As the 49ers head into their second preseason game, here are the positions at which coaches and evaluators will have their toughest decisions on cut-down day. The team must reduce its roster to 75 players by Aug. 26 and have its final 53 on Aug. 30
There's a lot of overlap between the tight ends and fullbacks in the 49ers' system and Mike Nolan this week said the two positions "kind of go together." He said it's possible the 49ers will keep five total, but in the past the final number's been four. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are locks, of course. The question is, if the 49ers only keep four on the final 53, who gets the final two spots? The answer lies with the first-team reps. Of the two fullbacks on the roster, Zak Keasey and Moran Norris, Keasey is the one routinely in with the first-team offense. Mike Martz and the 49ers like Keasey because he can stay out in front of Frank Gore on sweeps and also can wind his way through traffic to make blocks. He also is a better receiver than Norris, a must in Martz's offense.
Norris' advantage would be in short-yardage situations. He's about 15 pounds heavier than Keasey. But Norris also would have to win out over tight end Billy Bajema. He caught five passes his rookie season but he hasn't had a single catch in the two years since despite extensive playing time. Still, he seems to get a fair amount of first-team action in practice, he's a very good blocker and there actually have been quite a few practices passes thrown his way. So if the 49ers go with four, I think they'd be: Bajema, Davis, Keasey and Walker. J.J. Finley and Cooper Wallace are candidates for the practice squad.
This is a tricky one. Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson are locks for the final 53. Justin Smith also is a lock, of course, but the fact that the former defensive end plays a lot of outside linebacker makes things interesting for four other players: Tully Banta-Cain, Roderick Green, undrafted rookie Louis Holmes and Jay Moore. The 49ers don't have room on their roster for all four. In fact, it may be that only one of them makes the 53.
Holmes, who has shown real promise as a pass rusher, is an obvious practice-squad candidate, but the 49ers would risk him being plucked off it by a team with room on its active roster. Banta-Cain disappointed last year with just 3.5 sacks, but he is the most versatile of the bunch and there's a sense that he'll be more effective in a reserve role just as he was in New England. Green has been perhaps the best pass rusher of this latter group. But his versatility is limited and the 49ers know (from history) there's little risk in cutting him and bringing him back midseason if need be. Moore, meanwhile, hasn't shown much of a pass rush and is still very much in learning mode when it comes to coverage duties. He is practice-squad eligible.
Who makes it? I think Banta-Cain has the inside edge, but these final three exhibition games will decide.
Since Nolan and Scot McCloughan have come aboard, seven of their draft picks have been either cornerbacks or safeties (or both). They also inherited Keith Lewis and Shawntae Spencer and brought in Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Michael Lewis, Mark Roman and Donald Strickland through free agency. (For the sake of this analysis, Allen Rossum doesn't count). At cornerback, Clements, Harris, rookie Reggie Smith and Spencer are locks. At safety, Michael Lewis, Roman and Dashon Goldson are safe. That's seven players. Last year, the 49ers kept 10 in the secondary.
Who gets the final three spots? You have to think that the 49ers still want to see what they have in cornerback Tarell Brown, a fifth-rounder in 2007 whom McCloughan has said has first-day talent. The team also loves Donald Strickland, who is tough enough to support the run and versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety. Which leaves the final spot as a toss up between Keith Lewis and Marcus Hudson.
Lewis is a valuable special teams player, who has shown a knack for blocking punts and who routinely is at the top of the special teams tackles list. He also has proven to be a trustworthy back-up at safety. In 2006, for example, he made nine starts and was part of the 49ers' midseason defensive resurgence. He had two interceptions over that span and finished tied for second in tackles. He seems to have a similar skill set to starter Michael Lewis, who plays best close to the line of scrimmage. Keith Lewis' shortcoming is his speed, and he is limited to playing strong safety.
Hudson, meanwhile, doesn't have Lewis' playing experience. What he does have is versatility, and he has played both safety and cornerback this summer. He also showed a knack last season for special teams, finishing sixth in special teams tackles. In making the final decision, the 49ers will have to ask themselves whether they prefer experience or potential at the position. Rookie Lewis Baker has a shot at the practice squad but must return from a deep thigh bruise soon.
-- Matt Barrows