Everyone loves an underdog, and 49er Faithful are no different. In no particular order, here are the top six players who entered training camp as longshots, yet still cracked San Francisco’s 53-man roster.
RB Alfred Morris
What a difference a week can make.
In just that amount of time, Alfred Morris went from “well, I suppose he might have a chance to make the team” to “thank God we have this guy” in the eyes of 49er fans.
That’s what an eye-popping performance against the Colts (17 carries for 84 yards) in your preseason debut will do for you, as Morris showed off excellent vision and surprising burst in Indianapolis. Not to mention, Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending ACL injury solidified the need for a steady veteran in the backfield.
While Morris hasn’t come close to cracking the 1,000-yard plateau since doing so for his first three seasons in the league (2012-14), the 29-year-old still flashed in limited reps with Dallas last year, racking up 547 yards and a touchdown while taking the rock 115 times. 4.8 yards per carry is nothing to sneeze at, even if some of it can be attributed to a fairly small sample size and running behind Dallas’ stellar offensive line.
That Morris received only two carries in San Francisco’s preseason finale against the Chargers (pre-McKinnon injury) was probably a good sign for the veteran; if Morris hadn’t already made the team prior to the clash with Los Angeles, he certainly would have been afforded more than two carries to earn his spot.
Asking Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert to pound the rock week after week would have been a large burden for the two undersized, inexperienced running backs, the latter of whom has just seven career carries, and Morris ensures that the 49ers have a back who can be a true bell cow.
RG Josh Garnett
It isn’t often that we can label a first-round pick from just three years prior as a “roster longshot,” but that’s exactly where we were at with Josh Garnett, a holdover from the Trent Baalke era.
Garnett appeared to be sealing his own fate when he missed considerable practice time with an injury, seemingly to the befuddlement of Kyle Shanahan, though he eventually got back onto the gridiron and showed well in preseason action.
Give Garnett credit: He had to drop considerable weight to be a fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, he needed to overcome a preseason knee injury (regardless of how severe it actually was), and he had to come up clutch in the preseason by producing at a higher level than he ever had in his NFL career. He accomplished all these things and will likely open the season as the backup to probable starting right guard Mike Person.
TE Cole Wick
That means Cole Wick, Cole Hikutini and Ross Dwelley were left to battle it out for the final tight end spot, and Hikutini was believed to be the front-runner in the early goings of training camp, while Wick and Dwelley seemed to be on equal footing.
Though he snagged just two receptions with the 49ers and only dressed for four games as an undrafted free agent before being lost for last season with an MCL injury, Hikutini seemed to have the inside track to the third-string tight end gig until he committed a few costly drops in the preseason.
One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain, as proven by the 6-foot-6, 257-pound Wick, who joined the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and whose strongest attribute is his blocking.
Unlike Hikutini, who would have made the squad largely because of his pass-catching skills, Wick offers strong run-blocking, which is arguably the most important skill a third-string tight end can bring to the table. If anything happens to Kittle or Celek, San Francisco won’t expect Wick to turn into Rob Gronkowski overnight; rather, the Niners would sign up for some solid blocking in the ground game with the hopes that Wick won’t drop a pass that hits him right between the numbers on the rare occasion that he’s targeted in the aerial attack.
DE Ronald Blair
Nine defensive linemen cracked the 53-man roster, and while Sheldon Day or Jullian Taylor (remember, he was just a fairly unheralded rookie seventh-round draft pick before flashing enticing upside as a bull-rusher in the preseason) could have been given a spot on this list, the nod had to go to third-year man Ronald Blair.
A fifth-round pick by the 49ers in 2016, Blair was limited to just five games last season due to a thumb injury, so he entered camp with quite the hill to climb seeing as how defensive line (and defensive end in particular) represented one of San Francisco’s most crowded positions, and there was a surplus of competition for roster spots (the battle to make the team was so fierce that it resulted in San Francisco parting ways with defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, arguably the team’s most surprising cut).
With his job on the line, Blair turned in an impressive preseason, notching 11 tackles and a sack. He saved his best for last when he racked up five stops and a sack in San Francisco’s preseason finale against the Chargers. That performance – combined with Blair’s five career sacks in 21 games with San Francisco since the Niners selected him in the fifth round of the 2016 draft – likely paved Blair’s path to the 53.
Defensive linemen rotate in and out as much as anyone on gameday, and given Blair’s penchant for putting some heat on the quarterback (an obvious weakness for the 49ers), San Francisco may well benefit from its decision to keep Blair in red and gold for a third straight season, especially if he subs into the game with fresh legs in the second half, takes advantage of a tired offensive lineman and drops the quarterback for a sack in a critical moment.
LB Elijah Lee
Watson warrants consideration since he entered the league as a seventh-rounder with the Buccaneers in 2010. After spending four seasons in Tampa, Watson bounced to Dallas, New England and Denver before landing by the bay this offseason. And while his biggest contributions have come on special teams (he has only 142 career tackles and four sacks in eight seasons), he’s shown a knack for finding his way onto rosters as a strong special-teamer, so his inclusion on the 53 isn’t quite jaw-dropping.
As for Nzeocha, a seventh-round pick by the Cowboys in 2015, his surprising ascent from special teams contributor to starting linebacker is an interesting story which shouldn’t be discounted, but this list is focusing on players who surprisingly made the roster, and his spot seemed fairly secure from the get-go. Time will tell if the fourth-year man can make his mark on defense as he has on special teams.
Lee, however, was selected by the Vikings in the seventh round (232nd overall) of last year’s draft. He didn’t last long in Minnesota, however, as he was signed off the Vikes’ practice squad by the 49ers less than two weeks later.
After suiting up for 14 games, producing just four tackles and forcing a fumble with the Niners last year, Lee was hardly assured a roster spot this season with the red and gold, but he nevertheless did just enough in training camp and preseason to find his way onto the 53, and perhaps no one benefited more than the second-year man when San Francisco traded Eli Harold to Detroit.
Lee can’t get comfortable, either, because someone will have to go when Reuben Foster returns from his two-game suspension in Week 3, but a good showing on special teams and perhaps even a few snaps on defense will at least make it hard for San Francisco’s brass to decide who gets the ax when Foster returns.
CB Greg Mabin
As an undrafted rookie in 2017, Greg Mabin signed with the Buccaneers on May 1, was waived a week later, signed with the Bills on June 1, was waived Sept. 12 before signing to the practice squad the next day, was promoted to the active roster on Oct. 7 and waived by the Bills on Oct. 16.
Two days later, Mabin signed to San Francisco’s practice squad and joined the active roster on Nov. 1. In the seven games he was active last season, Mabin posted a pair of tackles and broke up a pass.
That’s pretty much the long and short of it.
Mabin had to navigate the waters of San Francisco’s crowded secondary and beat out roster casualties such as Antone Exum and Tyvis Powell this offseason. He’ll be firmly behind fellow corners Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams and Tarvarius Moore on the depth chart, but Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t bring in players just for the heck of it; they see something they like in the Iowa product, who notched four tackles this preseason.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
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- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
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- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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