The heart of the 49ers' roster heading into 2018 is pretty well known. But when you tally it up, they still have a number of starting, specialty and reserve spots to be won. And that's an important part, is how this roster fills in around stars like Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Staley, DeForest Buckner, and the first-year breakouts from last year.
What's great about a new regime being in place, too, building off a successful first year, is that things aren't stale and are in fact looking up. They're also eager to fill out and upgrade the roster, so it should still be a pure competition with no favorites, meaning anyone could seize an opportunity.
For this article, we're going to venture further down the depth chart, looking at some bottom-of-the-roster players that could surprise in camp, and come out a winner, whether that means they earn a place contributing on the active game day roster or a spot to develop on the practice squad.
Steven Dunbar, WR
The identity of the 49ers’ receiving corps is still forming, and everyone will have a chance to make their case, including Steven Dunbar.
The rookie UDFA out of the University of Houston literally stands out among the 49ers’ group of receivers, checking in as their largest wideout at 6-foot-3, 202 pounds. The tallest receiver on their active roster in 2017 was 6-foot-1 (Kendrick Bourne, Aaron Burbridge). This year the battle for the size receiver role, if there’s truly one to be had, will be between Dunbar and Max McCaffrey.
Now, given what the 49ers invested this offseason at wide receiver, plus what they’re bringing back, the odds of Dunbar making the 53-man roster do appear slim already. But it wouldn’t be a shock if he performed well enough to warrant some attention, and perhaps a spot on the practice squad. Remember, they kept two UDFA receivers last year.
If Dunbar is on par with them, and offers something different, they may even structure their cuts to keep a seventh receiver.
And he might be that good. Football analyst Matt Waldman is a believer, and did a great job of characterizing Dunbar by highlighting his intense run blocking, hands catching ability, and balance in run-after-catch situations. These are all traits that can help Dunbar early on in 49ers camp, and make for a competitive battle at WR6.
Pita Taumoepenu, LB/EDGE
Taumoepenu lacks hype, making him an underdog for the 49ers. Over the entire offseason, in all the discussions about pass rush and the team’s need to add a linebacker and find a Leo, his name was rarely, if ever, brought up. And now with the re-signing of Cassius Marsh, and the additions of Jeremiah Attaochu and Korey Toomer, it seems Taumoepenu is even more so in the back of people’s minds.
But it sounds like the sixth rounder from 2017 will get some snaps. Coordinator Robert Saleh said he sees him at Sam and Leo, and believes "he will be very hard to keep off the field." So even though he's not being talked about, if he performs well, he can be featured over Eli Harold at Sam and compete for snaps with Marsh and Attaochu at Leo.
Another note on Taumoepenu's development since his rookie year is that he recently put on 10 pounds. It should help him hold up better in the NFL and be stronger at the point of attack. Taumoepenu was also able to bring his weight up while maintaining his get-off too, according to Saleh, which is what his primary tool is when it comes to pass rush.
Look for him to fight for a game day role in the front seven.
Ronald Blair, LB/EDGE
What a tough journey it’s been for Blair. It started with his draft process in 2016. He had a hamstring strain and a real slow 40; he was a major tweener defensive lineman with no defined position entering the pros, with some even wondering if he could play linebacker. Between the combine and his pro day, Blair dropped 14 pounds in what was a month’s time.
All of this contributed to his fall to the fifth round in 2016.
The rocky road then continued in the NFL.
Blair went from being a versatile attacker in Appalachian State’s 3-4 front to a two-gapping defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4. As a rookie, he had three sacks as a rotational defensive lineman (16 games). The next year, the 49ers brought in a new regime which called for a 4-3 under base scheme on defense, impacting a player like Blair who was already in the middle of committing to an NFL role. This would mean a change in line techniques, philosophies, responsibilities and potentially his body type.
Nevertheless, Blair performed in Robert Saleh’s defense in 2017, picking up another two sacks in just six appearances this time.
