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Projecting what the 49ers’ 53-man roster will look like

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again. 53-man cuts are still a ways away thanks to an odd preseason schedule. The 49ers will have 17 days after their final preseason game before the start of the season, and 12 days after cuts before their first game.

But they must trim the roster from 90 to 85 on August 16, and from 85 to 80 on August 23, before final cuts from 80 to 53 on August 30.

I won’t be predicting those 5-player cutdowns, just the final 53-man roster.

Quarterback:

In (2): Trey Lance, Nate Sudfeld

Out (2): Brock Purdy, Jimmy Garoppolo

This one’s self-explanatory. The 49ers aren’t keeping Jimmy Garoppolo. At this point, it seems to be a matter of whether the Cleveland Browns lose Deshaun Watson for the season or if another theoretically competitive team loses their starting quarterback for the year.

For a moment, it seemed like that could be the Jets, who run the same offense as the 49ers, but they appear to have avoided the worst with Zach Wilson. Most reports suggest he’ll need arthroscopic surgery and is likely to miss the first 2-4 weeks of the season. So, either Jimmy ends up in Cleveland, or is cut, barring an injury to a starter.

Backfield:

In (5): Kyle Juszczyk, Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., Trey Sermon, Ty Davis-Price

Out (3): JaMycal Hasty, Jordan Mason, Josh Hokit

If they can get one of Hasty or Mason to practice squad, the 49ers would be ecstatic. All six of their running backs are NFL players, and it remains an interesting question as to how they’re going to deal with Mason.

He’s an undrafted free agent, so they’d like to get him reps… just not too many, lest other team’s prying eyes see what they do.

And with their track record of hitting on undrafted free agent running backs, it’s hard not to be worried about losing him. Just look what happened with Salvon Ahmed.

Mason took a few carries in the first preseason game and looked fluid and powerful, just as he’d looked in practice. It will be interesting to see how they’ll approach the final two games as it pertains to him.

If Hasty gets cut, you’d suspect that someone else would scoop him up, given his NFL playtime for a competitive team. Maybe if they’re comfortable losing him, he takes on a decent load so as to hide Mason.

Tight end:

In (3): George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tyler Kroft

Out (2): Tanner Hudson, Troy Fumagalli

PUP (1): Charlie Woerner

Charlie Woerner has yet to practice. It might make more sense for him to join the roster in Week 5, coming off the physically unable to perform list.

Tanner Hudson should make the roster in this situation over Ross Dwelley given that he’s an excellent pass catcher with higher athletic upside, but Dwelley has been in the system for so long and is so loved by George Kittle and co. that it might do more harm than good to keep Hudson over him. When in doubt, bet on the guy Shanahan said was one of the 49ers’ better players.

And if they want a pass-catching tight end, Dwelley and Hudson both fit that mold. Kroft may be a bit of a better blocker and has repped over Hudson with the second unit. Fumagalli doesn’t appear to be part of the competition at this stage, but those things can change.

Wide receiver:

In (5): Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Danny Gray, Ray-Ray McCloud

Out (6): Willie Snead, Malik Turner, KeeSean Johnson, Tay Martin, Austin Mack, Marcus Johnson

Maybe they keep six. It would have to be one of Snead or Turner, with Austin Mack a distant third. Snead’s a veteran who has shown up as a blocker and made a few nice catches. Turner’s been a fairly consistent pass-catching threat.

But do you need six receivers on the initial 53? You’re almost certainly going to be able to keep one of those guys on the practice squad, and there’s usually an inactive receiver on gamedays anyway.

Given the glut of talent on the defensive line, and the questions about nickel in the secondary, coupled with a few decent back-end options there, this is a good place to save a roster spot.

Offensive line:

In (8): Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Mike McGlinchey, Daniel Brunskill, Colton McKivitz, Jaylon Moore

Out (8): Justin Skule, Jason Poe, Jordan Mills, Keaton Sutherland, Dohnovan West, Nick Zakelj, Sam Schlueter, Alfredo Gutierrez

There shouldn’t be too much question here. The first seven names on that list should be locks, and Moore will probably make the team, too.

It’s just a matter of how long it takes Moore to get healthy and whether Jordan Mills can show enough in the run game to warrant staying on the roster.

So far, Mills has been one of the team’s most reliable pass protectors, which is no small feat at tackle. But the 49ers tend to prioritize mobility and put a premium on run blocking, and coaches have had to work diligently with Mills on taking the proper angles in the run game.

He may not have enough time, ability, or youth left in his legs to show enough in that regard. Plus, the 49ers seem to like Moore and have some investment in him. They’d seem likelier to bet on youth they’re familiar with than an aging veteran they were able to pick up late in camp.

Also of note here is Jason Poe and Dohnovan West.

Poe has been seriously impressive so far, showing that his height, at just a tick under 6-foot-1, is maybe not as much of an issue as it was made out to be. His low center of gravity, coupled with elite athleticism, allows him to anchor well and get out in space.

There is definitely a chance for him to make the roster, but the numbers game can be brutal, especially if the 49ers feel confident they can get him to practice squad. He’s an undersized, undrafted free agent, so you could see the logic if they bet on him getting through waivers.

That said, if they lose him, I will hold it against this front office indefinitely. He’s far too much fun to watch and has a great disposition. Plus, he said he knew just about nothing about technique before coming to the 49ers.

