-field issues.
Smith will miss more time should the league choose to suspend him for his most recent misdemeanors.
However, the punishment is expected to be lenient after he was granted an effective reprieve from his DUI and weapons charges, receiving a 12-day jail sentence, which can be served on a work crew on Mondays, with a one-day credit.
Despite his off-the-field difficulties, Smith—per Williamson—recently stated he is in "the best shape ever," a statement that should have 49er fans in raptures, given that Smith at his best led the league in sacks with 19.5 in 2012.
With all members 100 percent healthy, this is a starting core worthy of an A+ grade.
Unfortunately, with Bowman still recuperating from his torn ACL and MCL suffered in last season's NFC Championship Game, this is a group that does not have its full resources at its disposal.
In spite of Bowman's absence, this is still arguably the best linebacking core in the league.
That is because the 49ers have plenty of options capable of filling in for their starters on the inside and the outside.
Few teams will have more talent competing to replace a player at a position than the 49ers, who have Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland, Shayne Skov and Nick Moody fighting for Bowman's spot.
Front-runner Wilhoite has the advantage of familiarity, having already excelled when playing in reserve of Willis, while rookies Borland and Skov, although the latter went undrafted, come into the league following superb collegiate careers.
Borland was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in his final season at Wisconsin, and Skov rebounded from a torn ACL, MCL and broken tibia in 2011 to be earn first-team All-Pac 12 honors in 2013.
On the outside, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier have the talent to come in and potentially replace Smith, as they displayed perfectly in 2013 when he missed time last season.
Further competition comes courtesy of rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch, activated from the PUP list on Sunday, and Chase Thomas—a former Stanford linebacker who, along with fellow Cardinal alumnus Skov, has already earned praise from Harbaugh.
If Bowman is healthy, this is unquestionably the best linebacking crew in football. Now it all depends on whether his prospective replacement can keep it that way.
San Francisco seems to have considerable depth at almost every position on the field.
But the one area where that is not the case is in the secondary, where an offseason upheaval has left the unit looking far from secure.
Safety Donte Whitner departed for the Cleveland Browns in free agency, and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers both moved across the Bay to become Oakland Raiders.
The 49ers secondary now has an almost completely different look to the one that lined up in Super Bowl XLVII.
It is difficult to feel too secure in any of the starters in the secondary, particularly at the cornerback position.
Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver have already been lining up as the first-team corners in camp and appear poised to be the starting duo in 2014.
Brock has earned the role with his play last season, which saw him record five interceptions, but there is more doubt over Culliver, who has not played since that Super Bowl defeat due to an ACL injury and could yet face a suspension following a hit-and-run incident in San Jose in March.
The situation is not much better at nickel, a position that is likely to be filled by rookie Jimmie Ward should he win the competition with Perrish Cox and special teams ace Darryl Morris.
Ward was a playmaker in college with Northern Illinois and has already grabbed an interception in training camp, displaying some of the prowess that convinced the Niners to take him in the first round.
Regardless of Ward's early impression, the fact the 49ers appear set to immediately rely on Ward speaks volumes about their depth at cornerback, which also contains a further two rookies in Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker.
Niner fans can have more faith in the starters at safety, with free safety Eric Reid looking to build on a rookie year in which he was named to the Pro Bowl after making an instant impact.
He will have another experienced player at his side at strong safety in the form of free-agent signing Antoine Bethea, although it remains to be seen whether he can fill the void left by Whitner, who was ranked at No. 7 at the position by PFF in 2013, a full 43 places above Bethea.
Furthermore, much like at corner, the reserves—which include special teamers C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone and Craig Dahl—are far from impressive.
With Reid, Brock and potentially Ward, San Francisco has some exciting young starters in the secondary, but there is just not enough in terms of strength in depth for this unit to receive anything other than an average C.
Special Teams: B
Special teams is an area that has long been one of the 49ers' strengths.
San Francisco has proven adept in the third facet of the game in recent years, and it would be a shock if that was not the case in 2014.
With a kicker in Phil Dawson who missed just four attempts in his maiden season with the team and veteran four-time All-Pro Andy Lee at the punter spot, it is not difficult to see why the 49ers' special teams have been so impressive.
Furthermore, Michael Wilhoite was rated as the No. 6 special teamer in the league by PFF, while the likes of Kassim Osgood, Bubba Ventrone and C.J. Spillman were superb in kick coverage in 2013.
The 49ers have also prepared for Wilhoite's prospective step up to defense by bringing back special teams ace Blake Costanzo, rated at No. 12 in special teams by PFF in 2013 when with the Chicago Bears.
Simply put, the 49ers have all the tools for an A-grade special teams unit except at one key spot, return man.
The lack of an elite returner is the only deficiency holding their special teams back from an A, and there is no guarantee that one will emerge for the 49ers in 2014.
James solidified the position last season and finished the season at No. 16 in PFF's ratings among all return men in the league, but the injury he suffered last Sunday will see his preparations for the new season severely hampered.
The absence of James could allow rookie Bruce Ellington, who fielded kicks at an average of 22.7 yards per return during his career with South Carolina, the chance to impress and make his case for starting his career in that role.
But, regardless of who is lining up deep come Week 1, the fact remains he will need to perform to an elite level for the 49ers' special teams unit to be deserving of an A.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.
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