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May 14, 2014
Battle stations! Ranking the 49ers' offseason competitions

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The 49ers' 90-man roster likely will be tweaked here and there throughout the offseason. But the major players are set, and with them the biggest position battles of the offseason. This is how I rank them:

Inside linebacker - This gets top billing because the winner is guaranteed not to be an incumbent starter. NaVorro Bowman is doing quite well in his recovery from ACL surgery, but the 49ers are very unlikely to rush his return. The smart money is on Bowman coming back in Week 9, which is one week after the team's bye. This will be a three-way race among Michael Wilhote, Nick Moody and third-round pick Chris Borland to replace Bowman in the meantime. You also wonder if two people could win it -- one player coming in on first and second downs and the other entering in nickel packages. Moody is the most athletic member of the trio and played safety at Florida State. On paper, at least, he would seem to be the best bet for playing the nickel role. Undrafted Shayne Skov is the wild card. He obviously knows the defense and the hope is that the further he moves from his 2011 ACL injury the closer he gets to his 2010 form.

Center - When the 49ers extended Daniel Kilgore's contract this offseason, it looked for all the world that he would take over Jonathan Goodwin's starting role this year. He's still the frontrunner, for sure. After all, Kilgore is going into the fourth year in this offense, has played center extensively in the preseason and has taken a few snaps in regular-season games as well. But third-round pick Marcus Martin was taken two rounds ahead of Kilgore's spot in 2011, and he is a bigger man at 6-3, 320 pounds and with 34-inch arms. The question about Martin's future is two-fold: How quickly can he learn the 49ers' offense and will the 49ers prefer to play him at guard?

Nickel cornerback - Trent Baalke doesn't want another A.J. Jenkins situation - in which the 30th overall pick in the draft sits on the bench for virtually all of his rookie season. So he's got a reason to root for Jimmie Ward for this spot. Ward appears well-suited for the role. He's smart, aggressive, instinctive, quick and a very willing tackler. But Baalke also has a stake in cornerback Eric Wright having stuck his neck out for Wright after his second DUI arrest in two years last summer. (Wright ultimately was charged with reckless driving in the latest case; he pled no contest and was sentenced to 36 months' probation with a $510 fine, 100 hours of community service and six months of drug treatment with testing). Meanwhile, Vic Fangio and the coaching staff have favored Perrish Cox for the position in the past. In the end, look for a repeat of how Fangio handled Eric Reid last year. Fangio - who is hesitant to start rookies - didn't start Reid at first in the preseason but couldn't ignore his superior talent. Reid ended up starting all 19 games when the season began. That is, if Ward isn't the team's nickel corner from the outset, it will be an upset.

Third wide receiver - You'd have to assume that Stevie Johnson is the frontrunner for this spot and by a comfortable margin. He's younger (by five years) and bigger (by two inches and seven pounds) than fellow veteran Brandon Lloyd, and unlike Lloyd he played last season. He's also had three, 1,000-yard plus receiving seasons in the last four years. The next two challengers, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington, have three catches for 34 yards between them. The bigger question is how often the 49ers will use three receivers. Jim Harbaugh hinted at increasing that formation - the 49ers used it less than any other team last year - in March. But the recent draft seemed like that of a team very much committed to a power running game (235-pound tailback, two interior offensive lineman and a fullback). We shall see.

Outside linebacker - The team's assumption is that Aldon Smith will miss at least some games this season. When Smith missed a chunk of last season, Dan Skuta filled in on running downs and Corey Lemonier came in to rush the passer. That's the logical solution this year as well. Most young players make a big leap between their rookie and second years, and it will be interesting to see how much Lemonier has improved. The wildcard - in so many ways - is fifth-round draft pick Aaron Lynch. If he reacquires the fire and strength with which he played at Notre Dame, the 49ers can't keep him on the bench and certainly can't hide him on the practice squad.

Backup running back -- This may get the most attention from the national media because of well-known names like Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Lattimore fares a year and a half after his knee injury and if the 49ers retain the unhappy James. But barring injury, those players will be duking it out for the scaps that starter Frank Gore and backup Kendall Hunter leave behind. This may be a big-time battle in 2015, but in 2014 it is very much a rear-guard affair.

Third tight end -- This will be a three-way battle between incumbent Garrett Celek, Derek Carrier and undrafted rookie Asante Cleveland. Celek has experience and strength; Carrier, a former receiver, has incredible athleticism; Cleveland has the size to be a good blocker and might be a better pass catcher than Celek.

Swing tackle -- Jonathan Martin has been a starter at tackle with the Dolphins. He's also considerable younger than Adam Snyder. The best competition may be between 2013 draft pick Carter Bykowski and last year's undrafted rookie Luke Marquardt. The latter has impressive size. The 49ers will get their first true look at him after he sat out last season with a foot injury.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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