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2015 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Colin Kaepernick
Backup(s): Blaine Gabbert

Starting QB: With any other backup over his shoulder, Kaepernick would likely be entering 2015 with his job on the line. Over his 39 NFL starts, Kaepernick has regressed mightily in nearly every passing measure - most troubling in touchdown rate and net yards per attempt, which takes into account his harrowing sack totals. And unfortunately, his 2012 debut was so truly sensational that we have noticed his regression so much more plainly. Be thankful for it, however; it is the reason we are able to take such a cheap flier on Kaepernick today. He has enough factors in his favor to warrant a hard look among the top speculative QB2 options. On the heels of his worst stretch of football, he is likely to progress somewhat to his mean, in both the pass and run games. New coordinator Geep Chryst is interested in speeding up the offense, providing for more play volume. And after running for nine touchdowns over his first 23 starts, Kaepernick notched just one last year; a return to the 3-5 touchdown range would swing his value noticeably. All told, Kaepernick provides QB1 upside at the higher end of his possible outcomes, and at an attractively low investment. Still, it is tough to confidently project Kaepernick into those numbers. Even in a best-case scenario - one in which Kaepernick progresses markedly as a passer and continues to see serious rushing usage - he is just not leading an offense that looks capable of supporting a true QB1. This is a unit that ranked 24th in football at creating red zone opportunities last year, and is now rebuilding its personnel under a largely unknown coordinator. Kaepernick is strictly an upside pick, but luckily for us, he is pretty much priced that way on draft day.

Backup QB: Gabbert, the 10th pick of the NFL draft just four years ago, has been an unequivocal bust by every measure. Skittish and inaccurate on a Tebow level, Gabbert has been arguably the league's worst quarterback since entering the league, completing just 52% of his throws and posting a lower net YPA than Rick Mirer. As scattershot as Kaepernick has looked lately, Gabbert poses no threat whatsoever to the seat. The offense may struggle and occasionally even hibernate, but it would likely plunge to league worst levels should Gabbert take the reins.

Running Backs

Starter: Carlos Hyde
Backup(s): Reggie Bush, Kendall Hunter, Mike Davis [R]
Fullback(s): Bruce Miller

Starting RB: Hyde brings to the table an awesome profile of a powerful, versatile back capable of filling Frank Gore's long worn shoes. At 6'0 230, Hyde provides a hammer with deceptive athleticism. He earned a solid workload for a rookie backup, taking 20.6 snaps per game and splitting red zone work with Gore at a near 50/50 clip. Former coordinator Greg Roman even gave Hyde snaps at wide receiver, an unorthodox move that sought to capitalize on Hyde's underrated receiving ability. And in his limited rookie role, Hyde was mostly effective, finishing fifth in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating and scoring solid marks for his blitz pickup - an important prerequisite for young backs to stay on the field. But for Hyde (or any 49er) to return on a solid investment, he'll need the 49ers offense to make huge strides. Colin Kaepernick and the passing game will need to ascend markedly to keep defenses from smothering Hyde at the line. More importantly, the offense will need to actually move the ball toward the end zone and allow Hyde to punch it in. In 2014, only eight teams saw the red zone less often than the 49ers. Hyde is a very talented back, but his RB1/2 value hinges majorly upon those scoring opportunities.

