San Francisco 49ers

Ranking the 49ers’ position groups as training camp begins

Colin Kaepernick, other San Francisco 49ers QBs air it out in practice

The 49ers' four quarterbacks go through drills on the last day of minicamp, June 9, 2016.
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The 49ers' four quarterbacks go through drills on the last day of minicamp, June 9, 2016.

Here’s a ranking of the 49ers’ position groups on the eve of training camp. Please let me know in the comments section where I went wrong. I’m dying to find out. Also, I’ll be hosting a live 49ers chat at 11 a.m. PST Friday. Your boss told me he/she is cool with you taking a two-hour lunch. The chat can be found here.

1. Safety

An aggressive defense needs smart safeties, which is what the 49ers have in Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid. And they have two athletic youngsters waiting in the wings in Jaquiski Tartt and, if he were needed at free safety, Jimmie Ward. Throw in L.J. McCray, whom the 49ers believe has potential at the position, and this is the team’s top position. It should be after general manager Trent Baalke used two first-round picks and a second on it since 2013. Others: Marcus Cromartie, Jered Bell

2. Defensive line

Every NFL team wants a deep, talented defensive line. The 49ers need to have a deep, talented line to keep pace with Chip Kelly’s offense, which doesn’t give defensive teammates a lot of down time. The 49ers have used their last two first-round picks on towering lineman Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and they already have an underrated youngster in Quinton Dial. The big asterisk is the health of two veterans, Ian Williams (ankle/leg) and Glenn Dorsey (ACL). The timeline of their recoveries – plus the youth of the rest of the line – suggests this unit will be much better at the end of the season than the beginning. Others: Tony Jerod-Eddie, Mike Purcell, Garrison Smith, Darren Lake, Demetrius Cherry

3. Cornerback

Ward’s move to cornerback gives the 49ers two – Tramaine Brock is the other – outside cornerbacks who are strong, aggressive and will make plays on the ball. That’s what defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is seeking in his defense. The rest of the unit, however, must be sorted out. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and rookie Will Redmond, if he’s healthy, will compete for the nickel cornerback role. Another rookie, Rashard Robinson, could be a home run or a swing and a miss. Others: Kenneth Acker, Chris Davis, Prince Charles Iworah

4. Inside linebacker

This was perennially the 49ers’ top spot when NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis manned the middle. Finding someone to fill Willis’ spot is a top priority this summer and the team will take long looks at Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong. The 49ers could wind up with Bowman and Michael Wilhoite, who doesn’t have the speed the 49ers covet but who is smart and solid. Moving the big-hitting Tartt to a quasi-linebacker role on passing downs also in an option. Others: Shayne Skov, Nick Bellore, Wynton McManis, Jason Fanaika

5. Offensive line

Yes, this unit was terrible last season and, yes, the 49ers still have a massive question mark at right tackle. But drafting Josh Garnett was a considerable step toward solving one of the guard spots and Anthony Davis’ potential return at least gives the team another option at right tackle. If Davis is motivated and is close to his previous form – admittedly big ifs – the 49ers could have an offensive line of, left to right, Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Garnett and Davis. That’s not too shabby. Others: Trent Brown, Erik Pears, Colin Kelly, Fahn Cooper, John Theus at tackle; Brandon Thomas, Andrew Tiller, Ian Silberman, Norman Price, Blake Muir at guard; Marcus Martin, Alex Balducci at center

6. Quarterback

The top two quarterbacks have something to prove, and that’s what boosts this group to this ranking. Blaine Gabbert still must escape the perception that formed when he was the Jaguars starter and is playing in his contract year to boot. Colin Kaepernick had a miserable 2015 season, and observers wonder if he’d gone from phenom to failure in just a year. Beyond that motivation, both appear to fit Chip Kelly’s quarterback mold better than perhaps any quarterback he’s had in the NFL. Others: Thad Lewis, Jeff Driskel

7. Tight end

Garrett Celek, probably the best of this group, was rewarded him with a four-year, $10.2 million contract in the offseason. Celek, however, doesn’t keep defensive coordinators awake at night. He’s symbolic of position group that is long on bodies but short on playmakers. Vance McDonald, Bruce Miller, Blake Bell, Rory Anderson and Je’Ron Hamm round out the unit. Miller, a fullback for the last five seasons, looked comfortable at his new spot in the spring. He also has the potential to be a cornerstone of the special teams coverage units. Others: LS/TE Kyle Nelson

8. Outside linebacker

This group was mediocre at best last season with Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch starting, and Lynch’s four-game suspension knocks it down another peg. A trio of young players – Eli Harold, Tank Carradine and Ronald Blair – at least gives the position intrigue. It will be interesting to see if Blair, a fifth-round pick who in the spring was a defensive line-edge rusher ‘tweener, spends more time on the edge this summer due to Lynch’s suspension. Others: Corey Lemonier, Marcus Rush, Lenny Jones

9. Running back

The concern isn’t with the starter. Carlos Hyde has enough talent to lead the NFL in rushing. The problem is what happens if the hard-running Hyde gets hurt as he did his first two years in the league. Behind him are Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris, who were jobless when the 49ers signed them last year, and youngsters Mike Davis and Kelvin Taylor, both unproven in the NFL. The 49ers need to give Hyde the Han Solo treatment this summer: Freeze him in carbonite and thaw him out shortly before the opener. Others: Kendall Gaskins

10. Wide receiver

Sobering thought: What would happen if Torrey Smith missed a few games with an MCL sprain or a twisted ankle? Beyond him and unreliable Jerome Simpson, the 49ers have no receivers with more than 36 career receptions (Quinton Patton’s three-year total). This is what happens when you decline to draft a wideout before the fourth round for four consecutivet seasons. The good news: Smith has not missed a game during his five-year career. Others: Bruce Ellington, Eric Rogers, Dres Anderson, DeAndre Smelter, DiAndre Campbell, DeAndrew White, Aaron Burbridge, Bryce Treggs, Devon Cajuste

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

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