The scene at 49ers-Broncos joint practice
SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers are midway through the preseason. They must trim their roster from 90 to 75 players on Aug. 30. Four days later, they must further reduce it to 53. Here’s where things stand with every position group. The players who appear to be locks for the roster are in bold.
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert, Colin Kaepernick
It's looking more and more as if the 49ers will enter the season with Blaine Gabbert as the starter and Colin Kaepernick as the backup*. The question is whether rookie Jeff Driskel also makes the roster. Considering that most teams have a young quarterback they want to develop and that most teams only will keep two quarterbacks, the 49ers probably are safe to waive Driskel and then sign him to their practice squad. But Driskel is such a good athlete that he has true value on special teams. It's certainly possible that he makes the initial 53-man squad.
Running back: Carlos Hyde, Shaun Draughn
When training camp began, DuJuan Harris was in position to be the team's No. 3 running back, and that could remain the case. But Mike Davis looked sharp in the first preseason game, the result of a better diet, better focus and an offense that he is comfortable running. He has another advantage in that he was a fourth-round draft pick by general manager Trent Baalke while Harris was an on-the-street-free-agent pickup late last season. Rookie Kelvin Taylor has a nice blend of balance and toughness. But he's neither big nor powerful and has been inconsistent in pass protection.
Wide receiver: Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton
The group above look like a lock, if healthy, to be the Week 1 starters. Jerome Simpson, at 30 the oldest of the group, can still get open deep fown field and has something -- experience -- every other contender lacks. Ellington has a history of minor injuries, and because of that the 49ers may need to keep an extra slot receiver who also can return kicks and punts. DeAndrew White fits that description. So does Bryce Treggs, who is more explosive but who needs to show consistency. Look for Baalke and his staff to monitor/scour the waiver wire for pass catchers when rosters are being trimmed.
Offensive line: Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Trent Brown, Anthony Davis, Joshua Garnett
Those six -- barring a trade -- will make the team. Marcus Martin and Erik Pears (he's the only one who's worked with the first-string offense at left tackle aside from Staley) also seem safe. Next come Andrew Tiller and Ian Silberman. That's 10 lineman; the 49ers began last season with nine. The list doesn't include Brandon Thomas, a third-round pick in 2014 who has been playing with the third-team line. Draft picks John Theus and Fahn Cooper are worth developing on the practice squad. So is undrafted center Alex Balducci. Colin Kelly has gotten work at both tackle and center.
Tight end: Garrett Celek, Vance McDonald
Either -- or both -- player could start the Week 1 opener against the Rams. McDonald's season took off last year when Gabbert was made the starting quarterback, and that connection continued in the preseason opener. Who else makes the team? Bruce Miller is no prototypical tight end, but he's excellent on special teams and his versatility and smarts could land him a spot. Blake Bell, a former college quarterback has a lot of upside while Rory Anderson is a good down-field receiver. Je'Ron Hamm rounds out the group.
Defensive line: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey, Mike Purcell, Ronald Blair
If the 49ers expected Dorsey, who is coming off an ACL tear, to miss a significant portion of the season, they would have placed him on the physically-unable-to-perform list. That they didn't signals they believe he'll be back early. Blair is included among the defensive linemen here, but he also can play outside linebacker, which is why he has a very good chance to be in uniform on game days. Do the 49ers keep Tony Jerod-Eddie, who has been steady but unspectacular? Undrafted nose tackle Darren Lake may not make the 53-man team, but he is worth developing.
Inside linebacker: NaVorro Bowman
Remember last year at this time when it seemed as if Nick Moody was the frontrunner to start next to Bowman? Moody didn't even make the squad. Which is to say, any one of the three players competing for a starting role -- Ray-Ray Armstrong, Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhote -- either could win that job or not make the roster. When the 49ers returned the opening kickoff in their preseason opener, Wilhoite and Nick Bellore were on the field. Both are excellent on special teams, which boosts their chances of at least making the team.
Outside linebacker: Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch, Eli Harold, Tank Carradine
Lynch will serve a suspension to begin the season and will not count against the 53-man roster initially. Harold has been getting the first-team repetitions in practice opposite Brooks. Carradine, however, has been more disruptive than Harold and the position could be a two-man rotation. Blair's versatility will help the depth at this spot. Corey Lemonier has been invisible since his rookie season in 2013 -- zero sacks since then -- but it's possible the 49ers will need his experience while Lynch is on the shelf.
Cornerback: Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward, Rashard Robinson
The reason there only are three locks at this spot is that there continues to be jockeying among the cornerbacks. Chris Davis has been very good as the nickel cornerback and probably deserves a spot. But because he entered the league as an undrafted rookie, he needs to continue to impress his coaches before he bumps a more decorated player from the roster. Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser, both of whom have spent time on the outside and at nickel cornerback in practice, seem to be competing for the same spot. Johnson is a dependable special teamer. Third-round draft pick Will Redmond looks very good and may be the 49ers' nickel cornerback of the future. But he is still coming back from an ACL tear and could wind up on an injury list. Kenneth Acker, a starter last year, is on the outside looking in right now. Seventh-round pick Prince Charles Iworah is an excellent athlete who needs refinement. The practice squad may be the spot for him.
Safety: Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Jaquiski Tartt
The 49ers have some alignments -- especially against teams with good tight ends -- in which all three safeties will be on the field at the same time. L.J. McCray is a wildcard because of a knee injury that has lingered from last season. Ward also could play safety if the team were in a pinch.
* Baalke was asked Wednesday about a scenario in which Kaepernick is the backup during the season. Kaepernick is due to earn a $14.5 base salary in 2017, which would be triggered if he were to be badly injured in 2016. What would happen if Kaepernick was not the starter this year; would he still be active on game days?
“None of those decisions have been made yet, nor are we prepared to make those decisions one week into the preseason,” Baalke said. “We’re going to evaluate this team each and every week and things are fluid. You’re going to make the best decisions you can at the time you make them. Right now, we want him healthy.”