Twitter Mailbag: futures of Iupati & Crabtree

Michael Crabtree (Getty Images)

With the 2014 draft finally behind us, we can now have a clear view of the 49ers' 90-man roster leading into training camp. In Part 1 of a two-part mailbag, Chris Biderman answers questions about how the draft will impact the future of some key veteran players and more.

The 2014 draft is officially behind us and with over two months before the start of training camp. What better time for a Twitter mailbag? There were so many questions issued this week - with thanks to Niners Nation - that this mailbag will come in two parts.

So now that the 90-man roster is rounding into shape following the draft, let's take a crack at answering some of your questions!

It's pretty remarkable to think about the improvement the 49ers have made to their receiving corps considering the group they entered training camp with last year. The focus of training camp all about the competition between Marlon Moore, Kyle Williams and Chad Hall vying for a chance to replace Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, who were coming off significant injuries.

Now, with Crabtree healthy and Anquan Boldin re-signed to a two-year extension, the 49ers will not only have their top two wideouts healthy heading into training camp, but they added a three-time 1,000-yard receiver in Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington in the fourth round of the draft.

Before Crabtree returned last December, the 49ers offense was easy to defend. They often saw eight and nine players in the box to stop the run. Defenses keyed on Boldin and Vernon Davis in the passing game with no other serious threats on the field. No team ran the ball at a higher rate than San Francisco last season because of it.

As Jim Harbaugh intimated at the owners' meetings in March, it's clear the 49ers are going to take steps towards opening up the offense with their slew of new weapons. The foundation of the offense will still be the physical offensive line and the running attack, but they will have the ability to spread defenses out with capable receivers and the always dangerous threat of Davis at tight end. They were hampered by their lack of capable personnel for significant stretches of last year.

I would suspect Greg Roman's primary task this offseason has been ways to utilize '11' personnel groupings (three wideouts, one back, one tight end). San Francisco used three wideouts at one of the lowest rates in the league because of the poor shape of the team's receiving corps with Crabtree and Manningham on the shelf. But with a suddenly deep group of wideouts, expect the 49ers to open things up drastically for Colin Kaepernick.

I would say most, if not all the "beloved" veterans are safe. But expect some of their roles to alter with the influx of rookies. The guys that are most likely to have to compete for their roster spots are players in reserve roles like Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Dan Skuta, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Joe Looney, Adam Snyder, Craig Dahl, Jon Baldwin, Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton, Demarcus Dobbs and others.

To spin off the question, the obvious "beloved" player that could be heavily impacted is Frank Gore. Gore is in the final season of his extension and due to make a significant amount against the cap of $6.45 million. But barring any significant injury, I have a hard time seeing the 49ers move on from Gore with a year remaining on his deal after registering an 1,128-yard season in 2013 despite turning 30.

Sure, Gore turns 31 this week and had just 14 yards on 11 carries his last time out in the NFC Championship Game, but he's still the heartbeat of the offense. And if you were to ask anyone inside the locker room which player is most deserving of a championship, I would bet at least 90 percent say it's Gore. So while I fully expect his carries to drop this season after drafting Carlos Hyde, Gore isn't going anywhere…. yet.

As I wrote after the draft, this 2014 class creates a ton of roster competition. By drafting 12 guys and trading for another in Johnson, the 49ers clearly indicated jobs will continue to be earned despite the levels of success over the last three seasons.

In regards to Crabtree and Iupati, Trent Baalke has done everything he can to insulate the team should they walk next year in free agency. The 49ers like what they have at receiver in Johnson, Patton, Ellington and obviously Boldin. If Crabtree leaves, they won't be in as poor of shape as they were last year when he was sidelined with his Achilles. That being said, they will do everything they can - within reason - to sign him to a long-term deal. The team views Crabtree as a true No. 1 receiver and it's tough to argue with his production, especially in the post season (Crabtree has 40 receptions for 516 yards and four touchdowns in eight playoff games).

But it won't be an easy negotiation and it's very likely Crabtree will be asked to take less to return to the team than he would make on the open market. For now, the 49ers are positioning themselves with depth in the case he opts for the latter.

