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Positions to Watch as 49ers Offseason Unfolds

Posted Jan 28, 2014

San Francisco has questions to answer at many spots from the backup quarterback slot to to the unsettled situation at cornerback.

Jim Harbaugh was responding to a question about two rookies last week, but his answer would seem to stand true for any of his players.

"Nobody owes anybody a career in professional football," the 49ers coach said. "Your career is literally your business, but I have great faith that those men have what it takes.”

The 49ers roster will largely stay the same until free agency begins on March 11 but, as Harbaugh alluded to, there is another factor to the shape the team's roster will take going forward: The "agency" and "license" every man has to compete for a job, to borrow the coach's verbiage.

With this in mind, 49ers.com considers ten positions on the team that will be worth watching as winter wears into spring.

Quarterback: Backing up Kap
Colin Kaepernick made all 16 starts in the regular season and all three in the postseason... Backup Colt McCoy held off a contingent for the No. 2 job, besting McLeod-Bethel Thompson, B.J. Daniels, John Skelton, Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien... McCoy, an offseason addition, last year, completed a 13-yard pass in Week 8 and took kneel-downs in Weeks 5 and 15 this season... McCoy is a free agent, while Bethel-Thompson was signed to a reserve/future contract last week... The 49ers could also spend a draft pick on a developing signal-caller in May.

Running back: A Division of Labor
Frank Gore rushed for 1,128 yards in his ninth NFL season; he will enter his 10th campaign at the age of 31. ... While the franchise's all-time leading rusher showed no signs of slowing down, the team has a few worthy candidates for increased roles going forward... Marcus Lattimore effectively "redshirted" his rookie season following major surgery on his knee, but he said he'll be "ready to go" this offseason... While the versatile Anthony Dixon is a free agent, returning ball carriers Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James also figure into the equation... Hunter (78 rushing attempts) and James (12) each averaged 4.6 yards and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively, this season, besting Gore's 4.1 mark.

Wide receiver: Youth Movement in Store
Three of the 49ers six wideouts are free agents: Anquan Boldin, who led the team in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,179); Mario Manningham, who finished the season on Injured Reserve; and Kassim Osgood, who exhibited his value on special teams... Behind Michael Crabtree, only Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin and Chuck Jacobs, who spent 2013 on the practice squad, will fill out the rest of the depth chart come March... Patton, a fourth-round draftee, overcame a fracture in his foot to turn a reverse into a 26-yard rush and catch a crucial third-down pass in San Francisco's Week 17 victory at Arizona... Given the moving parts, this should be one of the most interesting positions to watch this spring and summer.

Center: Potential Successor in Place
For a third straight season, Jonathan Goodwin started all 16 regular season games for the 49ers... Now 35 and entering what would be his 13th NFL campaign, Goodwin is a free agent but has expressed interest in returning... If "Goody" doesn't return, the team may have his replacement in place... Third-year pro Daniel Kilgore, who battled Goodwin in an informal training camp battle last offseason, was active and came off the bench every game this season... Kilgore starting would cost San Francisco his versatility, but the unit already has a couple of prospects at guard positions.

Left guard: Insurance behind Iupati
Speaking of, Joe Looney and Ryan Seymour are waiting in the wings... Starter Mike Iupati, who was recently named to a second straight Pro Bowl despite missing four games due to a knee injury, has the offseason to rehab a lower leg injury... Looney, in particular, showed flashes of his skills while playing a majority of the 49ers Week 13 win over St. Louis at right guard... Looney was first off the bench because Kilgore, who can also play guard, was the backup at center... Veteran Adam Snyder, who was playing left guard that game to replace Iupati, is also under contract in 2014, giving San Francisco some options.

Inside Linebacker: Keeping a Spot Warm
Michael Wilhoite was still shaking off an NFC title game loss and the loss of teammate NaVorro Bowman when he was clearing out his locker, but Wilhoite is the most logical candidate to hold down Bowman's spot until his healthy return from major knee surgery... Wilhoite, an exclusive rights free agent, excelled in the preseason and backed up Bowman and Patrick Willis during the regular season and playoffs... He made 34 tackles in his first full pro season as a linebacker... There's also Nick Moody, who overcame a hand injury earlier this year, will compete with Wilhoite to serve as Bowman's place-holder. 

Cornerback: Culliver Due back for Depth
There are a lot of moving parts here... Veteran starter Carlos Rogers, who mans the slot, is under contract... As is, Tramaine Brock, who replaced Tarell Brown down the stretch and signed a four-year contract extension in November... Brown, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox, however, will all have their deals expire... Chris Culliver, a major contributor in 2013 before suffering a major knee injury during training camp, will likely be counted upon to fill any void... Jim Harbaugh said "Cully" was out sprinting last week.

Strong Safety: Reid's Playing Partner
Entering the 2013 campaign, there were questions about who would play alongside Donte Whitner in the defensive backfield; entering '14, it's now unclear who will play next to Eric Reid... Whitner, who caused four turnovers and made 77 tackles this year, will be 29 and in his ninth NFL season next Opening Day... He is a free agent after three strong reasons in San Francisco... Reid, the free safety he mentored, appeared ready to carry the mantle as the team's last line of defense, racking up 77 tackles and six turnovers, but he can't do it alone... Do the 49ers re-sign Whitner, let an incumbent like Craig Dahl slide into his spot, or is a new player brought in to learn from Reid?

Nose Tackle: Resumption of Camp Battle
Glenn Dorsey filled in seamlessly and admirably for Ian Williams when Williams fractured his ankle in Week 2 at Seattle... Dorsey recorded 41 tackles and two sacks... Williams started over him in Weeks 1 and 2 after a training camp battle for playing time... Jim Harbaugh said last week that Williams was back to walking on his own and well on his way to completing a grueling rehab... With both players under contract for 2014, plus a second season of rookie Quinton Dial, the team has to like its depth at the position.

Kicker: 'Pay the Man'
Those were Harbaugh's words last month when he was asked about Phil Dawson's impending free agency... In his first season with the 49ers, Dawson converted 32 of 36 field goal attempts, connecting on a franchise-best 27 at one point... Dawson was also a perfect 7-of-7 in the postseason... At 39 and entering his 16th NFL season, Dawson would seem to be welcomed back with open arms.