Top 5 49ers Training Camp Questions and Projections
With training camp scheduled to start in late July, here are projections for the top-five 49ers camp battles, in no particular order.
1. Who will step up in the place of Matt Breida, and potentially Raheem Mostert?
This past April, the 49ers traded Breida on draft day to the Miami Dolphins. In exchange, the 49ers received a fifth-round pick, which ended up being Colton McKivitz, a guard from West Virginia. Fast forward three months, and breakout star Mostert has requested a trade.
Will the 49ers have to find a replacement for both Breida and Mostert? My guess is no. Mostert will play (or holdout) for the team this year, whether he likes it or not. Hopefully the team gives him the pay raise he deserves, but if they don’t, it is still hard to imagine them trading Mostert.
It is unlikely that in return for Mostert, the team will receive respectable trade compensation. The 49ers are better off letting his contract situation play out, and I feel it will eventually work out in the team’s favor one way or another.
Assuming Mostert is back with the team, who steps up in the absence of Breida?
There are a plethora of running backs who you could make strong cases for.
Jerick McKinnon is supposedly as healthy as he’s ever been since signing with the team. This is encouraging, but he never consistently has possessed the big-play ability on the ground like we’ve seen from Breida. McKinnon has averaged just 4 yards per carry over the course of his career, while Breida has averaged 5 yards per carry.
McKinnon’s pass-catching ability will be a tremendous addition to the offense, but don’t expect him to match Breida’s big-play ability or efficiency in the run game.
Jeff Wilson Jr. is respected throughout the organization and fan base. However, his sample size is extremely small. Last season, Wilson mostly was used in goal-line situations, and occasionally deployed as a receiver out of the backfield. He will most certainly have more opportunities than ever before, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will see more production.
Salvon Ahmed and JaMycal Hasty are two undrafted running backs, who both have decorated college backgrounds. Ahmed leads all running backs with at least 300 carries in yards per attempt (5.7), throughout Washington Huskies history. Hasty is a solid pass catching back, who caught at least 25 passes between his sophomore and senior year.
My guess is Ahmed will be the under-the-radar running back who generates buzz throughout camp this year, just like we saw from Breida in 2017 and Wilson in 2018.
Ahmed compliments the other running backs extremely well, and seems like a likely candidate to steal a roster spot. With Coleman’s high salary and Mostert’s trade request, a lot is going right for Ahmed to wiggle his way on to the regular season roster.
2. Who will emerge as the next reliable receiver?
This question used to be what six (or seven) receivers would make the team. Not anymore. Since the injury to Deebo Samuel, this question is now what receiver will emerge as a reliable and dependable target for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Kendrick Bourne, in my opinion, has solidified himself as a starting receiver. That starting spot next to him is completely up for grabs, now that Samuel will more than likely be sidelined to begin the year.
Even when Samuel returns, it is vital to the 49ers offense that someone is established as the No. 3 receiver. Last season, Bourne did a tremendous job in that role as he kept the chains moving and finished drives in the red zone.
Brandon Aiyuk, Dante Pettis, Jalen Hurd, and Trent Taylor are possibilities when talking about who could step up.
Aiyuk may struggle to establish himself off the bat, as this is a challenging time for all rookies. Last season, Samuel didn’t break out until Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks. Having Aiyuk breakout any sooner may be wishful thinking.
Pettis had a tremendous end to his rookie season. However, he completely under achieved as a sophomore. Having spent time with the team this offseason, which included an appearance at 49ers Covid Camp, he looks determined to have a bigger role this year.
Pettis has all the potential in the world to become a legit NFL wide receiver -- it's just a matter of how badly he wants to become a legit NFL receiver.
Hurd flashed unbelievable potential throughout camp and the preseason last year and left 49ers fans salivating for more. Hopefully for the 49ers, Hurd can indeed give more this year. With his background at running back, he has a similar skill set to Samuel. The best ability is availability, and Hurd needs to establish he can stay healthy before we use his name in the same sentence as reliable.
Taylor is in a similar boat as Hurd. He has failed to possess the most important ability -- availability. There are major concerns around his ability to stay healthy. A healthy Taylor gives Garoppolo a best friend on third down, which is essential towards keeping drives alive.
My guess is that Aiyuk is the receiver who emerges right off the bat. Despite the challenges of learning the playbook virtually, Wes Welker will be sure to have Aiyuk locked in ready to go for the start of camp. Aiyuk may not receive a ton at first, but expect him to have a major impact when he’s on the field.
3. Who will win the swing tackle job?
Trent Williams has been in the NFL since 2010, and since then he has only played a full-16-game season twice. There have been seven seasons in which he has missed two games or more. Chances are he’ll miss time at some point throughout the 2020 season.
Mike McGlinchey has missed four games in two seasons, but for the most part has been durable. Nonetheless, the team needs a Plan B in case one of the starting tackles goes down.
The swing tackle, or backup tackle job, most likely will go to Shon Coleman or Justin Skule. There is also the possibility the team moves Dan Brunskill to tackle, and plugs in Ben Garland at guard. For consistency's sake, it is more likely the team will keep Brunskill at guard, unless the tackle play between Coleman and Skule is subpar.
Coleman missed the entire 2019 season with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Skule filled in admirably throughout the absence of both McGlinchey and Staley.
Considering Skule played well last year and comes at a cheaper price than Coleman, expect him to win the swing tackle job. The 2019 sixth-round pick is looking like another solid late-round selection for Lynch.
4. Who will start at the WILL linebacker spot?
Fred Warner starting at the MIKE linebacker spot is set in stone -- he is an emerging star. However, the WILL spot is completely up for grabs. It comes down to Dre Greenlaw and Kwon Alexander.
Both are extremely deserving, but only one can join Warner as an every down linebacker. Alexander is more athletic and explosive, while Greenlaw is more steady and sound.
Pick your poison. It is possible the 49ers have a committee approach to the position, and alternate between Alexander and Greenlaw as every down linebackers.
Alexander: 11 Games - 37 tackles (2 for loss) - 4 passes defensed - 1 interception - 1 forced fumble
Greenlaw: 19 games - 106 tackles (3 for loss) - 2 passes defensed - 1 interception - 1 forced fumble
Greenlaw is young and extremely promising, but I’m expecting Alexander to win the camp battle. The 49ers will more than likely part ways with him come 2021, so this is the year to get as much out of him as possible.
Financials aside, Alexander brings more to the defense as a leader. He brings nonstop energy, which is contagious. Alexander will only be 26 years old when the season starts, and is still developing at the position. If he becomes a more consistent tackler, watch out. He can fly all over the field with his 4.5 speed.
5. Will Ahkello Witherspoon get his starting job back?
Emmanuel Moseley was one of the more pleasant surprises last season. He played so well, it was easy to forget how well Witherspoon had played to begin the year. Witherspoon has always possessed the physical traits and athletic ability Robert Saleh wants from his corners. The negatives have been a matter of consistently being able to piece it all together.
Witherspoon joins Richard Sherman and K’Wuan Williams as unrestricted free agents come 2021. With George Kittle and Trent Williams’ contracts set to expire as well, the team would really benefit from Witherspoon stepping up so they don’t have to pay Sherman.
Focusing on 2020, it seems unlikely that Witherspoon will leapfrog Moseley and start opposite of Sherman. Best case scenario, Witherspoon is a rotational/spot outside corner, and plays at a high level. A level high enough that the team is comfortable moving on from Sherman. Nonetheless, expect Witherspoon to begin the year behind Sherman and Moseley.
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