49ers fans were given a brief scare Wednesday morning when star quarterback Shaun Hill tweaked something in his lower back and was held out of the afternoon practice. Fortunately he was back out there in the Santa Clara heat on Thursday and he reported that everything was fine, so the march to the championship once more looks to be a mere formality.
I kid, of course, but before we delve into the fantasy prospects of what just might be the most boring roster in the NFL, I thought I'd do something a bit different and give you one insider's predictions on which 53 gentlemen will be on the opening day roster.
Today I'll cover the offense, tomorrow the defense and special teams, as well as the fantasy projections.
QB: (3) There has been speculation that the team will be keeping four quarterbacks, but honestly, I just don't see it. Nate Davis was drafted from a spread offense at Ball State (Davis himself told me that by his estimation he was in shotgun 70% of the time), and it will be a big transition for him to run a pro set. He described the 49ers offense as "completely different, with absolutely nothing [being] the same," from what he's used to.
A lot of NFL teams were scared off in the draft by Davis' learning disability, so it's unlikely that if the Niners tried to stash him on the practice squad that someone would snatch Davis away and take the time and effort to teach him yet another new offense.
Some reporters have suggested that the team might let Damon Huard go to keep Davis on board, but that's just not happening. Huard is an ideal veteran third quarterback and he was very good in his half of action against Denver in the first preseason game.
The conspiracy theory has Alex Smith as the odd man out now that he's lost the starting quarterback competition to Hill, but again, that's too nutty for me and it would be a PR nightmare. Smith is obviously miles away from realizing his potential as a number one overall draft pick, but at least he's got his arm strength back now after undergoing two shoulder operations the past two years.
RB: (4) Frank Gore is the stud and really the only known commodity of the offense and both Head Coach Mike Singletary and Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye announced that the offense would pretty much be his show. Third round pick Glen Coffee has impressed everyone and is the league's leading rusher through two preseason games, and he will be the first legitimate backup Gore has had. Michael Robinson is a versatile guy who will be the third back, the backup fullback, a quarterback option in their "Taser" package, and a valuable special teams performer. Moran Norris will be the primary fullback and was personally recruited back on the team by Gore.
Kory Sheets, an undrafted rookie from Purdue, has been impressive (5th overall in preseason rushing yards) in his limited appearances thus far, but I think he's just going to get caught in the numbers crunch. The team would love to keep him on the practice squad, I'm sure, but a number of teams could use an upgrade at third RB - the Eagles quickly come to mind - and somebody will claim him.
Brit Miller, a fullback who's another undrafted free agent, has opened some eyes in preseason, and he's likely going to be kept around on the practice squad.
WR: (6) The big story here is who isn't on the roster: Michael Crabtree. The 10th overall pick out of Texas Tech is still unsigned and is adamant that he will not sign for less money than what WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, the 7th overall pick, got from the Raiders. From what I'm hearing, this stalemate is more player-driven than agent-driven, and if no one is going to talk sense into the mercurial Crabtree soon, he'll be unable to help the 49ers at all this season, if ever.
Crabtree's absence opens up a spot on the roster for someone else to emerge, and a host of receive have taken the initiative in camp. Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan, a big second year guy from Virginia Teach who came on late last year, will be the starters. Brandon Jones was signed as a free agent from the Titans to be the third guy, but he's fractured the AC joint in his right shoulder and will miss the first month of the regular season. Jason Hill and Arnaz Battle both have experience in the slot and they're going to stick, with Battle in particular valuable as a backup reserve man and "Taser" QB.
The last roster spot will be between Dominique Zeigler and Micheal Spurlock. The former is the more polished receiver, while Spurlock would be the team's first choice as "Taser" QB and is an explosive returner. My money is on Spurlock, though he's likely going to be just keeping the roster seat warm until Crabtree signs.
TE: (3) Vernon Davis, the enigmatic tight end has been a star at camp, catching every pass in tight and boasting about how Raye's "tight end friendly" offense will finally turn him into the All-Pro player he was always supposed to be. Before we lump in him in with the Gonzalezes and the Gateses of the fantasy world though, let's pause to consider that Davis has always torn it up in every camp he's been in. Much more intriguing to me is backup Delanie Walker, who's a match-up nightmare. He has just as much "football speed" as Davis, runs far cleaner routes, and has much better hands. Along with the Cowboys' Martellus Bennett, Walker should rank amongst the most dangerous number two tight ends in the league.
The third job will go to Bear Pascoe, a big galloot who was a sixth round pick out of Fresno State, but he doesn't do anything at all well. He's too upright and skinny as a blocker, the routes he ran in college were shorter than the ones he's been asked to learn in the pros, and his hands are suspect. Undrafted free agent Joe Jon Finley has been better than Pascoe, but not by enough to make a difference. The drafted guy will make the team solely because he's the drafted guy.
OL: (9) With Adam Snyder's promotion to starting right tackle, the offensive line is set. From left to right it'll be Joe Staley, David Baas, Eric Heitmann (who might be the most underrated center in the league), Chilo Rachal, and Snyder. Tony Wragge is the sixth man, and he can swing between both guard spots. Cody Wallace will be the backup center. The only question is whether the team will keep eight linemen or nine. I'm leaning towards nine because the coaches just won't trust free agent Marvel Smith's back to be healthy enough to rely on to protect the quarterback's blind side on the left, so Barry Sims will draw paychecks for another season.