49ers offense: Top training camp competitions

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49ers offense: Top training camp competitions

The 49ers open training camp next week in Santa Clara with a number of competitions going on simultaneously on both sides of the ball.

Coach Kyle Shanahan did not hire an offensive coordinator. He will assume the role of running the offense, as he atempts to remake the 49ers' offense to his specifications.

Brian Hoyer is set at quarterback. Joe Staley will line up at left tackle. Kyle Juszcyzk was signed as the highest-priced fullback in the NFL, and the starting wide receivers figure to be Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin.

After that, things are a lot less certain.

Here is a look at the 49ers’ top four training camp battles on offense:

INTERIOR O-LINE
The tackle positions appear straight-forward with Staley and Trent Brown – though Brown will have to hold off Garry Gilliam to retain his starting job.

But there are a lot of options for the 49ers at the three interior positions. Zane Beadles started all 16 games last season at three different positions. He enters camp as the front-runner to start at left guard.

Jeremy Zuttah, who was added to the Pro Bowl roster at center last season, came to the 49ers in an offseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Zuttah and Daniel Kilgore will compete for the starting job. Tim Barnes, who started 32 games the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, is in the mix, too.

If Zuttah is not the starting center, he can transition to either guard position to compete with Beadles on the left side or, more likely, the right side.

Joshua Garnett, whom former 49ers general manager Trent Baalke traded up to select in the first round of the 2016 draft, will have to show dramatic improvement over his rookie season to return as the starter at right guard.

Brandon Fusco, who spent his first six NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, started 16 games at left guard in 2015 and 14 games last season at right guard.

TIGHT END
It is within the realm of possibility the 49ers could have a complete overhaul at tight end, as none of the five players who finished the season with the team is a lock to win a roster spot.

The 49ers selected George Kittle in the fifth round. He showed a lot of promise with the best showing of any tight end during the team’s offseason program. The 49ers this offseason also added blocking tight end Logan Paulsen, who has experience in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, and undrafted rookie pass-catcher Cole Hikutini.

Vance McDonald was the subject of trade talks during the draft – just months after signing a contract extension with $9.1 million in guaranteed money. Garrett Celek and Blake Bell also face stiff competition in order to be back on the 53-man roster.

RUNNING BACK
Carlos Hyde is entering the final year of his original four-year contract, and he has competition for the first time since Frank Gore’s exit cleared the way for him to be the featured back.

Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner handpicked former Utah running back Joe Williams for their scheme. Williams got off to a slow start after joining the offseason program, but he eventually put himself into a position to compete for a significant role in training camp.

Veteran additions Tim Hightower and Kapri Bibbs will be competing for roles in the backfield, as well. Undrafted rookie Matt Breida had an impressive offseason during the non-padded practices.

SLOT RECEIVER
Jeremy Kerley was one of the few free agents from last year’s team that the 49ers had any interest in re-signing. Kerley was the best receiver on the team a year ago -- and it wasn’t even close. He caught 64 passes for 667 yards for the league's least-productive passing game.

The 49ers selected Trent Taylor in the fifth round, and he made an immediate impact during the offseason program after catching 136 passes for 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior at Louisiana Tech.

A year ago, Bruce Ellington was the 49ers’ best receiver during training camp before his season came to an abrupt end with a torn hamstring in an exhibition game. The onus is on Ellington to remain healthy and prove himself to the new coaching staff.

Why Kirk Cousins' stock is on the rise

Why Kirk Cousins' stock is on the rise

The NFL has always had difficulty uncovering the next stars at the sport’s most important position.

And it figures to get more and more difficult as offenses in college have drifted away from the general requirements of playing quarterback at the NFL level, such as forming a huddle, lining up under center and reading defenses.

First-year 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan spoke before the draft about the difficulties of evaluating college quarterbacks and attempting to project how they will fit into NFL schemes.

“It makes it tougher each year to evaluate,” Shanahan said. “The more spread out it gets, the more up-tempo it gets, a little more sloppy it gets.

“I know a lot of colleges have committed to the spread, which is a good way to move the football and a good way to score points. But it does make it harder to evaluate if you don’t plan on doing the same thing.”

Are there enough good, young quarterbacks to take over after the current crop of aging, superstars fade out of the NFL? Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are in their mid-30s or older.

That is why Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins would be a player of interest for a lot of NFL teams if he becomes available next offseason. He turns 29 in August. But with the top quarterbacks continuing to play at high levels past 35 years old, any team could expect at least five solid seasons from Cousins.

Although he might not widely be considered a top-10 quarterback now, if Cousins continues to learn the game and improve he should move up as many of those in front of him exit the leauge.

