Can Joe Williams overtake Carlos Hyde as the 49ers’ top running back? Will Cole Hikutini displace Vance McDonald at tight end?
The two-week lull between the team’s rookie mincamp and next week’s OTA period has been an opportunity to speculate about what the starting lineup will look like and who is in danger of getting cut.
You have to believe Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t mind seeing that type of talk.
Their goal this offseason is to re-ignite the fire that Jim Harbaugh set when he arrived in 2011 but which has gone cold in recent years. Harbaugh’s gift (and curse) was that he kept everyone on edge. All the time. One of the ways he did so was signaling that no one’s job is safe, something the new regime has done as well.
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Harbaugh followed through. The team had nine new starters when the 2011 season began. A 10th, fullback Bruce Miller, took over that role from Moran Norris three weeks into the season.
The 49ers’ upcoming season will feature a similar overhaul. At least nine new players promise to be in starting roles in Week 1: quarterback Brian Hoyer; receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin; fullback Kyle Juszczyk, nose tackle Earl Mitchell, left defensive end Solomon Thomas, weak-side linebacker (either Malcolm Smith or Reuben Foster), and both cornerbacks (identities unknown; see below).
Some of the more intriguing position battles will come at these spots:
Offensive line. Joe Staley is safe at left tackle. But any of the four other spots could be reshuffled. Veteran Jeremy Zuttah, who was acquired in a trade with Baltimore, could play center or either of the guard spots. The 49ers also signed interior linemen Brandon Fusco and Tim Barnes, and they added a tackle, Garry Gilliam, to compete with Trent Brown on the right side. Zuttah, 30, has been a starter since 2009. He sat out the team’s April minicamp, and it will be interesting to see where he lines up next week.
Cornerback. The 49ers lost both starters from last season: Tramaine Brock was released following a domestic violence-related arrest while Jimmie Ward is moving to free safety. Secondary coach Jeff Hafley held onto his job with the team partly because of the work he did last year with then-rookie Rashard Robinson, who started six games and who is a frontrunner to start this year. The other starting job will go to best among Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Will Redmond and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. The most intriguing are Redmond, a third-round pick a year ago and the last member of former general manager Trent Baalke’s all-ACL team, and Witherspoon, whose footwork was as dazzling as advertised in the recent rookie minicamp. One possible outcome: Long, leggy Robinson and Witherspoon end up as the starting corners with Redmond working as the nickel back.
Running back. For the last two years, the 49ers running back corps was Carlos and the Nobodies. This year Hyde has true competition. Is it enough to take his starting job? That’s debatable. But the influx of talent, from Tim Hightower to fourth-round pick Williams, is not and is symbolic of how the incoming regime wants to create a level of competition the previous two lacked. Trade acquisition Kapri Bibbs and undrafted rookie Matt Breida also will be interesting to watch.
Tight end. The 49ers didn’t just light a match under McDonald, they’ve built a bonfire. After acknowledging they tried to trade the under-achieving McDonald, they signed undrafted Hikutini and haven’t been shy about saying the rookie is a good fit as the “move” tight end in Shanahan’s system. Meanwhile, the team’s long-time blocking tight end, Garrett Celek, has competition from veteran Logan Paulsen and draft pick George Kittle.
Leo/elephant. A contradiction: The 49ers have a very deep defensive line but no obvious fits at the critical right defensive end spot, which the 49ers coaches refer to as the “Leo” position. Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair, Tank Carradine, Aaron Lynch or Pita Tuamoepenu could start there. A couple of those players also could get cut.