Backup RBs: Bush lands in San Francisco by way of a one year, $2.5 million deal that guaranteed just $1 million. It's easy to understand the team's desire to involve its backs in the passing game more - Kaepernick has thrown just 74 balls to halfbacks over his last 32 starts - but Bush carries plenty of red flags into the role. He's missed 16 of his last 80 games to injury, punctuated by a 2014 that saw him lose five games to a persistent ankle sprain. Bush projects to easily pace the 49ers backfield in receiving production, but in order for those numbers to reach relevance, Kaepernick will need to show a massive turnaround in his entire quarterbacking philosophy. That seems unlikely. And with a full stable of backs in place, Bush will be fighting for rushing scraps out of passing down packages. The diminutive Hunter, once considered a likely heir to Frank Gore's workload, has likely tumbled from the team's plans. Racked by major injuries - an Achilles tear in 2012 and an ACL tear in 2014 - he's the owner of a career 4.6 YPC and 9.9 YPR, but there are legitimate questions as to whether Hunter can maintain his explosion in the open field. He didn't play in 2014, and the team has since overhauled its backfield thoroughly; it's hard to see Hunter challenging for more than passing down scraps. He's likely to play behind Bush and lose ample time to Davis, a productive fourth round pick one year removed from a 1,500 yard season in the SEC. Davis is no athletic marvel, but the combine suggested a measurable profile similar to the likes of Alfred Morris and C.J. Anderson. At 5'9" and 217 pounds, he's built well for the interior running game, which will continue to be a staple of the 49ers offense. Look for Davis to see moderate backup work behind the relatively untested Hyde.

Fullback: Miller sees plenty of run as the team's only fullback. Since Kaepernick took the reins under center, Miller has served as (by far) his most utilized target out of the backfield. But that role hasn't yielded any fantasy utility whatsoever - Miller hasn't touched the ball more than 32 times or scored more than two touchdowns in any of his four partial seasons. The addition of Bush, coupled with Miller's lengthy injury history and offseason domestic violence arrest, likely ensure Miller stays relegated into a role much more useful to the 49ers than to fantasy owners.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin
Backups: Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, Jerome Simpson, DeAndre Smelter [R]

Starting WRs: Boldin joined the 49ers in 2013 in exchange for peanuts (a sixth round pick), expected to provide dependable veteran hands and leadership in a fairly low impact role. In just two years, heís definitively overtaken Colin Kaepernickís eye and rendered both Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree obsolete. Heís drawn 28.7% of 49ers targets, way up from his 23.3% share over three years in Baltimore. Still, that favoritism hasnít resulted in many fireworks: a modest 12 touchdowns and 13.4 yards per catch. Boldin has produced at a solid fantasy WR3 clip and flashed WR2 value, but his upside has been and remains limited. At 34, Boldin is unlikely to reverse the downward trend of his per target efficiency numbers, but his solid floor slots him nicely as a fantasy WR4 type. The more intriguing option here is Smith, in town by way of a guaranteed $22 million and a contract nearly uncuttable before 2018. Smith was a polarizing free agent target, having shown outstanding downfield chops but uneven play elsewhere. Kaepernick isn't a very accurate passer, but like Smith's former quarterback Joe Flacco, he's historically been solid to great with the deep ball. Perhaps most encouraging about Smith is his outstanding red zone production in Baltimore, where he turned 53 career targets into 18 touchdowns. That's good for an outstanding 34% red zone touchdown rate, higher than that of Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, and Demaryius Thomas.

Backup WRs: Ellington has a lot going for him: he's versatile and athletic, and there is opportunity to be had as the team rebuilds its stable of receivers. If Week 16 of his rookie season was any indication, the team projects Ellington into a Percy Harvin role, worked into multiple packages and given touches in both phases of the offense. It was certainly exciting to see him given two looks from inside the 10 that week (he converted both into touchdowns). And he's seen extensive usage all over the field thus far in camp; the Harvin comparison may not be far off base, but the volume game holds him back. Smith and Boldin are entrenched in the lineup and Boldin plays the slot in three-wide sets. Still, Ellington will return kicks and provide a dynamic, if inconsistently used, spark in the 49ers short-to-intermediate game. And the expected increase in offensive tempo would suit Ellington's quick-hitting skillset nicely, boosting his opportunity into speculative WR5 territory. In the 2013 draft, Patton was a highly regarded possession type who averaged a 92/1,297/12 line in Louisiana Tech's grip it and rip it offense. He's been active for just ten games as a pro, and with just three career receptions, he has yet to make any NFL mark whatsoever. If not for the team's lack of depth at wideout, Patton would be very much on the 2015 roster bubble. In fact, his fortunes may be tied to those of Smelter, the team's fourth round pick, as he recovers from December ACL surgery. A big framed YAC threat who averaged 18.9 YPC at Georgia Tech, Smelter is likely to open camp (and perhaps the season) on PUP, but a speedy recovery might launch him past Patton into the team's plans. Simpson has long been one of the league's least efficient wideouts. Since his three game breakout in late 2010, he's consistently ranked near the very bottom of the league in catch rate and yards per target. He's no more than a camp flier.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vernon Davis
Backups: Derek Carrier, Vance McDonald, Blake Bell [R]

