The 49ers are in trial-and-error mode when it comes to their depth chart, and the final 22 might not be set until the final preseason game Sept. 1. Here's a synopsis of the defensive position groups in late May. Keep in mind that rookies* rarely have cracked the second-team lineup at this stage of OTAs (There's one exception below) but certainly will do so by August. Also that 2015 starters Ahmad Brooks (minor injury), Glenn Dorsey (ACL) and Ian Williams have been unable to practice this month. Here’s a synopsis of the 49ers’ offensive groups from Tuesday.
Here's how the 49ers have lined up the last two weeks:
First team: LDE Arik Armstead, NT Mike Purcell, RDE Quinton Dial
Second team: LDE Tony Jerod-Eddie/DeForest Buckner*, NT Garrison Smith, RDE Kaleb Ramsey
Third team: LDE Ronald Blair*/Buckner, NT Darren Lake*, RDE Demetrius Cherry *
The 49ers have been using various compositions in their base defense and those compositions change again when they are in nickel, which is often. For example, Armstead and Dial typically become the two interior pass rushers in the first-team nickel packages while Jerod-Eddie and Purcell were the interior rushers with the second-team unit last week. All of which is to say, there will be plenty of sorting out to do during training camp. One observation is that Armstead, who seemed perfectly stout last year as a rookie, looks even more bulked up this season. He did a good job collapsing pockets in 2015 and stands to be even more effective this year. Another observation: Blair, a fifth-round pick from Appalachian State, is quick. He's been getting work in both base and nickel packages; in the latter he is in the role of one of the outside pass rushers.
With Brooks out of action, Eli Harold has worked with the first-team unit at right outside linebacker with Aaron Lynch playing on the left side. The rap on Harold in his sack-less 2015 rookie season was that his effort was excellent but that he didn't have the mass to put it to work. He seems to have remedied that in the offseason. Everything about him -- upper body, thighs, calves -- looks thicker in his second year. He'll be someone to watch when one-on-one pass-rush drills begin in training camp. Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine have been playing with the second-team unit while Marcus Rush and Jason Fanaika* have lined up with the third-team defense.
As it stands now, the top four players at the position are NaVorro Bowman, Gerald Hodges, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Michael Wilhoite. The others who have been lining up on the inside are Nick Bellore, Shayne Skov and Lenny Jones*, who was an edge rusher at Nevada. Hodges and Bowman have been the first-team linebackers for the two recent practices that have been open to the media, and it will be interesting to see if someone else gets a turn over the next couple of weeks. At this stage a year ago, Bowman was taking routine days off as he was eased back into the fold following his knee injury. This year, he has yet to miss a rotation.
The big story at this position is that Jimmie Ward is getting an extended look at right cornerback and has played well there. If he wins that job, in Ward and Tramaine Brock the team would have a pair of aggressive, physical, ball-hawking players on the outside, which is what the 49ers are seeking in their 2016 Rex Ryan-esque defense. That arrangement works best in conjunction with a couple of smart, experienced, responsible safeties, which the 49ers also have in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. If Ward is on the outside, the question becomes: Who plays nickel, a position that could be on the field as much as 65 percent of the time? Dontae Johnson has played there in the past. Keith Reaser is getting a lot of repetitions this spring as is Chris Davis. Rookie Will Redmond* likely will get worked in as a nickel cornerback as well when he is cleared to practice after last year's ACL tear. Kenneth Acker, Rashard Robinson* and Prince Charles Iworah* round out the list at cornerback. Robinson was on the left side with the third-team defense and Iworah on the right during last week's practice.
The last coaching staff took a long look at Marcus Cromartie -- tall and long-limbed -- as a potential starting cornerback last season. This year, Cromartie has been given a lot of looks at safety. I'm told Cromartie is not being removed from cornerback altogether but that that the 49ers want him to be versatile. Cromartie has been worked into both the second- and third-team rotations, which puts him next to Jaquiski Tartt and undrafted Jered Bell. The team seems to be easing L.J. McCray, whose 2015 season ended early with a knee injury, back into the fold slowly, which, coupled with Ward's move to cornerback, has created a shortage of safeties. In fact, linebackers Skov and Bellore sometimes take snaps there. … As for Tartt's role this year, he has not yet been seen taking part in any creative, dime packages. But if coordinator Jim O'Neil's goal is to get the best 11 players on the field at the same time, that sort of package likely is in the offing.