The 49ers report to training camp in Santa Clara on July 25. Rookies and vets arrive for what will be Kyle Shanahan's second camp as head coach, and finally things will be open to evaluation. Naturally, most of the discussion this offseason centered around the team's promising new quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, but San Francisco really has a lot going on across the roster.
With the same conviction as last year, Shanahan and the front office turned over two more position groups -- one on offense and one on defense -- and added another wave of potential starters which will trigger some heated battles in camp. The 49ers are also counting on the growth of over a dozen unproven but essential players between ages 22 and 26.
So, outside of Garoppolo, here is a short list of items worth following.
Bullish new O-line
The 49ers' offensive line, which was easily their weakest position group in 2017, was an issue that was escalated by the front office once they realized what they had in Jimmy Garoppolo. General manager John Lynch acknowledged it shortly after the season, and the team took action by making Weston Richburg the NFL's third-richest center and by drafting consensus top tackle Mike McGlinchey at No. 9 overall. It was the 49ers’ two biggest investments this offseason. Now with 3/5 of the O-Line being Pro Bowl caliber, and a wild card in Joshua Garnett, it will be interesting to see just how good this unit can be.
Development of Solomon Thomas
A large chunk of the total potential of this defensive front lies with Thomas. The No. 3 overall pick from 2017 was a steady defender last year, but the 49ers will be expecting more impact plays out of him in his sophomore campaign. That of course means an uptick from his three sacks in 2017 and just more disruption overall. I did a deeper dive on Thomas' rookie year, surfacing the positives and negatives in tandem with where he lined up. He'll no doubt be a talking point this camp and preseason.
Veterans losing snaps
Given the aggressive influx of youth and talent via free agency, the draft and undrafted pool, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are still laying the foundation for their team of the future, while assessing several vets that they could part with in the coming years. The first sign of this may be veterans losing their jobs or seeing less snaps than anticipated. Starters like Earl Mitchell, Pierre Garçon, Malcolm Smith and Garrett Celek could all be affected to one degree or another.
D.J. Reed vs. K’Waun Williams
Nickel is an increasingly important position. They're asked with covering some of the most explosive, agile players on the field, and also have to be a rock in run support. Williams, a veteran familiar with both Kyle Shanahan and DB coach Jeff Hafley from Cleveland, came in and held down the spot for the 49ers well. But the team drafted Reed in 2018, and he has the potential to be very good. How soon, though? Analyst Eric Crocker provided an excellent assessment, looking at the film of both while highlighting what Reed will need to do to win the job and what Williams needs to do to defend it.
Upgrading the WR group
I fully expect Dante Pettis and Richie James to push for meaningful snaps in the regular season. But first, they'll have to take the spots of Aldrick Robinson and Victor Bolden, who seem like the most at-risk receivers from last year's roster to be replaced. Watch for the performances of these four players to determine how the 49ers' wide receiving corps will round out.
Who’s getting to the QB
The source of pass rush will remain in question until the 49ers have a big name player on the outside. But DeForest Buckner and Thomas seem like prospective leaders in pressures and sacks, and could see increased production with the addition of pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin, who is looking to tailor the blitz around the best players. There’s also Reuben Foster, who can play all over the front. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh likes to send DBs, too, so look for safety Jaquiski Tartt and others to be involved in the pass rush. The team is also waiting to see what kind of players Cassius Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu can be in sub packages.
Joe Williams vs. Matt Breida, Part II
Originally it was Williams who was billed with more potential as a feature runner in the NFL. But the undrafted Breida transitioned quicker, earning the backup job to Carlos Hyde in 2017, while the fourth-rounder out of Utah was stashed on IR for his rookie season. A year later, Williams and Breida are set to reignite this battle for the No. 2 spot behind new lead back Jerick McKinnon. And it has the potential to be interesting if Williams finds his form and corrects his ball security issues.
Tarvarus McFadden of Florida State and Emmanuel Moseley of Tennessee were draftable players the 49ers picked up as priority free agents. The cornerbacks will have a shot to make the team as Tarvarius Moore, the third-rounder they're looking to convert from safety to corner, won't be ready yet. McFadden, a very decorated college CB, and even Moseley, are further along, and could lock down spots due to the lack of boundary depth behind Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon.
Rise of Fred Warner
According to two recent polls by Fourth and Nine and Niners Nation, which bred identical results, it seems the public is pretty split on who's will be the starting Will or Mike linebacker with Reuben Foster; veteran Malcolm Smith or No. 70 overall pick Fred Warner? My money's on the rookie. He was drafted in the range of a first-year starter, he was a stud centerpiece at BYU, and his unique skill set fits into the schematic innovations that are now happening on defense with an emphasis on lighter, cover-first linebackers. There's a lot of reasons why Warner could win the job early and finish among the team's leaders in defensive snaps in 2018.
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