Once the central focus of the pre-Harbaugh passing game, Davis' role has devolved into more of a complementary one. His snap rate hasn't fallen, but his usage has plummeted, from a 22 percent target share from 2009 to 2011 to just 12 percent last year. His 2014 registered as a nightmare scenario, as Davis turned in career lows across the board and failed to produce a touchdown after Week 1. Injuries may help to explain the tumble - Davis has struggled with nagging hamstring, back, and concussion issues - but even when healthy, he simply has not caught the eye of Colin Kaepernick. This has been especially true in the red zone; outside of an outlying 2013, Davis has seen just 25 looks from Kaepernick from inside the 20. Davis isn't necessarily a lost cause, of course. He's only 31 and just one year removed from a 13-touchdown campaign. But the stars his value needs to align look like serious long shots, especially with a new coaching staff and rebuilt offensive roster. McDonald, the 55th pick in the 2013 draft, has yet to establish himself whatsoever in the 49ers passing game. In 23 games across two injury marred seasons, McDonald has seen just 27 targets come his way, and he certainly hasn't helped his case much by catching just 10 of them. Despite Vernon Davis dumpster fire of a season, McDonald's snap rate fell dramatically in his second year, a crucial point in evaluating young tight ends. He's an intriguing option with plus size (6'4", 267) and athleticism (a 4.60 40 and 31 bench press reps at his combine), but most of his dynasty value has pretty much washed away as the previous coaching staff refused to work him into the offense. There's always hope that a new staff can find value in a guy like McDonald, but the unlikelihood makes him entirely hands off in redraft formats. Carrier may be the more intriguing youngster, as the team recently gave him a two year contract extension. He's an impressive athlete who caught three fourth quarter passes in a relief role in Week 4, a more productive game than we've ever seen from McDonald. That said, there's no volume whatsoever to be had as a reserve pass catcher on this roster. As much as Davis' usage and production have fallen of late, he's still drawn 82% of the team's tight end targets and accounted for 84% of yardage since 2013. The team spent a fourth round pick on Bell, a huge (6'6 252) ex-quarterback who showed some red zone chops in his limited time at tight end. Still, Bell isn't much of an athlete and will turn 24 during training camp. He's likely competing for a helmet on game days.

Place Kicker

Phil Dawson: After a great 2013, Dawson slipped back to the middle of the pack in fantasy scoring among kickers. He only made 25 of his 31 field goal attempts, although he tied for second most made attempts from 50+ yards, with six going through the upright (out of nine). The 49ers offense and team could slip this year, which is likely to be a net loss for Dawson as the kicker in an already low octane offense. He's barely getting drafted, which shows that the fantasy community has caught up to his slide in value.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Bruce Ellington, DeAndrew White, Jarryd Hayne

Running back Bruce Ellington took over for LaMichael James last season and handled most of the returns for San Francisco. Ellington's 25.6 yards per return was 7th best in the league amongst players with more than 15 returns. Ellington also returns a higher percent of deep kickoffs than many other returners, which gives his fantasy points for return yards a boost. Early in preseason the team indicated Reggie Bush is the most experienced player. The emergence of former rugby player Jarryd Hayne gave the 49ers a number of options. Ellington has ended up the primary returner with DeAndrew White filling in during injuries.