Here’s a look at the ages this season of the non-rookie quarterbacks who are projected to start for their clubs:

40 – Tom Brady (NE)
38 – Drew Brees (NO), Carson Palmer (Ariz), Josh McCown (NYJ)
36 – Philip Rivers (LAC), Eli Manning (NYG)
35 – Ben Roethlisberger (Pitt)
34 – Aaron Rodgers (GB)
33 – Alex Smith (KC)
32 – Matt Ryan (Atl), Brian Hoyer (SF)
30 – Andy Dalton (Cinc), Sam Bradford (Minn)
29 – Matthew Stafford (Det), Ryan Tannehill (Mia), Joe Flacco (Balt) Kirk Cousins (Wash), Russell Wilson (Sea)
28 – Cam Newton (Car), Tyrod Taylor (Buff), Andrew Luck (Ind), Mike Glennon (Chi)
27 – Tom Savage (Hou)
26 – Derek Carr (Oak), Trevor Siemian (Den)
25 – Blake Bortles (Jax), Carson Wentz (Phi)
24 – Marcus Mariota (Tenn), Dak Prescott (Dal), Cody Kessler (Cleve)
23 – Jameis Winston (TB), Jared Goff (LAR)

With no extension for Cousins, a look at 49ers' QB options for 2018

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USATI

With no extension for Cousins, a look at 49ers' QB options for 2018

The 49ers, under general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, are attempting to build for the future.

Rather than aggressively pursue a veteran quarterback via trade, the organization opted this offseason to keep their coveted draft picks and build out as much of the roster as possible.

It made no sense for the 49ers to be willing to pay the steep price that would only begin the conversations with the teams – Washington and New England – who had intriguing quarterbacks set to become unrestricted free agents a year from now.

The 49ers are in no position to compete for the playoffs this season. So the 49ers could afford to take it slow at the quarterback position while trying to add as many accessory pieces as possible.

Why not wait to get the quarterback of the future until the price is right and the quarterback has a better chance to succeed with better players around him – on both sides of the ball?

The team added their man target, Brian Hoyer, at the opening of free agency. Once Matt Schaub opted to remain in Atlanta, the 49ers secured Matt Barkley as the backup.

Lynch took a very public approach to his evaluations of the top quarterbacks available in the draft. He gushed over Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Deshone Kizer and others. Of course, he never mentioned C.J. Beathard, whom the 49ers traded up to select in the back end of the third round.

The 49ers carried out the strategy in the first round of the draft by, in essence, turning their picks in the first and second rounds into defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, linebacker Reuben Foster and a third-round pick next year. Along the way, the 49ers also picked up an additional second-round pick for next year.

The 49ers already have a long-term plan in the place. It would be inconceivable that the organization did not look three years in advance when charting the plan for this offseason. But, as always, that plan remains flexible.

A lot can happen in a year, but there are moving parts the organization will monitor before the plan is enacted.

HOYER AND THE IN-HOUSE CANDIDATES
Hoyer enters training camp as the starting quarterback. His performance this season will not be open to any kind of interpretation and projection. He gets the first chance to prove he should be the long-term starter.

Hoyer signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the 49ers. The onus is on him to take the starting job and hold onto it – give the organization no reason to look to upgrade.

Hoyer, who turns 32 in October, has shown to be a solid quarterback. But he also has not proven to be a dependable presence. After all, he has started 10 games or more only once in his career.

It is difficult to envision the 49ers would come out of this season convinced either Barkley or Beathard is the quarterback of the future. So short of a Pro Bowl-type season from Hoyer, the 49ers would likely be determined to add a long-term answer during the 2018 offseason.

COUSINS AND THE VETERAN MARKET
Of course, this is the Topic du jour because of Washington’s failure to reach a multi-year extension on Monday with quarterback Kirk Cousins.

It is simple to connect the dots. Cousins broke into the NFL in 2012 under Kyle Shanahan, who was the offensive coordinator under his father, Mike Shanahan. Cousins is the kind of quarterback who fits what Shanahan wants.

Only Tom Brady has posted a better passer rating in both seasons since Cousins took over as the full-time starter. Shanahan likely believes Cousins could be even more productive in his system with his play-calling.

Cousins turns 29 in August, but that still leaves him at least a six-season window – if healthy – that he can remain in his prime.

Washington could place the franchise tag on Cousins again, of course. But Washington was unwilling to pay Cousins an average of the $23.94 million he is set to receive on this year’s franchise tag, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reported.

Next year, the one-year franchise tag would jump to $34.47 million. The 49ers currently have $66.8 million in cap room and will carry over all unused space this year into 2018. The 49ers can essentially go as high as they feel is necessary to get the quarterback they target.

Cousins is not the only veteran option for next year. Shanahan said he had a high draft grade on Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014. He enters the final year of his contract with New England. The Patriots will have a difficult decision next offseason. Can they retain both Tom Brady and Garoppolo?

Of course, Garoppolo remains mostly an unknown. He performed well in two starts last season during Brady’s suspension before sustaining a shoulder injury. Garoppolo turns 26 in November, and should have a lot of football ahead of him.

THE 2018 DRAFT CLASS
This is the last option -- coming nearly two months after the open of free agency. It is also the one option that is always the biggest unknown. After all, a year ago at this time Mitchell Trubisky was not even considered a draftable player – let alone the No. 2 overall pick.

Sam Darnold (USC), Josh Allen (Wyoming) and Josh Rosen (UCLA) project as three of the top quarterbacks in next year’s draft. But whom will Shanahan envision as the best fit for his scheme?

Then, will the 49ers be in a position to draft the quarterback Shanahan might target? Unless the 49ers lose every game this season, they may not be able to fully control which player to choose in the draft.