Kyle Shanahan’s end-of-summer goal: Cut a few players who are deserving of making an NFL roster.
That may sound cruel, but if the 49ers have a hard time figuring out who should make their 53-man squad in early September, it means they did a good job of acquiring talent this offseason.
“I’ve been on teams where I’ve gone out and it’s the second day of OTAs and I kind of already know who the offense is or who the defense is and you can see it,” Shanahan said this week. “When you go out there and you’ve finished OTAs and you’re going into minicamp and you’re still not quite sure, it means you’ve added good competition and you’ve done as good with the personnel situations as you can.”
The 49ers are nearing the end of the minicamp that will close their spring sessions and they’re “still not quite sure” at several positions that will be decided in training camp. The most intriguing battles to come:
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Interior offensive line – Offensive line coach John Benton said last week there’s a three-way battle among Zane Beadles, Brandon Fusco and Joshua Garnett for the two starting guard spots. A fourth player could be thrust into the mix. Jeremy Zuttah will compete with Daniel Kilgore to be the team’s starting center. Zuttah also has been getting work at right guard in the team’s minicamp.
Defensive line – After adding Elvis Dumervil, the 49ers have 13 defensive linemen. They may keep eight. Former first-round picks Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, as well as nose tackle Earl Mitchell, seem like locks. That might leave four spots for a group that includes Dumervil, Ronald Blair, Tank Carradine, Aaron Lynch, Chris Jones and draft picks D.J. Jones and Pita Taumoepenu.
Inside linebacker – When the 49ers used a first-round draft pick on Reuben Foster in April, it seemed as if weak-side linebacker Malcolm Smith might be the odd man out. Smith, however, has been one of the standouts this spring. “Malcolm is home,” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, referring to the defensive system in which Smith played early in his career in Seattle and that the 49ers are using now. Which is to say: Foster, who is expected to be medically cleared next month, will have to be excellent in training camp if he is to dislodge either Smith or middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Running back – Carlos Hyde has had the honor of getting the first running-back snaps of all the spring practices. However, he’ll have to fend off a host of other tailbacks who seem well-suited for Shanahan’s offense, including a pair of rookies, Joe Williams and Matt Breida, and a player the 49ers acquired in a trade, Kapri Bibbs.
Cornerback – The 49ers likely will have one of the most youthful rosters in the NFL this year and cornerback could be their youngest position. Rashard Robinson, 21, is the frontrunner for one of the starting spots. The other likely will go to Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser or third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon. The nickel position is shaping up as a two-man battle between K’Waun Williams and 2016 third-round pick Will Redmond.
The offensive and defensive lines seemed to be the 49ers’ biggest focus this offseason.
San Francisco finished last in the league in total defense a year ago and allowed more rushing yards – 165.9 yards a game – than any defense in the team’s 71-year history. The 49ers used three of their 10 draft picks on defensive linemen.
The offensive line, meanwhile, allowed 152 sacks over the last three seasons. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, with 156 sacks, have given up more over that span. As a result, the 49ers signed three veteran linemen in the offseason – Fusco, Tim Barnes and Garry Gilliam – and traded for Zuttah.
Said Shanahan: “If nothing is going to be handed to you, and you know that the guy behind you is just waiting for you to slip up, it’s going to raise both of your games. And we are going to always try to get that at every position.”