Punt Returners: Bruce Ellington, Jarryd Hayne [R]

Bruce Ellington and Perrish Cox split the return duties last season though Cox has now departed for Tennessee. What started as a large group of potential returners with Reggie Bush, Bruce Ellington, Jarryd Hayne, and DeAndrew White, continues to whittle down. Hayne landed the job early with a number of outstanding punt returns and runs in preseason while Ellington and Bush were both injured early in the year. With their return, Hayne was left inactive and then was released before rejoining the team. Reggie Bush's torn MCL ended his season. The chances of Hayne regaining the job have increased though Ellington is still a capable returner.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Brandon Thomas, C Marcus Martin, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis
Key Backups: T Erik Pears, T Chris Martin, C Daniel Kilgore, G Joe Looney, T Ian Silberman [R], G Trent Brown [R], G Andrew Tiller

The 49ers have solid starting tackles in Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. Staley, who made the Pro Bowl last year, has not missed a start since 2010 and has been a rock for this team. The team rewarded Staley with a contract extension through the 2017 season. Davis had a rough year due to several different injuries but he is a veteran who should be much better once at full health. Right guard Alex Boone had a slow start after a lengthy holdout but really turned it on in the second half of the season. Boone never did get that contract extension and should be playing rabid football to earn his paycheck after this season, probably in another uniform. When in form, Boone has Pro Bowl potential. This line used to be ranked higher and the main reason for the drop is because Pro Bowler Mike Iupati defected to the division rival Arizona Cardinals in free agency. Without Iupati (who was better at run blocking than pass protection) the left guard position appears to be Brandon Thomas' to lose. A third round selection in 2014, Thomas sat out last year rehabbing an ACL tear suffered in college. Thomas was a relatively high profile prospect prior to the injury and the 49ers have used the redshirt year concept at several other positions with success. Should Thomas not win the job, other options unclude Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin. One of those two will start at center (likely Martin) and Kilgore should be the guard competition as well as first man off the bench. The team has picked up Erik Pears as a possible swing option and they drafted the massive Trenton Brown out of Florida but neither of these players should see significant action. Overall this line is decent and can improve in the rankings if Brandon Thomas can step up and take the left guard position. This is a situation to watch in preseason.

Team Defense

Does anyone even recognize this defense? A devastating offseason that included the retirement of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland has left the ruins of a unit that was one of the best in the league in recent years. Outside of Navorro Bowman, who is two years removed from playing football, and Aldon Smith, who was suspended for a good part of 2014, the 49ers defense has nothing in common with the one that was one play from being Super Bowl champs just three short years ago. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is gone, so a team-wide slide is likely, with the defense leading the way. The 49ers were able to finish in the middle third of the league in fantasy D/ST rankings, in part because of a league-leading 23 interceptions, but strangely most of their best games were on the road after they had one of the weakest home-field advantages in the league at their new digs in Santa Clara. They could still get drafted on reputation, but the 49ers D/ST should be relegated to desperation streamer status because of their unreliable ups and downs and loss of top front seven talent.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Glenn Dorsey, DE Darnell Dockett, NT Ian Williams
Backups: DE Cornellius Tank Carradine, DE Arik Armstead [R], DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, DE Lawrence Okoye, DE Kaleb Ramsey, DE/DT Quinton Dial, NT Mike Purcell

