Five roles up in the air for 49ers opener

Five roles up in the air for 49ers opener
September 2, 2014, 10:45 am

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Tank Carradine is a candidate to replace Ray McDonald (if needed) and Aldon Smith. (USATSI)

The season opener is five days away, and many questions remain about how the 49ers are going to use their personnel against the Dallas Cowboys.

How much the 49ers will reveal before kickoff remains to be seen, but this is generally the time of the year when coach Jim Harbaugh becomes even more vague with his answers.

Michael Wilhoite appears to be the winner in his competition with rookie Chris Borland to replace NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Bowman, who was moved last week to reserve/physically unable to perform, is out for at least the first six weeks of the season. The 49ers hope for a mid-season return. It looks as if Patrick Willis will play the “mike” position, with Wilhoite taking over at “jack.”

And rookie Jimmie Ward appears to be the starting nickel back. He will enter the game to cover the slot receiver any time the Cowboys put three wide receivers on the field. Veteran Perrish Cox is likely to serve as the backup.

Here are some other positions that less certain:

Left defensive end: The 49ers continue to gather the facts about what happened early Sunday morning at Ray McDonald’s birthday party. He was arrested on felony domestic violence charges.

Harbaugh said on the KNBR Morning Show that he and the organization will not tolerate domestic violence. All the facts involved in the case are not known. But Harbaugh has contractual control to decide whether to allow McDonald to suit up as one of the active 46 players for Sunday’s game.

If the 49ers choose to deactivate McDonald for Sunday’s game -- and there has been no indication, yet, what they plan to do -- the 49ers have a number of backup defensive linemen who could step in, including Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial.

Third receiver: Despite an injury-plagued offseason program and a less-than stellar training camp, veteran Stevie Johnson would have to be considered the favorite due to his track record with the Buffalo Bills. The 49ers kept another veteran, Brandon Lloyd, on the 53-man roster to compete for a role behind starters Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.

[RELATED: 49ers' Lloyd will be ready for Week 1]

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman figures to feature a lot more three-receiver sets this season. But is there room for a fourth receiver who adds no special-teams value? On passing downs, tight end Vernon Davis will always be on the field, and the 49ers like to keep running back Frank Gore on the field for pass protection.

Quinton Patton was the No. 3 receiver late last season. Patton and rookie Bruce Ellington are also in the mix.

Outside linebacker: Aldon Smith is out for nine games with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend him for violations of the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies.

More than likely, the 49ers will use two players to replace Smith. Veteran Dan Skuta is expected to play in base situations. Then, the 49ers can go with second-year player Corey Lemonier in pass-rush situations.

[RELATED: Suspended Aldon Smith attends first 49ers meeting]

This will be a work in progress. Lemonier played a lot in the exhibition season, so he could get more opportunities against the run this season. Or if he does not generate the kind of consistent pass rush the 49ers would like to see, they can turn to other options.

Defensive lineman Tank Carradine, a second-round pick last year, has the ability to rush the passer. Also, the 49ers could give rookie Aaron Lynch an opportunity to prove himself as a pass-rush specialist.

Right guard: The 49ers feel good about Joe Looney being a serviceable backup. But, now, Alex Boone is back with the team. The 49ers this week will assess Boone’s readiness based on his performance in the classroom and on the practice field before making a decision about how to approach the game on Sunday. At this point, either Looney or Boone could play the entire game. Or, the 49ers could use a combination of the two players throughout.

[RELATED: Boone passes physical]

Return specialist: LaMichael James is the favorite, but the 49ers liked what they saw from Ellington. James is coming off a very good season as the punt returner, as he averaged 10.9 yards on 23 attempts. The player who is not the No. 1 return man is a candidate for being on the seven-player inactive list.