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.
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