Keep an eye out for him to stay on the practice squad along with West, who’s looked shaky, but could be a nice developmental center option there going forward. Nick Zakelj could go on practice squad, too, and might be a better bet than Mills — simply due to age and opportunity — but he’s had significant struggles throughout this camp.

Defensive line:

In (10): Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, Drake Jackson, Charles Omenihu, Kevin Givens, Kemoko Turay, Kerry Hyder Jr., Jordan Willis, Hassan Ridgeway

Out (5):  Alex Barrett, Kevin Atkins, Akeem Spence, Robert Nkemdiche, Tomasi Laulie

Injured (1): Kalia Davis

This is an interesting group, and an extremely deep one at that.

If Robert Nkemdiche wasn’t so unpredictable, he’d probably be on the “in” list, but he’s shown himself to be a loose cannon, drawing the ire of Kris Kocurek and Darryl Tapp on a consistent basis. In a locker room that doesn’t really have any headaches, they probably don’t need to add one.

Maybe that’s just a product of on-field passion. But Arik Armstead semi-jokingly pointed it out when mic’d up at the start of camp, saying, “you should have 50 mic’d up, he’s wilin.”

But the interior is not nearly as deep as the edge, so Nkemdiche has a shot. Alex Barrett has converted to a nearly full-time interior player and has impressed there, too.

Hassan Ridgeway’s quad injury has left him sidelined for just about all of camp, and if he can’t practice, it’s hard to know if he’ll make the roster. While you’d only have Armstead, Kinlaw and Givens as clear interior players, Hyder Jr. and Omenihu can both play inside.

Maybe that’s giving them too much credit and not providing enough in terms of nose potential, but if Kinlaw and Givens are healthy, that should be enough, as long as you keep a useful player or two on practice squad.

I keep going back and forth on Ridgeway and Willis, but when I think of Willis it comes down to him blocking that iconic punt against the Packers. Maybe that’s enough goodwill?

He’s not been poor on the edge and the 49ers also traded an equivalent of a 7th-round pick for him a few years back.

At this stage, I’ll give Willis the edge over Ridgeway and Nkemdiche, but that’s an opinion I’ll be sure to waffle on for the next few weeks.

Linebackers:

In (5): Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Oren Burks

Out (4): Jeremiah Gemmel, Curtis Robinson, Segun Olubi, Marcelino McCrary-Ball

This seems like a straightforward group. The first three are locks. Oren Burks was brought in as a special teams ace and Flannigan-Fowles is well-liked in the organization.

The question, really, is who they keep on the practice squad. They seem to like Gemmel, who’s very vocal on the field, and Robinson has made a handful of nice plays on the field. So has Olubi. McCrary-Ball had the more than 60-yard interception return against the Packers. All seem decent options to stick around on the practice squad.

Corners:

In (7): Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir, Darqueze Dennard, Samuel Womack III, Dontae Johnson

Out (4): Tariq Castro-Fields, Qwuantrezz Knight, Ka’Dar Hollman, Ken Crawley

PUP (1): Jason Verrett

This might be the most difficult position to predict. The first four names feel settled, even if Lenoir fell out of favor last season.

Samuel Womack III, especially after that two-INT performance, probably has to be among that group, too.

So then it’s a question of positional flexibility and NFL viability. Darqueze Dennard and Dontae Johnson have both shown they can play at the NFL level and at a variety of positions.

Dennard pinch-hit at nickel last year to impressive results and is competing for that role with Womack. Johnson has been around forever and has made improvements over the last two years. He’s also gotten reps at safety and is possibly a better option there right now than Tarvarius Moore, who was beaten badly on Friday night en route to an easy touchdown.

There just hasn’t been enough seen from Tariq Castro-Fields yet to warrant giving him a roster spot, even given his college pedigree.

Maybe that turns out to be wrong, and behind the scenes, he’s actually impressed, or just done enough with his upside to warrant making the team.

Corner might be the toughest position to evaluate in general, and without having all-22 tape of practice, it’s really tough to know how players are doing unless you’re solely watching them.

One question is whether the 49ers keep six here to potentially go huge on the defensive line with 12, maybe keeping Ridgeway initially, then putting him on injured reserve so he can return later in the year, without losing him. Seven seems like a safer bet, but it could be more about who they think they can cut and re-sign.

While Jason Verrett could return before the end of the preseason, it may be in everyone’s best interest to keep him on ice until at least Week 5, the first time he’d be eligible to return. It gives him an long ramp-up window without pressure to get back.

Shanahan said they’d be cautious to avoid rushing him after the Steelers go-route debacle in 2019, when he was not ready. And with a player of Verrett’s caliber, especially after a bevy of career-arraigning injuries, you have to give him the time he needs.

Safeties:

In (4): Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga, Tarvarius Moore, George Odum

Out (1): Tayler Hawkins

There’s not too much question here unless the team prefers Dontae Johnson over Tarvarius Moore. But they’ve cut and signed Johnson dozens of times, while Moore, though maybe not the same after his Achilles injury, is still a more enticing player to prospective NFL teams.

While he’s struggled to be productive in his career, it makes sense to keep him around, especially at a position which is not especially deep.

Special teams (3): Taybor Pepper, Mitch Wishnowsky, Robbie Gould

The battery remains intact, folks.

 

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