Starting DL: After being top 10 in points and top five in yards allowed in the past half decade, the 49ers have suffered uncharacteristic attrition at every level of the defense, from what had been a very stable nucleus in the Jim Harbaugh/Vic Fangio era (both also departed). Between the retirement of DE Justin Smith (5 X Pro Bowl, 3 X All-Pro) and ILB Patrick Willis (7 X Pro Bowl, 6 X All-Pro), the defense has lost an aggregate 12 Pro Bowls and nine All-Pro seasons worth of combined talent and experience to retirement. Former starting DE Ray McDonald (already released by the Bears for another alleged domestic violence incident) was jettisoned. New DC Eric Mangini will be working with some old faces in new places, and new faces in old places, for example, potential bookend starting DEs, former NT Dorsey and Cardinal Docket. They both missed the 2014 season, with a torn biceps and ACL, respectively. Dorsey's athletic versatility and positional flexibility makes him scheme transcendent, he played on the inside in a 4-3 as a highly decorated DT at LSU, a 3-4 DE after Kansas City made him a top five overall pick in the 2008 draft, 3.4 NT and now DE for San Francisco. The shift from inside to outside will be old hat for him after his first gig with the Chiefs. Whether Dorsey can play up to the level of Justin Smith in his prime as he turns 30 is a different question, but Smith didn't play up to that level in his final 'fade into the sunset' 2014 campaign, either, due to various injuries (notably a damaged shoulder). Ex-Arizona third rounder Dockett was signed to a two year, team-friendly contract, and brings some Pro Bowls (3 X, 1 X All-Pro) back into the fold, though he hasnít been voted in for five years, since 2010, and could be described as a stop-gap in the twilight of his career, turning 34 before the season starts. Like Dorsey, he's scheme diverse, playing the first five years of his career in Arizona as a 4-3 DT, than after a coaching-related defensive system change, the next five switched to 3-4 DE. It awaits to be seen whether the two vets can approximate the impact of Smith. At his best, with the highly disruptive 'country strong' power to wreak havoc at the LOS, occupy and tie up multiple OL, bring occasional QB pressure and most importantly, enable his talented LB corp to make more plays were key components of the consistently outstanding defensive performance of the 49ers, and could prove hard to replace. Williams is a former unsigned free agent and brings welcome youth to the DL, turning 26 in 2015. The Notre Dame alumni is the most effective NT on the roster when healthy.

Backup DL: Carradine and Dial could be the first two DL off the bench, with the former subbed in and used situationally in obvious passing situations (3 sacks in limited action during 2014, his second season). Carradine was the eighth player taken in the second round of the 2013 draft, but almost certainly would have been a first round pick if not for a torn ACL suffered in 2012, his final season at Florida State. At 6'4", 295 lbs., he has the requisite size for a 3-4 DE. His rookie season was a red shirt year (as it was for 2013 fourth round RB Marcus Lattimore, who unfortunately had to retire due to what ultimately proved intractable knee injuries, as well as 2014 third round guard Brandon Thomas, slated to replace former mid-first round, 3 X Pro Bowl free agency departure Mike Iupati, in a recent Trent Baalke-initiated IR roster development subdivision). At 26 and already in his third season, Carradine has been brought along slowly, but now is the time to shine and show he has what it takes to be a future starting caliber DE if/when he is given the opportunity. A surgical two spot trade down in the mid-first fetching extra 2015 fourth and 2016 fifth round picks so SD could take RB Melvin Gordon, still yielded targeted DE Arik Armstead. At close to 6'8" and 290+ lbs., the former Oregon star is a doppleganger and virtual clone of Dockett's former Cardinal Pro Bowl bookend DE, Calais Campbell. Armstead oozes raw talent, but needs to play with greater consistency to actualize his formidable potential, and could be a year or two away from making a bigger impact and more substantial contribution.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Navorro Bowman,, ILB Michael Wilhoite, OLB Ahmad Brooks, OLB Aaron Lynch
Backups: ILB Nick Moody, ILB Desmond Bishop, ILB Nick Bellore, ILB Shayne Skov, OLB OLB Eli Harold [R], OLB Corey Lemonier, OLB Philip Wheeler, OLB Marcus Rush

