49ers defense: Top training camp competitions

49ers defense: Top training camp competitions

Before starting six games as a rookie, Rashard Robinson had not played football since the 2014 season at LSU.

Yet, Robinson is the closest thing to a sure bet to win a starting job among 49ers cornerbacks.

Tramaine Brock was projected as the starting cornerback on the other side until his arrest on suspicion of a troubling domestic incident prompted the 49ers to release him more than three months ago.

The 49ers open training camp next week, and here are the top competitions for starting jobs on defense:

LEFT CORNERBACK
Keith Reaser has yet to make an NFL start while appearing in 28 games the past two seasons. The 49ers rotated cornerbacks with the first-team defense during the offseason program, and Reaser put himself in position to enter camp as the slight favorite to replace Brock.

Veterans Dontae Johnson and Will Davis will try to work their way into the picture. And the 49ers are hopeful talented rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will develop a willingness to play with more physicality. The 49ers selected Witherspoon in the third round. He has the size and all the tools to win the starting job, but there were times in college he showed an alarming lack of aggression as a tackler.

NICKELBACK
K'Waun Williams is healthy after missing last season due to an ankle injury and falling out of favor with the Cleveland Browns. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, one of the few holdovers from Chip Kelly’s staff, thinks highly of Williams after coaching him with the Browns. Hafley said he believes Williams can become one of the top covermen in the slot in the entire league.

Williams lined up with the first-team defense throughout the offseason program. His biggest competition could come from Will Redmond, whom the 49ers selected in the third round of the 2016 draft but did not play as a rookie due to a knee injury. Redmond has some rust to knock off, but he did not appear to show signs of the injury during the offseason program.

RIGHT DEFENSIVE END
Arik Armstead is not the prototypical player at the “Leo” position. At 6 foot 7, Armstead does not have the low center of gravity that is typically associated with that position. But Armstead is certainly not lacking for athleticism.

The 49ers need a more consistent pass rush to assist their unproven cornerbacks, and this spot will be counted upon to provide more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Veteran Elvis Dumervil, who believes he has regained his explosion off the edge after being hampered with Achilles injury, was added last month to do what he does best. Dumervil, 33, enters the season with 99 career sacks.

Aaron Lynch is on notice as he enters his fourth NFL season. He moves from outside linebacker to defensive end in the 49ers’ new 4-3 scheme. Multiple competitions will be ongoing at this position, as the 49ers will look to determine the best fits for base downs, as well as passing situations.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER
The signing of free-agent Malcolm Smith raised a few eyebrows. It was just the offseason program, but Smith was as impressive as any player on the team during the non-padded practices. He is clearly comfortable in Robert Saleh’s scheme, which is based on the Seattle Seahawks’ defense.

The 49ers had Reuben Foster rated as their No. 3 prospect in the entire draft. They traded with the Seahawks to move up to select him at No. 31 overall. The 49ers seem thoroughly unconcerned with Foster’s shoulder. The club believes he will be medically cleared for the opening of training camp.

The 49ers might want to bring Foster along slowly, but it is clear they do not expect him to be a backup for very long.

49ers offense: Top competitions entering training camp

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AP

49ers offense: Top competitions entering training camp

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)