With the San Francisco 49ers 2015 training camp set to begin on Aug. 1, it's about time to start looking at the looming competitions set to unfold over the next month and a half. While every player on the roster will approach the preseason with something to prove, here are the top seven position battles to keep a close eye on.
1. No. 3 Wide Receiver
Behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, there are a number of talented pass-catchers who will be fighting for the third spot on the depth chart. The receivers who were with the team in 2015 are Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and Chuck Jacobs. The 49ers signed Jerome Simpson in free agency, drafted DeAndre Smelter and added five undrafted rookies: Dres Anderson, Issac Blakeney, DiAndre Campbell, Mario Hull and DeAndrew White.
Patton, Simpson and White were the standouts during OTAs and minicamp, but preseason games and full-contact practices will determine who makes the roster and sees playing time on Sunday.
2. All three cornerback positions
Defensive backs coach Tim Lewis said after minicamp that there wouldn't be a depth chart at cornerback going into training camp. Lewis added that he's never had a position group with more competition from top to bottom in his 20-plus year NFL coaching career.
The 49ers have nine corners on the roster: Kenneth Acker, Tramaine Brock, Chris Cook, Marcus Cromartie, Mylan Hicks, Dontae Johnson, Leon McFadden, Keith Reaser and Shareece Wright. That doesn't include 2014 first-round pick Jimmie Ward, who was the team's starting nickel corner last year before suffering a foot injury.
Each corner had their moments during the offseason program, and Lewis rotated each guy in with the first-team defense. That makes it impossible at this point to predict who will be starting Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings.
3. Entire defensive line
Jim Tomsula has called this the deepest group of defensive linemen he's ever had, but we don't really know who his starters will be. Ian Williams is likely to win the nose tackle job after doing so the last two seasons. Mike Purcell and Garrison Smith are the other two players listed as nose tackles on the roster.
There are nine other defensive linemen on the roster: Arik Armstead, Glenn Dorsey, Lawrence Okoye, Marcus Rush, Garrett Celek, Quinton Dial, Darnell Dockett, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Kaleb Ramsey. Some of the names on that list have the versatility to play nose tackle, but a majority will be competing for the two starting spots at defensive tackle. The health of Dockett will be a big factor as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. Armstead's progression and ability to play catch-up after missing the entire offseason program will be another factor.
Not every guy on the list will be a three-down player either, meaning that there will be a constant rotation of playing time. That mitigates the importance of who starts and who subs in, but it's still intriguing to see who will join the first-team defense nonetheless.
4. Every offensive line position not filled by 'The Joe Show'
There is certainly much more clarity here than there is at defensive line, although we don't know exactly which names will slot into each position. Marcus Martin and Daniel Kilgore (if healthy) are the two options to start at center. If Kilgore does win the job at center, Martin will likely move to right guard. Alex Boone will start somewhere, it's just yet to be seen where that will be. Head coach Jim Tomsula hinted that Boone might start at left guard since the technique is the same as left tackle. That would give the 49ers an insurance plan incase Joe Staley goes down.
Brandon Thomas, Joe Looney and Andrew Tiller will also be in the mix at right guard with Erik Pears and rookie Trent Brown competing to start at right tackle. Dillon Farrell, Sean Hooey, Ian Silberman, Patrick Miller, Ben Gottschalk and Justin Renfrow are the other offensive linemen on the roster.
There are plenty of possibilities with very few certainties as of now.
5. Kick and punt returner
Reggie Bush seems to be the leader in the clubhouse to win the punt-return job. The running back entering his 10th NFL Season is on a mission to prove he can still be a dangerous return man. Bush has five career punt-return touchdowns in his career, including one in the 2009 playoffs during the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl run. First-year rookie running back Jarryd Hayne and Ellington will be the other top candidates to return punts in 2015.
The kick-return job has far more gray area. Ellington missing the offseason program due to injury has something to do with that. Ellington served as the 49ers main return man in 2014, returning 24 kicks for 614 yards. He also led the team with 23 punt returns for 188 yards. Hayne and White will be among the others vying to return kicks.
6. Kickoff duties
It will either be Phil Dawson or Bradley Pinion. Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. said the competition was open, but he also hinted that both specialists could share the job depending on the situation in games.
7. Time-share at running back
Second-year running back Pierre Garçon, Bush and Kendall Hunter are the most likely trio to carry the 49ers running game this season. What is yet to be determined is if it will be an even split or if each back will have their specific roles. All three believe they are complete backs that can also be a weapon out of the backfield as a receiver. Hayne, rookie Mike Davis and Kendall Gaskins are the other running backs on the roster. Stay tuned.
What competition are you most looking forward to? Comment below and voice your opinion.