NFL Training camp is beginning this week and the 49ers will begin a new regime. Their new coach, general manager and players will hope they can build a new winning culture. Here are some of the key position battles, x-factors and roster decisions ahead of training camp.
Top Position Battle: Defensive Line
The 49ers used their top draft pick on what was already their deepest position. San Francisco selected Solomon Thomas with the No. 3 NFL Draft pick after selecting a defensive lineman in the first round of the past two drafts.
Now, the 49ers enter into a new 4-3 defensive scheme. It appears that Thomas, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner will earn the starting reps due to their draft investment. However, this means veterans like Tank Carridine, Chris Jones, Earl Mitchell and Aaron Lynch will battle for situational roles.
Added, Elvis Dumervil and Ahmad Brooks will also compete for situational pass rush reps as they are both hybrid ends and linebackers. This position battle could get sorted out if anyone goes down with an injury. Otherwise, these guys will duke it out for playing time all year.
Veteran on Notice: LB NaVorro Bowman
NaVorro Bowman is fresh off an Achilles’ injury that ended his season last year. Some have said that he does not look back at full speed yet. Bowman is still under contract until 2022 but the 49ers could begin phasing him out. The 29-year-old only appeared in four games last year and he missed the entire 2014 season with an injury.
San Francisco selected Reuben Foster in the first round of the NFL draft too. Foster is a highly instinctive linebacker from Alabama. His experience in the 4-3 defense is limited so he may not become the immediate signal caller. Foster may compete with veteran Malcolm Smith with playing time on the outside. Bowman has more than $10 million in guarantees left on his contract so the 49ers will probably keep him at least another season. Either way, Foster will come for Bowman’s job at middle linebacker sooner than later.
Potential Surprise Roster Cut: RB Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde registered 988 rushing yards and six touchdowns for an underwhelming 49ers offense last season. He is the slated starter again this year so it would be surprising to see him get cut.
NFL.com questions Hyde’s fit in Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone scheme that utilizes a quarterback under center. They also point out that the new regime seems more impressed with rookie RB Joseph Williams than Hyde who has survived through three coaching changes. Hyde is only under contract for one year and the 49ers have Tim Hightower on the roster too. Hightower’s physical running style mirrors Hyde, which could make the 26-year-old one of the biggest surprise cuts in the NFL.
Biggest X-Factor: CB Rashard Robinson
Corner Rashard Robinson registered six starts and one interception after being selected in the fourth round. Now, accounts say he looks like a legit starting corner. San Francisco has not had many legit starting corners over the past few years.
Robinson could become a key part of that defense if he continues the momentum through the season. His size and strength were his biggest questions coming out of LSU and he will get tested versus the big receivers in Arizona and Seattle. Robinson can prove that he is a legit a starting corner. Otherwise, San Francisco may look to the draft for another outside defender next season.
Most Critical Rookie: Solomon Thomas
The 49ers did not draft Thomas to sit a year behind veteran defensive linemen. They did not pick him over a QB because they have a franchise signal caller. San Francisco drafted Thomas because he was a pro ready pass rusher.
Now, Thomas must prove that he can transform the 49ers defense via the edge. They are building the new defensive scheme around him and his young peers. Thomas must play well early or fans will wish their team drafted a quarterback instead.