With the free agency period and NFL draft now complete, the San Francisco 49ers position groups for the 2017 NFL season are becoming more tangible. So where do the strengths and weaknesses lie within the updated 49ers depth chart? Here are my rankings and rationale for each position group.
With three out of four starting defensive lineman being a first round pick in the past three years, the 49ers have a lot of potential at this position. But who will be the fourth starter and at which spot? Inside and outside players will likely split time on early and passing downs, respectively. Earl Mitchell and Ronald Blair seem to be the early favorites for the interior early down work, while Eli Harold and Tank Carradine will hope to shore up the outside rush on passing downs.
2-Quarterback and running backs
I know having Brian Hoyer as a starter does not instill a lot of confidence at quarterback, but the reasoning behind this group landing at number two is the strength of the Kyle Juszczyk and Carlos Hyde. Kyle Juszczyk was the highest rated fullback by Pro Football Focus (PFF) last year and Carlos Hyde has showed a lot of promise when healthy. This position group will be most affected by the arrival of new head coach Kyle Shanahan, who seems to generate consistent offensive production wherever he goes.
Around the NFL: What happened to Texans’ star wideout, DeAndre Hopkins
cover32 Exclusive: A one-on-one exclusive with new Dolphins’ WR, Drew Morgan
What’s Trending: Brandon Marshall impressed with Giants’ HC, Ben McAdoo
2018 NFL Free Agency: Taking a look at five early free agent targets for 2018
2017 NFL Season: Why Eagles’ QB, Carson Wentz, still has plenty to prove in 2017
The 49ers linebacking corps has the potential to land at the number one spot on this list next year, but as of now there are a few major questions here. Navarro Bowman, who was on pace to be a top five rated player at his position according to PFF, is coming off of another season-ending injury. The addition of first round pick Reuben Foster could be a game changer if his shoulder doesn’t keep him out of the lineup. The strong side linebacker spot is still up in the air but will probably be manned by veteran Ahmad Brooks.
The offensive line has Joe Staley, Jeremy Zuttah and Joshua Garnett as locks for starters, but a guard and right tackle spot are up for grabs. Trenton Brown had a solid pass blocking grade at right tackle but is too big and slow to be a perfect fit in Shanahan’s blocking scheme. Garry Gilliam has an outside shot of taking his spot. Daniel Kilgore, Zane Beadles, and Tim Barnes are three former centers who could play opposite of Garnett at the other guard spot.
This position group has the most depth by far but not a lot of top-end talent. Jimmy Ward was our top ranked corner last year but he will transition to the single-high safety role. Eric Reid is 3 years removed from his rookie pro bowl appearance, but moving to a true strong safety position should highlight his strengths. If Reid is not successful early, look for Jaquiski Tartt to start taking away some snaps. Second year corner Rashard Robinson and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon will have the first shot at starting on the outside, but there are four capable unproven young players right behind them. The biggest weakness will be the nickel corner Keith Reaser and the lack of depth behind him.
6-Tight ends and wide receivers
The new front office signed slot receiver Jeremy Kerley to an extension, but outside of that it will be an entirely new starting receiver core. The main addition is Pierre Garcon from Washington, who dominated under Shanahan’s coaching in 2013. Two edge speedsters, Aldrick Robinson –ran a 4.43 forty– and Marquise Goodwin –with a 4.27 forty– will compete for the starter position opposite Garcon. The starting lineup will be an improvement over last year but still has a way to go to being respectable. Despite Trent Baalke spending multiple picks on tight ends the past few years, 49ers still have questions at the tight end position. Starting tight end Vance McDonald was shopped around during the draft but found no takers, and rookie George Kittle may ultimately find his way into meaningful minutes sooner rather than later.
General manager John Lynch and the front office received praise for their 2017 draft and appear to be moving in the right direction. But based on closer scrutiny of each position group, the 49ers still have significant questions marks that need to be addressed to compete at the highest level.