49ers: The battle for 53 roster spots

49ers: The battle for 53 roster spots
June 26, 2014, 7:30 am
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The first full-squad practice of 49ers training camp is scheduled for July 24. (USATSI)

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The 49ers wrapped up their offseason program last week with 89 players on their roster after veteran cornerback Eric Wright announced his retirement.

The 49ers added a 90th player with the re-signing of guard Al Netter, who was released when the 49ers signed special-teamer Blake Costanzo. Obviously, Netter faces an uphill battle to remain with the 49ers as the low man on the 90-man roster.

Competition in training camp figures to be stiff for the 53 roster spots to open the season. Here’s how the competition looks at each position:

Quarterbacks (5)
Locks (2): Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert.
Looking good: None.
A lot to prove (3): Josh Johnson, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kory Faulker.
Explanation: With a roster packed with talent at other positions, it seems logical the 49ers would keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster with another on the practice squad. Bethel-Thompson and Faulker are eligible for the practice squad.

[RELATED: Gabbert comes to 49ers in search of answers]

Running backs (9)
Locks (4): Frank Gore, Bruce Miller, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde.
Looking good (2): Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James.
A lot to prove (2): Jewel Hampton, Will Tukuafu.
Other (1): Trey Millard (knee, non-football injury list).
Explanation: Lattimore is fully expected to be on the 53-man roster, but because he’s coming off such a severe knee injury and there are so many unknowns before he takes his first hit, he cannot be considered an absolute lock at this point. James looked very steady fielding punts in the offseason, so his spot is looking much more secure than it appeared a month ago.

[RELATED: Don't count out a particular 49ers running back]

Wide receivers (11)
Locks (4): Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton.
Looking good (1): Stevie Johnson.
A lot to prove (6): Brandon Lloyd, Devon Wylie, Kassim Osgood, Jon Baldwin, Chuck Jacobs, David Reed.
Explanation: You might be wondering why Johnson is not a “lock.” With a $3.65 million base salary, he must have a good camp to justify the 49ers awarding him the No. 3 role over one of the younger players. Lloyd had a good offseason program, but he must prove capable of suiting up on a weekly basis and making a contribution. Osgood is in competition with a few defensive players for a spot on special teams.

[RELATED: Crabtree looks more like pre-2013 model]

Tight ends (6)
Locks (2): Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald. 
Looking good: None.
A lot to prove (4): Derek Carrier, Garrett Celek, Asante Cleveland, Kevin Greene.
Explanation: Of course, this is contingent on Davis ending his holdout and playing. The ultra-athletic Carrier had a very good offseason and appeared to take a slight lead over Celek entering training camp.

[RELATED: Davis keeping an eye on Graham ruling; 49ers not likely to be swayed]

Offensive line (15)
Locks (6): Joe Staley, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin.
Looking good (2): Joe Looney, Jonathan Martin.
A lot to prove (6): Adam Snyder, Ryan Seymour, Carter Bykowski, Dillon Farrell, Fouimalo Fonoti, Al Netter.
Other (1): Brandon Thomas (knee, NFI).
Explanation: Again, this is assuming Boone’s holdout ends in a timely fashion. Snyder must prove his value to the team with a $1 million salary as a backup. Martin is learning both tackle and guard positions, which helps his bid to suit up on game days. Looney had a good camp in Boone’s spot. He should make the team. This figures to be a redshirt season for Thomas, who sustained a torn ACL in a pre-draft workout with the New Orleans Saints.

Defensive line (11)
Locks (5): Justin Smith, Tank Carradine, Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald, Ian Williams.
Looking good (3): Quinton Dial, Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie. 
A lot to prove (3): Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell, Kaleb Ramsey.
Explanation: The 49ers play a three-man line on base downs, so there is a lot of competition for roster spots/playing time. The 49ers used more of a rotation last season, and they figure to do even more substitutions this season. Okoye is not ready to be a contributor on defense, but he’s such a unique talent the 49ers might want to find a way to keep him around for another season to continue his development.

[RELATED: Harbaugh doesn't see Okoye as specialist, other teams might]

Outside linebackers (6)
Locks (3): Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier.
Looking good (1): Dan Skuta.
A lot to prove (2): Aaron Lynch, Chase Thomas.
Explanation: First, Smith could open the season under NFL suspension. If that’s the case, he would not count against the 53-man roster until his suspension ends. Obviously, that would open a roster spot for another player. Lynch is a wild-card. He has regained the weight he lost after his transfer from Notre Dame to South Florida. He is capable of easily securing a roster spot as a key backup or pass-rush specialist. But he is also capable dropping off the map altogether.

Inside linebackers (7)
Locks (3): Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Michael Wilhoite.
Looking good (1): Nick Moody.
A lot to prove (2): Blake Costanzo, Shayne Skov.
Other (1): NaVorro Bowman (knee, PUP).
Explanation: Bowman (knee) figures to open the season on PUP, thus being ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season. Moody, Costanzo and Skov appear to be battling for two spots. Special teams will almost certainly determine who sticks at the backup spots.

Cornerbacks (8)
Locks (3): Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Dontae Johnson. 
Looking good (2): Darryl Morris, Chris Cook.
A lot to prove (2): Perrish Cox, Kenneth Acker.
Other (1): Keith Reaser (knee, NFI).
Explanation: This was the most-difficult position group to assess. Johnson gets tagged as a “lock” based on his draft status (fourth round) and the promise he showed in camp with his combination of size, speed and smarts. Morris proved himself on special teams last season and looks very good in coverage. He and Cook did about all they could to prove capable of making the team and suiting up for games. Cox might have to find a way to leapfrog one of the players ahead of him. His value is as a nickel corner, but Jimmie Ward and Morris are young players who appear lined up for that role.

Safeties (8)
Locks (3): Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Jimmie Ward.
Looking good (2): C.J. Spillman, Craig Dahl.
A lot to prove (3): Bubba Ventrone, James McCray, D.J. Campbell.
Explanation: Spillman is one of the league’s top special-teams players. Dahl’s advantage is that he’s the only safety behind starters Reid and Bethea who has significant NFL experience on defense. Ventrone’s bid for a second season with the 49ers is again tied solely to his contributions on special teams.

Specialists (4)
Locks (3): K Phil Dawson, P Andy Lee, LS Kevin McDermott
Looking good: None
A lot to prove (1): P Colton Schmidt
Explanation: There’s no drama at these spots.

* * *

Here are the final numbers:
Locks 38
Looking good 14
A lot to prove 34 
Other 4

With these numbers, figure that all the locks will make the 53-man roster to open the season. Ten or more of the players in the “Looking good” category should make the team. That leaves no more than five spots available for players who can make their cases in training camp and prove they belong on the 49ers to open the regular season.