Ranking the 49ers' depth chart by position
The men in charge
The 49ers are coming off a 2-14 season – the kind of hapless showing that prompted CEO Jed York to fire general manager Trent Baalke and coach Chip Kelly immediately after the final game.
New GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan come to the organization with six-year contracts. While making a serious run at a playoff berth seems unrealistic, the 49ers expect to build for the future. Approximately 20 veteran additions will compete for roster spots, and a 10-player draft class also figures prominently in the plan.
The team reports to training camp in Santa Clara on Thursday with the first practice scheduled for Friday. Here’s a look at the depth chart, ranked from the least-proven position group to the strongest unit on the team:
Who’s here: Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Blake Bell, George Kittle, Cole Hikutini
One of the final moves of the previous regime was to sign off on a contract extension for McDonald, who was guaranteed $9.1 million with his new deal in December. Now, McDonald is not assured a roster spot as he and the other holdovers face stiff competition from the newcomers who were hand-picked for the scheme.
Paulsen is a blocking specialist who has experience with Shanahan in Washington and last year in Chicago with the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley.
Early indications are the 49ers got better-than-fifth-round value with the selection of Kittle, who was impressive during the offseason program. Kittle never had more than 22 receptions in a college season, but the 49ers have already identified him as a legitimate red-zone option.
Hikutini, who signed as an undrafted rookie, should give Celek and Bell stiff competition for one of the final roster spots.
P: Bradley Pinion
K: Robbie Gould, Nick Rose
H: Bradley Pinion
LS: Kyle Nelson
Kick/punt returns: Jeremy Kerley, Bruce Ellington, Trent Taylor, Victor Bolden
LS: Kyle Nelson
Gould replaces Phil Dawson, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason after making 86 percent of his field-goal attempts in his four seasons with the 49ers. Gould, 34, has made 85.9 percent of his attempts in his 12-year career.
The 49ers should be set for a while with Pinion at punter. Pinion’s net average in his first two seasons was a solid 39.6 yards. At 23, he should be able to push his average over 40 yards and solidly rank within the top half of punters in the league.
The return chores are up for grabs, as one of the receiver jobs could be determined by which player proves to be the most dependable at fielding punts.
Who’s here: Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens
Since the 49ers targeted Hoyer to be the starting quarterback this season, he has looked and acted the part. He knows the system, and he was the ringleader of three days of workouts in Dallas this month that brought together 16 offensive players.
Hoyer, no question, is a solid player. But the fact remains, at 32 years old, he has started 10 or more games in a season only one time previously. In his career, his teams are 16-15 in games in which he started.
The 49ers agreed to terms with Barkley on the first day of free agency. Then, Beathard was added late in the third round of the draft to develop. Shanahan viewed both players as good fits for his system.
LCB: Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Ahkello Witherspoon, Zach Franklin
RCB: Rashard Robinson, Will Davis, Adrian Colbert, Prince Charles Iworah
Nickel: K’Waun Williams, Will Redmond
The troubling offseason arrest of Tramaine Brock on suspicion of a domestic incident prompted the 49ers to immediately release their most-experienced and proven cornerback.
Robinson performed well in his six starts as a rookie. He heads into training camp as a clear-cut starter. The competition for the other spot is wide open. Reaser, Johnson and, possibly, Davis will get long looks.
Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, has the size and feet to play at the NFL level. But even general manager John Lynch expressed concern about his lack of willingness to commit to the kind of physical play that is required.
Williams is a favorite of defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, who coached him in Cleveland. Redmond is a top prospect who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury sustained in college. They will compete for the job of covering the slot receiver.
Big WR: Pierre Garçon, Aaron Burbridge, DeAndre Smelter, B.J. Johnson, Kendrick Bourne
Speed WR: Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson, Victor Bolden
Slot WR: Jeremy Kerley, Trent Taylor, Bruce Ellington, DeAndre Carter
The 49ers added Garçon and Robinson, who have previous experience in Kyle Shanahan’s receiver-friendly system, as well as speedster Goodwin, via free agency. Garçon’s best season came in 2013 with Shanahan as Washington’s offensive coordinator.
If Goodwin remains healthy, he could have a breakout season. He is adapting well to being asked to run the entire route tree – and not just deep routes.
There are not a lot of proven playmakers at the wideout spots, so there will be an opportunity for one of the receivers without much or any NFL experience – such as Smelter, Bolden, Bourne or Johnson -- to win a spot and contribute.
