San Francisco 49ers

49ers roster analysis: The talent is on defense, but so is the youth

Buckner and Armstead dynamic duo reunited for 49ers

San Francisco 49ers defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are reunited from their college days with the Oregon Ducks. And they're having a blast.
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San Francisco 49ers defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are reunited from their college days with the Oregon Ducks. And they're having a blast.

SANTA CLARA -- Here’s a look at the 49ers’ position groups ranked by overall strength. The team’s regular season beings Monday at 7:20 p.m. against the Los Angeles Rams.

Defensive line

Starters: Arik Armstead, Mike Purcell, Quinton Dial

Backups: DeForest Buckner, Glenn Dorsey, Ronald Blair, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Taylor Hart

Synopsis: Chip Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro will go back to their routine at Oregon, which was to rotate heavily on the defensive line to the point at which even backups can get 25-30 snaps. Two rookies could see significant action, Buckner and fifth-rounder Blair.

Concerns: The 49ers didn't put Dorsey on the physically-unable-to-perform list when training camp started, which implied they thought he'd be ready by Week 1 or soon thereafter. It's unclear what his role will be early on after he sat out all of the preseason. Armstead, meanwhile, also missed all of the preseason games with a shoulder injury he acknowledged might require year-end surgery. After Dorsey, Dial is the oldest player, and he's just 26. Which is to say, the group is talented but mostly unproven.

Offensive line

Starters: Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Anthony Davis, Trent Brown

Backups: Joshua Garnett, Marcus Martin, Andrew Tiller, John Theus

Synopsis: This is far and away a more talented group than last year's starting unit that featured Martin, who is now a backup, and Jordan Devey and Erik Pears, who are off the roster. The line includes two first-round picks in Staley and Davis; a third, Garnett, could be added at some point. Kilgore is secretly one of general manager Trent Baalke's better picks. He's a fifth rounder who's smart and dependable. Kilgore and Colin Kaepernick are the only remaining members of Baalke's vaunted 2011 draft class.

Concerns: The unit started just one game together in the preseason and Davis is playing a new position, right guard. Trent Brown had a strong preseason but only has two NFL starts to this point. The overarching question: How long will it take for this line to coalesce?

Cornerback

Starters: Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward, Chris Davis (nickel back)

Backups: Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Rashard Robinson

Synopsis: This is a deep and young group that will largely pivot on how quickly Ward can adjust to being a full-time starter on the outside. Davis is the only non draft pick of the group. Feisty and quick, he also could be tapped for return-man duties. Robinson is raw but obviously talented. Will Redmond was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury but could press Davis at the nickel spot if he returns later this season.

Concerns: Ward and Davis simply haven't been tested that much at their respective positions. At 28, Brock is the old man of the group. He's talented and his skill set is perfect for this defense. But he's been injured in the past.

Safety

Starters: Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid

Backups: Jaquiski Tartt, Marcus Cromartie

Synopsis: This is a smart, experienced starting group and a nice balance to the youth at cornerback. Kudos to Cromartie for making the initial roster. He seemed like a longshot in the spring when the 49ers first moved him from cornerback.

Concerns: The group is big on brains, but it's certainly not the fastest. Tartt is easily the most physically gifted of the bunch, but barring injury the 49ers would have to strain -- create oddball packages -- to get him on the field.

Outside linebacker

Starters: Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold

Backups: Tank Carradine, Blair, Aaron Lynch (reserve/suspended)

Synopsis: Harold, Tank Carradine and Blair have shown progress at this position, giving it decent depth. That depth will be in full effect in Week 5 when Lynch's suspension is over. Brooks' dedication has waxed and waned over his career, but he goes into the season in good shape.

Concern: The 49ers may be deeper at this position than they've been in recent years, but there is no star. Brooks and Lynch, for example, tied for the team lead in sacks last year with a ho hum 6.5. Harold gained size over the offseason but still must develop strength. Carradine might be the best pass rusher of the group. Do coaches trust him enough to give him significant snaps?

Tight end

Starters: Garrett Celek, Vance McDonald

Backups: Blake Bell

Synopsis: McDonald's numbers rose sharply when Gabbert took over at quarterback last season and he could be one of the offensive players who benefits most from Kelly's offense. Celek's older brother, Brent, put up solid numbers in Philadelphia. Garrett is taller and the better athlete.

Concerns: McDonald has a big upside, but he's mostly been a disappointment to this point in his career. The 49ers lost some of their depth/versatility with Bruce Miller's release on Monday.

Inside linebacker

Starters: NaVorro Bowman, Gerald Hodges

Backups: Ray-Ray Armstrong, Michael Wilhoite, Nick Bellore

Synopsis: The result of the three-man competition at inside linebacker: All three men landed a roster spot. Who starts next to Bowman may depend on the opposition's opening play. That is, if the Rams trot out three receivers, Armstrong, who is better on passing downs, could get the nod. Inside linebackers, especially Bellore and Wilhoite, tend to be good on specials teams.

Concern: What's the adage? If you have two starting quarterbacks you don't have one. What does it say when you have three starting inside linebackers?

Running back

Starter: Carlos Hyde

Backups: Shaun Draughn, Mike Davis, DuJuan Harris

Synopsis: The 49ers will be among the league leaders in rushes this year, which puts Hyde in a position to be among the league leaders in rushing. Draughn is particularly good on third downs and seemed to have an automatic rapport with Gabbert in the passing game. Davis looks like the most improved 49er after his humble rookie season.

Concerns: That Hyde couldn't make it out of the preseason uninjured is a major concern. As much praise as Draughn and Harris received for their professionalism last season, the 49ers didn't come close to having a 100-yard rusher after Hyde got injured.

Quarterback

Starter: Blaine Gabbert

Backups: Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder

Synopsis: Gabbert is far better than the national perception of him, which is still based on his floundering early years in Jacksonville. The 49ers must figure out their quarterback of the future -- or at least 2017 -- this season. Is it: A. Gabbert. B. Kaepernick. C. Neither A nor B? Both Gabbert and Kaepernick seem to fit the mold for a Chip Kelly quarterback more than the ones he had in Philadelphia.

Concerns: Gabbert already has a tendency to check down for safe throws. The 49ers' dearth of talent at receiver may reinforce that and make the 49ers easy to defend. What will the 49ers do with Kaepernick? Kelly seems to want him in uniform. The team's brass seems to want him in street clothes to eliminate the risk of him getting hurt and triggering a $14.5 million guarantee for next season. How much friction will this create? And will Kaepernick stay quiet if he is deactivated?

Wide receiver

Starters: Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Jeremy Kerley

Backups: Rod Streater, Aaron Burbridge

Synopsis: Smith has similar size and speed to Jeremy Maclin, who had a career season under Kelly in Philadelphia. Kerley, meanwhile, could end up being Gabbert's favorite wide receiver. Patton has made plays in dribs and drabs in the past but must learn consistency.

Concerns: Two of the team's top four receivers were added in the last week and a half after injuries claimed three receivers -- Eric Rogers, Bruce Ellington and DeAndre Smelter -- for the season. The condition of this unit also underscores how it has been ignored in the draft since the botched A.J. Jenkins' pick in 2012. What happens if Smith gets hurt? Or Kerley? It's not clear who backs him up at slot receiver.

Three 49ers defensive linemen -- Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial and Glenn Dorsey -- enter Week 1 with injuries. Here's how they looked early on.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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