The 49ers’ final seven games of the regular season will give a strong indication of which direction the roster must turn next season in order for the organization to take a step in the direction of returning to being an NFC West contender.
These eight players have a chance to show the 49ers' decision-makers they should figure prominently into the team’s future:
QB Blaine Gabbert: Remember, Gabbert is only 26 years old. He will get his second start with the 49ers on Sunday in Seattle. We’ll know a lot more about him after he faces that difficult challenge against a bunch of angry Seahawks, who have fallen to 4-5. Gabbert has a chance to prove he deserves to be in the conversation as next year’s starter – or serve as a possible bridge quarterback until a 2016 draft pick is developed and ready to go.
CB Kenneth Acker: The first-year player did not looked overmatched or lacking in confidence while making the first eight starts of the season. Is he a starting-caliber player or better-suited as an extra cornerback? Acker sat out the 49ers' 17-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons due to a concussion. Marcus Cromartie, just up from the practice squad, and second-year player Dontae Johnson stepped in and did well against the Atlanta Falcons. Keith Reaser had been the No. 3 cornerback until he was sidelined with an ankle sprain. On the other side, Tramaine Brock is signed through 2017. The 49ers have a lot of young players in this spot. Acker has promise, so the 49ers will be keeping a close eye on him to see how much he develops.
DL Arik Armstead: The first-round draft pick showed some flashes in the first nine games as a situational pass-rusher. The 49ers need to continue to increase his playing time and get him more involved to start to realize some return on their investment of the No. 17 overall draft pick.
RT Trent Brown: At 6 foot 8, 355 pounds, Brown has the size and feet to be a solid player at a position of need. He saw his first action on offense with nine snaps against the Falcons. He’ll get more playing time in the second half of the season, and he must show he has the temperament required to be a fixture on the offensive line. If he plays hard and shows promise, the 49ers would consider moving Anthony Davis (if he returns from a one-year hiatus) to right guard.
C/G Marcus Martin: Martin, a third-round draft pick last year, spent most of the offseason and training camp at guard, where the 49ers envision him as a better fit because of his body type. Martin struggled at center. With center Daniel Kilgore expected back within a couple of weeks, Martin could get an extended run at guard to see if he fares better in that spot.
WR Quinton Patton: The fourth-round pick of 2013 is one of Colin Kaepernick’s best friends on the team. But the one game in which Gabbert started, Patton posted a career-high 70 yards receiving. At the end of the season, the 49ers must determine whether to bring back Anquan Boldin for another season or go younger at that position.
WR Bruce Ellington: He was plagued by injuries throughout training camp and the early portion of the season. Now, he seems to be more healthy and we might see what he’s capable of doing as a receiver, as well as being the team’s primary return man.
DE Tank Carradine: It looks as if Aaron Lynch is the real deal as a pass-rusher. Lynch has a team-high six sacks, which ranks tied for 10th in the NFL. Ahmad Brooks is having his second consecutive down season, and neither Eli Harold nor Corey Lemonier has yet to record a sack this season. Coach Jim Tomsula said they are looking for Carradine to fill a new role as a pass-rusher, so the door might be open for him to move to the outside to see what he can do on nickel downs.