Still, it seems Blair has been hampered and has had to change course so many times that he hasn’t really had a chance to get in a groove and get his career off the ground. He’s still by and large an unknown commodity. He might not wind up being anything special on his own, but if he can finally settle in, there’s a chance he claims a spot as a contributor in San Francisco’s remodeled defensive front.
Keep in mind, Blair was a four-year starter at App State, a two-year captain, a leader and focal point on defense who could play all over the line, and one who dominated in big games, including one against Deshaun Watson’s Clemson Tigers. Blair was also given a third-round grade by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, and Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout had him as a top-40 talent in the 2016 class.
Truthfully, the window is wide open for Blair to finally find himself and create a role with the 49ers as a linebacker, defensive tackle, edge or all of the above.
Tarvarus McFadden, CB
It seems likely both K'Waun Williams and D.J. Reed are the two inside corners the 49ers run with in 2018, leaving them to figure out who comes off the bench first on the boundary behind Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. One of the options with the most potential there is former FSU starting corner Tarvarus McFadden.
McFadden, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, was a priority UDFA signing for the 49ers this year, and at a position on their roster that experienced the most turnover and attention this offseason. So right off the bat, he should be expected to compete for a roster spot. He also has quite the pedigree.
McFadden recorded an NCAA-high eight interceptions in 2016, and backed that up with 14 passes defensed. He was first-team All-AAC, and brought home the Jack Tatum Award that year, a trophy given to the top defensive back in the nation. We also know the DB standard of Florida State, with star players like Lamarcus Joyner, Ronald Darby, Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes and more all transitioning well to the pro level.
Seeing as how the Niners totally gutted out their group of outside corners, it's feasible that McFadden can win a spot on the active roster. And if he's the best version of himself, he could perhaps even climb up to the CB3 role on game day.
Cole Hikutini, TE
The 49ers had a couple of undrafted players not only make the team as rookies, but contribute in wins down the stretch. Running back Matt Breida and receiver Kendrick Bourne were the two notables, both coincidentally skill position players on offense. Another offensive player they might’ve dug up in 2017 that might be ready to join the group in Year 2 is Hikutini, the move tight end from Louisville.
At 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, Hikutini was the No. 1 target for Lamar Jackson in the quarterback’s Heisman-winning season in 2016. He proved to be athletic, and a tough cover assignment for linebackers and safeties. He also showed natural hands and good leaping ability, making him an asset on third down and in the red zone. Coming out of college, Hikutini was pegged as a draftable player, given a 6-7th round grade by NFL.com.
A PCL injury sustained in the Citrus Bowl and a slow 40 kept him undrafted. But out of the gates, this looked like a project that could hit with a little development and the right usage by Shanahan. Interestingly, Hikutini's UDFA contract with the 49ers was for $110,000 and was fully guaranteed to outbid the Saints, so they really wanted him.
Hikutini spent his rookie year on the practice squad, but returns to a position group that wasn't addressed at all this offseason. If Hikutini can turn in a strong training camp and preseason performance, he has a chance to make the active roster as the TE3 and perhaps get the 49ers thinking about life after 30-year-old Garrett Celek.
Erik Magnuson, OL
The 49ers didn't do much to address the guard position in 2018. They're betting big on 2016 first-round pick Joshua Garnett on the right side. He's dropped over 25 pounds, now down to 302. And he could pan out there. But competition at the left guard spot is very underwhelming. It features Laken Tomlinson and recent signee Jonathan Cooper, two former first-round picks that have struggled to find any success in the NFL.
Tomlinson might've been the 49ers' worst overall lineman in 2017 and Cooper is now on his fifth NFL team.
That leads us to Magnuson, the second-year UDFA and former All-Big Ten right tackle for Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines. After going undrafted in 2017, the 6-foot-4, 304-pound OL appeared in four games and started two at tackle before landing on injured reserve (foot).
At the moment, he seems like one of the 49ers' more talented and untainted interior lineman. If Tomlinson and Cooper continue to not cut it on the field, and Magnuson is recovered from injury and has improved at all, he could wind up starting some games on that left side.
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