Starting LBs: Only two defensive starters remain from Super Bowl XLVII, LBs NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. Losing future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis at just 30 is a blow to the team, he was the heart and soul of the defense (as is the loss of Frank Gore, the counterpart heart and soul of the offense), but a changing of the guard had already been taking place for several years. Willis played just six games in 2014, and was last voted All-Pro in 2012. Bowman had made First team All-Pro three consecutive seasons before suffering a torn ACL against the Seahawks in the playoffs after the 2013 season. By the time the regular season starts, he will have had about 20 months since his injury, and be just 27. Bowman avoided the PUP list, is moving extremely well in training camp, drawing praise from the coaching staff and is confident of a return to his All-Pro form. One thing that made Willis and Bowman special as an inside linebacker duo was their freakish athleticism and coverage ability for the position, and ability to remain on the field in any down and distance situation. Wilhoite is a former UFA from football factory Washburn, and turns 29 in 2015. He was a competent if unspectacular replacement for Bowman last year, taking the place of Willis this season. Brooks has succeeded at every level, a former prep USA Today Defensive Player of the Year and #1 outside linebacker prospect in the nation, First-team All-American at Virginia and 2 X All-Pro. Like retired former Chicago LB Brian Urlacher, another nearly 260 lb. LB, he was a freaky enough athlete to run back kickoff returns at times in college. Brooks is 31, reported overweight last year, cheaper alternative Aaron Lynch played comparably, he was benched several times in the second half of the crumbling 2014 season for team violations (including screaming at the current HC) and he has multiple off field issues. But he reported to camp lighter, has been unblockable at times and the 49ers need all the pass rushing help they can get. After restructuring Aldon Smith's contract in the offseason to reflect his massive off-field risk, minimizing guaranteed money, there was recent talk of his having turned the corner and a possible future extension. But after a sadly unsurprising relapse, with his fifth (and third DUI-related) arrest just days before the official kickoff of the NFL preseason, the organization leadership cited a refusal to accept personal responsibility for releasing the talented but troubled former top 10 overall pick, who broke Reggie White's sack record in his first two seasons. Lynch was a day three rookie from South Florida that flashed potential last year during Smith's nine game suspension (tying Brooks for the team lead with 6 sacks), and should be the next man up, but Corey Lemonier and Eli Harold could also be pressed into action on a rotational basis.

Backup LBs: As big a shock and disappointment as the retirement of Willis was, the early exit from the NFL stage by 24 year old Borland over long term brain trauma concern, coming on the heels of a phenomenal rookie season, may have been an even more stunning bomb shell announcement. The former Wisconsin star who was supposedly too short (5'11'), too slow (4.83) and too un-athletic (27.5 VJ) to make his presence felt in the NFL, not only made an impact, but put up among the best tackle numbers in the league and was one of the 49ers few bright spots, during an otherwise abysmal second half of the season. While Borland had limitations and flaws in pass coverage, his premature loss compounds that of Willis particularly in the run game. Lemonier is inexperienced due to limited reps and could be in danger of being passed by Harold , too (some scouts graded him as a potential first round talent).

Defensive Backs

Starters: FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, CB Shareece Wright
Backups: FS/CB Jimmie Ward, SS Jaquiski Tartt [R], SS Craig Dahl, S Jermaine Whitehead, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Leon McFadden, CB Marcus Cromartie, CB Kenneth Acker, CB Keith Reaser, CB Chris Cook

