We're less than a month away from the start of training camp, and this year's iteration of the San Francisco 49ers has fans feeling hopeful. Our "Four Downs" series is back to get you ready for August with names and storylines that you should keep an eye on.
We begin with some of the unheralded names on the roster who could play a role in 2018.
First Down: Which rookie are you excited to watch most?
Joe Fann: Fred Warner
Reuben Foster's two-game suspension opens up a starting spot for the first two weeks of the season. Malcolm Smith is likely to start at WILL linebacker. At MIKE, it will either be Warner or Brock Coyle. Warner saw plenty of first-team reps during the offseason program and has been impressive by all accounts. Coyle was out rehabbing from shoulder surgery but is expected to be fully cleared by the start of camp. Warner's combination of size (6-foot-3, 236 pounds) and speed (4.64 40-yard dash at the combine) make him an intriguing player. Fans may get to see him in an every-down role sooner rather than later.
Keiana Martin: Richie James
James was productive at Middle Tennessee before a collarbone injury in 2017. Some analysts labeled him as a steal as a seventh-round selection in this year’s draft. But training camp will be a true test for James. Breakout rookie seasons may have primed players like Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne for increased roles in 2018. That means James finds himself in a crowded competition for a sixth receiver spot. The 49ers have had recent success with uncovering late-round gems. James could be next.
Second Down: Which offensive player is a dark horse to make the roster?
Joe Fann: Aaron Burbridge
This is an easy pick for me. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch wasted little time overhauling the roster upon their arrival in San Francisco. And yet, Aaron Burbridge remains one of the few holdovers on the roster. That's telling in my opinion. Shanahan and Lynch clearly see potential in Burbridge. He caught just seven passes for 88 yards as a rookie in 2016, but he immediately flourished into one of the league's premier gunners on punt coverage. The 49ers are likely to keep six receivers on the roster. Five of those spots are all but locked up with Pierre Garçon, Trent Taylor, Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Kendrick Bourne. My money is on Burbridge or James to take that sixth and final spot.
Keiana Martin: Mike Person
Right guard is likely to be one of the more interesting competitions on the 49ers roster. The 49ers appear to be sold on Laken Tomlinson at left guard, signing him to a three-year extension last month. That leaves Person, Jonathan Cooper and Joshua Garnett as the top three candidates to start at right guard. Meanwhile, Person split first-team reps with Garnett during last month’s minicamp while Cooper was on the shelf with an injury. Given Person’s versatility as the 49ers potential backup center, he could have an advantage at making the roster.
Third Down: Which defensive player is a dark horse to make the roster?
Joe Fann: Greg Mabin
Mabin may not qualify as a dark horse in the eyes of some. However, I'm picking him here because the cornerbacks room is so crowded. Mabin played well towards the end of last season before a calf strain cost him two games. His finest moment was against the Houston Texans in Week 14 when he helped stop the bleeding against DeAndre Hopkins. Houston's star wideout was absolutely dominating the 49ers defense until Mabin checked into the game in the third quarter. Mabin also provided the top defensive highlight of the offseason program with a leaping interception against Jimmy Garoppolo. Richard Sherman, Ahkello WItherspoon, Jimmie Ward, K'Waun Williams and Tarvarius Moore are sure bets to make the roster. That only leaves a few spots (at most) for names like Mabin, Tyvis Powell, Tarvarus McFadden and others.
Keiana Martin: Korey Toomer
Toomer came to the 49ers in April to add depth at linebacker and special teams. During the team’s OTAs, the former Los Angeles Charger nearly picked off Jimmy Garoppolo during team drills and had a several pass breakups at minicamp. With a strong showing in camp, Toomer could be in line as a potential reserve at linebacker along with Warner and Coyle.
Fourth Down: Who is the most underrated 49ers player?
Joe Fann: DeForest Buckner
This pick is in regards to national perception. Fans of the 49ers know full well how good Buckner is, but this will be the year when he becomes a household name. An unproductive cast of edge rushers coupled with San Francisco's losing records has kept Buckner out of the public eye. He's yet to make a Pro Bowl and was kept out of the NFL's list of the top 100 players. That's criminal. It's also something that's going to change in 2018. I expect a monster year out of Buckner.
Keiana Martin: Kendrick Bourne
As I mentioned earlier, Bourne is coming off of a promising rookie campaign. Bourne stepped up when needed last season following a season-ending neck injury to Pierre Garçon. He finished the year with 16 catches for 257 yards. During OTAs, Bourne continued to exhibit strong chemistry with Garoppolo and was a popular target for the 49ers QB. Even in a crowded group behind Garçon, Taylor, Goodwin and Pettis, Bourne is an enticing candidate to win a roster spot again.