It was a great four-day run for the players who got drafted, but now there are several 49ers who should feel quite worried about their job security. The roster needs a good housecleaning, and many players who were on the 2015 team that went 5-11 will not be on the 53-man roster to start the 2016 season.
Many departing players are easy to pick out — guys who went undrafted and barely played last season, for instance. But in this post I’m going to focus on the prominent players in danger of losing their roster spots. Mind you, prominent doesn’t necessarily mean good. I’m simply referring to players who played significant snaps for the team in 2015, or were drafted in the first three rounds in recent years.
OL: Erik Pears, Brandon Thomas, Marcus Martin, Andrew Tiller, Trent Brown and Jordan Devey
The 49ers drafted three offensive linemen: first round guard Joshua Garnett (guaranteed to make the team) and fifth round tackles John Theus and Fahn Cooper (not quite guaranteed, but likely to make the team). Throw in Zane Beadles as a replacement for Alex Boone, and the starting lineup could look like this from left to right:
Joe Staley/Garnett/Daniel Kilgore/Beadles/???
The 49ers could have Garnett and Beadles switch sides. As for right tackle, who knows? Brown has a shot. But like Tiller, he’s more of a power-attack mauler than a nimble lineman who would probably be a better fit better in Chip Kelly’s scheme, which calls for a lot of zone blocking (and well-conditioned linemen who don’t mind working at a fast tempo). Theus and Cooper will get every opportunity to start or become this year’s swing tackle.
Pears didn’t play well at tackle throughout most of the 2015 season, but he performed decently enough after being moved to guard. His versatility is a plus, and while he’s making good money, the 49ers have the cap space to keep him if he makes the team based on merit. Devey would have to suddenly get a lot better between now and August to make this team.
The easy knock on Thomas: he hasn’t played an NFL snap. The easy knock on Martin (pictured above): we’ve seen him play too many NFL snaps and he doesn’t have the strength required to perform the job at a passable level.
Overall, this looks to be a much better line than last year’s, simply because the 49ers have options. Last year they not only had fewer available players, but the coaches chose the wrong players to start from the outset. Now the “right” players could be those with entirely different skill sets, so the competition should be interesting this summer.
The 49ers picked up Eric Reid’s fifth-year option, giving them four safeties. No big deal, right? Except they drafted three cornerbacks over the weekend, which puts into question whether they see Jimmie Ward as a full-time nickel corner or if they’d like to see him play safety. Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are going to play in 2016, as will Reid, another high draft pick. So where does that leave Bethea, who has performed well as a 49er but doesn’t seem like a fit as a 10-year vet on a rebuilding team?
It’s possible the 49ers go status quo with a twist: Reid and Bethea as the starting safeties, Ward remains at his current position of slot corner, and Tartt moves to middle linebacker. We’ll probably get a clue about their plans for Tartt based on how big he is as the months progress. If he’s heavier than his listed playing weight of 221 pounds, he might be changing positions. And that would mean added competition for Gerald Hodges, Michael Wilhoite, Shayne Skov and Nick Bellore to see who’ll pair up with NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman proved last year that he can still diagnose running plays and make tackles, but he was a liability in coverage. Wilhoite isn’t exactly a great coverage guy either. Wilhoite and Hodges make the same amount in 2016 ($1,617,000). But if they only keep one, the smart money’s on Hodges, since he’s four years younger and showed more promise in 2015.
Eli Harold has reportedly gained a considerable amount of weight (mostly muscle, we can probably assume), which indicates he got the message after not showing much during his rookie year. Lemonier is the defensive version of Martin, a third-rounder who has been a total bust thus far.
The 49ers already started the process of transitioning Carradine to outside linebacker at the end of last season, effectively admitting their mistake in making him a 3-4 defensive end. But even if they were tempted to keep him at his previous position to add depth to their defensive line, taking DeForest Buckner in the first round and Ronald Blair (perhaps their most interesting Day 3 prospect) in the fifth means there isn’t much room in the defensive end rotation for Carradine. And if there’s a battle between Carradine and Lemonier for one of the outside linebacker spots, Carradine is going to win.
As for Glenn Dorsey (not an outside linebacker, but I’m going to end with him anyway), the 49ers can create about $2 million in cap space by cutting him, but it seems more likely that he’d start the year on the active/PUP list while recovering from his torn ACL.