Starting DBs: The starting safeties return intact, have interchangeable skill sets, and can alternate in the box for run support, or deep in pass coverage, helping to disguise tendencies, and keep opposing offenses guessing (San Francisco paced the NFL with 23 INTs in 2014). Reid has nice size (6'1", 213 lbs.), is a gifted athlete (40.5" VJ, 11'2" broad jump) with mid-first round pedigree, was a star hurdler as a prep, All-American at LSU, has multi-faceted skills and game as a ball hawk that hits like an electric axe handle, lit up more receivers than a Best Buy show room, and unusually for a rookie safety, made the Pro Bowl after a spectacular 2013 campaign. He ominously suffered his third concussion in two years of NFL play late in the 2014 season, which bears close monitoring. Reid turns just 24 in his third year, hopefully the early retirement of Borland doesn't foreshadow a parallel early departure from the game. Greater awareness of the devastatingly harmful long term consequences and suffering associated with chronic, repetitive brain trauma has heightened concern not just in the medical community, but among retired and active players alike (who in some tragic cases, are walking around with the neurological equivalent of a ticking time bomb in their cranial cavity). One of the most high profile known examples of overcoming multiple concussions while maintaining an elite level of play was the recently retired, Hall of Fame-caliber safety, Troy Polamalu, who candidly estimated having approximately 8-9 officially recorded concussions. Ex-Colts safety Bethea has been a great free agent acquisition for the 49ers. Turning 31 in 2015, the 3 X Pro Bowler continues to play at a high level, evident by being voted 2014 Team MVP. Bethea isn't as big as Reid (5'11", 206 lbs.), but has similar strong/free safety athletic versatility and positional flexibility, as well as a dual enforcer/playmaker profile. Starting CBs Perrish Cox (TEN) and Chris Culliver (WAS) dominated snaps last year, and both departed in free agency. This is the second year in a row the 49ers have made a clean sweep of the starting CB position, with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown sent packing after 2013. Brock lacks prototypical size at 5'10", 197 lbs., but compensates with a competitive and feisty attitude, and a playmaking penchant as a reserve led to a four year, $16 million extension during the 2013 season. The sixth year former UFA from football powerhouse Belhaven only played three games last year due to an early toe injury (Cox was ticketed for nickel CB duty before being pressed into the starting gig due to Brock's injury). The starter opposite Brock is still TBD, and will be sorted out in training camp. If you follow the money, Wright is actually the highest paid CB on the team, and could get first crack at the gig. Last year's first round, multi-position defensive back, Jimmie Ward, is expected to remain in his nickel role. Fellow class of '14 secondary member, fourth round dime back Dontae Johnson also has the athletic versatility and positional flexibility to play safety and CB, is an outstanding size/speed combo (6'2", 200 lbs., mid-4.4 40 time), helped seal a win against the Rams with a pick six, and could have the talent to eventually emerge as the starter.

Backup DBs: Ward represented a first round pedigree safety for the second season in a row last year. He arguably had the best passing game instincts, coverage skills and ball hawking ability among the first round safeties from the class of '14 (taken after Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Deone Buchanon). While using such premium draft real estate on a position in which Reid and Bethea were cemented as starters may at first glance have seemed like a luxury pick, he was selected with his ability to play nickel CB in mind (at least initially). San Francisco emphasized that they deploy the nickel package upwards of 60% of the time, a percentage which could even trend upwards depending on some week-to-week matchups. Like increasingly more teams, organizationally they view the position as effectively that of a starter, critically important enough to justify first round prioritization. Despite being 5'10" 192 lbs., Ward is an aggressive, hard-nosed open field tackler that doesn't shy away from contact in run support, and fit right into the secondary and defense. In a few years, there is the potential for the multi-talented and larger Reid to slide to strong safety and Ward to eventually join him in the starting lineup at FS. Tartt in turn represents another high pedigree rookie safety (second round) for the third year in a row. He is the highest drafted Samford alumni ever (retired Pro Bowler Cortland Finnegan was a seventh rounder). Tartt has WLB-like size at 6'1" 220 lbs., and he is a fearsome, intimidating striker that hits like one, too. He has been clocked in the sub-4.5 range, making him an elite size/speed physical specimen and athletic phenom. While some questioned the pick as a bit of a reach, given the 49ers current uncertainty and potential for future disarray at the linebacker position, drafting a prospect that could help them field a stronger big nickel package (effectively as a LB) could turn out to be an excellent use of that pick. The front office and coaching staff may be taking a cue from division rivals Seattle and Arizona, architecting a young, talented and deep secondary according to their blueprint, which makes a lot of sense in a league which has trended towards the pass for so long. Acker and Reaser both missed the entire 2014 season.

Last modified: 2015-11-03 12:37:49