Kerley, the 49ers’ leading pass-catcher of last season, returns and will receive a challenge from rookie Taylor, who impressed during the offseason program. The onus is on Ellington to prove he can remain healthy.
LT: Joe Staley, John Theus, Darrell Williams
LG: Zane Beadles, Norman Price, John Flynn
C: Daniel Kilgore, Jeremy Zuttah, Tim Barnes, Erik Magnuson
RG: Joshua Garnett, Brandon Fusco, Andrew Lauderdale
RT: Trent Brown, Garry Gilliam, Richard Levy
The 49ers have more pieces with which to work on the line than previous seasons. The key competition is at center. Depending on how that shakes out, it could start a chain reaction that impacts the remainder of the interior O-line.
Zuttah, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, could end up at left guard if Kilgore gets the nod at center. The new regime has no allegiance to Garnett, a first-round pick last year. He will have to earn his spot.
Staley, who enters his 11th season, has no competition at left tackle. Brown has plenty of potential to become an elite right tackle. But, first, he must hold off Gilliam. Beadles showed his versatility last season but appears to be the front-runner at left guard.
The 49ers added free agents Fusco and Barnes in the offseason to move the competition forward at the interior O-line positions.
FS: Jimmie Ward, Don Jones, Vinnie Sunseri, Lorenzo James
SS: Eric Reid, Jaquiski Tartt, Chanceller James
In defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, the 49ers will be playing two distinct safety positions with different responsibilities. Ward will play the role that Earl Thomas fills with the Seahawks, while Reid will be asked to serve as the defense’s Kam Chancellor.
Ward played nickel back and cornerback in his first three seasons. The 49ers expect to utilize on his cover skills and play-making ability as he plays center field in the new defense. Reid, meanwhile, believes he is a better fit as a big safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Tartt will almost certainly win a role as one of the team’s top backups. There could also be a spot for him in specialty packages.
SLB: Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson, Jimmie Gilbert
MLB: NaVorro Bowman, Brock Coyle, Donavin Newsom
WLB: Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster, Ray-Ray Armstrong
The 49ers ran out of linebackers last season, which contributed greatly to the defense ranking among the absolute worst in NFL history against the run. This year, the 49ers have switched to a base defense with three linebackers, and that should help with the team’s depth at this spot.
Bowman continues his long way back from a torn Achilles. Training camp will be important for him as he learns a new system and will remain under constant evaluation from a new coaching staff.
The 49ers paid big money to lure Smith as a free agent. Then, they fell in love with Foster during the draft and traded into the back end of the first round to select him. The condition of Foster’s shoulder will likely determine how much is asked of him in his rookie season.
Brooks is the clear front-runner to start at the strong-side linebacker position over Harold and Watson.
RB: Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower, Joe Williams, Kapri Bibbs, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert
FB: Kyle Juszczyk, Tyler McCloskey
The 49ers should be just fine in the backfield with a couple of proven performers and one rookie with whom Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner became smitten in the lead-up to the draft.
This season will feature the return of the fullback, and the 49ers envision Juszczyk as a major factor as a pass-catcher and blocker.
Hyde enters the final year of his contract. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season and only a late injury prevented him from reaching the 1,000-yard mark. He must make an adjustment to the new zone running system, but he should be fine.
Hightower has experience in the system and is a valued backup and role player. Williams is immensely gifted and was viewed as the perfect fit for the scheme. That is why Shanahan and Turner believe he has what it takes to thrive. Bibbs and Breida compete for a change-of-pace role.
LDE: Solomon Thomas, Tank Carradine, Ronald Blair, Noble Nwachuckwu
NT: Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial, D.J. Jones
DT: DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones
RDE: Arik Armstead, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Pita Taumoepenu
With three recent first-round draft picks slated to start, there is no reason the defensive line should not rank as the best position group on the team. It is certainly the most talented collection on the depth chart.
Armstead, Buckner and Thomas are joined by veterans Mitchell, Dial, Dumervil, Lynch and Chris Jones. Carradine gets his final chance to prove his worth, and Blair should benefit from the team’s switch to a four-man line. Draft picks Taumoepenu and D.J. Jones are good fits for their respective roles.
Armstead is not a prototypical fit for the “Leo” position, but he gets the first chance there to demonstrate he has the athleticism to handle those chores. Dumervil said he is healthy. He figures into the mix as a pass-rush specialist. Dial has an adjustment to make as he tries to hone the footwork and movement skills required to play the nose in the team’s new one-gap scheme.