For Iupati, it's hard to envision a scenario where he returns in 2015. Top-tier guards just make too much money on the open market. Bringing back Iupati would likely require the team to pay more money annually to him than both Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, which just doesn't seem like a prudent move.

Again, San Francisco has insulated the roster for Iupati's potential departure. They took the best center in the draft in Marcus Martin, who can play all three interior line positions, and drafted Brandon Thomas, who many tabbed as good enough to start as a rookie. Thomas will "red shirt" this season after sustaining an ACL tear leading up to the draft, but will be good to go next season when Iupati is likely suiting up elsewhere. Jonathan Martin - a former second-round pick - will also be in the mix at guard this year. Same for Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney.

As good as Iupati is - and he's one of the best guars in the NFL - it simply doesn't make sense to make him the highest paid offensive lineman on the roster with so many capable (and cheaper) replacements ready to step in. The 49ers will be hoarding all the cap space they can for extensions for Crabtree, Kaepernick and perhaps Aldon Smith going forward.

As I reported just after Ward was selected (I scratched my head for a moment myself), the 49ers will use Ward initially as a nickel back while being groomed to be the eventual replacement for Antoine Bethea. Bethea signed a team-friendly deal that has minimal guarantees, so San Francisco wouldn't be in bad shape letting him go before his contract runs out.

Ward played all over the place at Northern Illinois. He's labelled as a safety, but could really play at any position in the secondary if it came down to it. The 49ers like his ability to diagnose plays and react quickly much like a middle linebacker would.

If you remember, San Francisco went with Perrish Cox over Eric Wright at nickel last year when Carlos Rogers was hurt in the playoffs. Cox is a far more physical player and got the nod because he was a better player against the run. The best way to attack San Francisco's defense last year was to spread the team out in nickel - getting Glenn Dorsey off the field - and find ways to get lineman blocking defensive backs.

With that in mind, the 49ers' will rely on Ward's skill set as a safety to diagnose those running plays early while also excelling in coverage. He had the best one-on-one cover skills of any safety in the draft. He's also a very good tackling, making him a very useful piece this season before he becomes a starting safety in the future after Bethea.

Vic Fangio likes his safeties to be interchangeable, so don't be surprised if Eric Reid becomes the long-term strong safety with Ward eventually getting the starting free safety job. Last year Reid was the first safety to get reps only at free safety since Fangio took over as defensive coordinator in 2011.

He might not officially be a starter, but Ward will play the most snaps of any rookie this season. The 49ers use their nickel package roughly 60 percent of the time.

As far as post-draft needs? The roster is loaded and it's hard to find one without knowing what these rookies will bring. But if there's one that sticks out in my mind it's at cornerback.

The 49ers like Chris Culliver as a starter, but he wasn't great toward the end of 2012 - and of course the Super Bowl - and is coming off a missed season after tearing his ACL in training camp last year.

Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers played a ton over the last three seasons, so I can't say for sure there won't be any drop off with those guys playing in silver and black. They were good because they were heady players more than they were physical freaks. Fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson has a lot of upside, but is still a question mark. Eric Wright? Question mark. Perrish Cox? Question mark, although he played well in the playoffs. Chris Cook? Question mark. Ditto for Kenneth Acker.

Tramaine Brock had a great year in 2013 earning a four-year, $16 million contract extension. But it still remains to be seen if he's worthy of "franchise corner" status.

Baalke has had plenty of success identifying quality defensive backs and he just added four new ones over the weekend. It's not that I don't believe these corners can be good, they are just unproven commodities compared to other position groups on the roster.

It's tough to say. There are plenty of reasons to believe James will be traded at some point before the start of the season. While I can certainly see that happening, I also see plenty of reasons to keep James around.

First, he's the most experienced punt returner on the roster. Ellington certainly appears capable, but it's hard to hand him the job over James after only returning three punts in college. James didn't return punts in college either and spent a ton of time after practice learning on the Juggs machine and Ellington could easily do the same thing. But it's too early to say. This team - perhaps more than most - knows exactly how important having an experience punt returner is…

James might not have the most ideal social media or locker room habits, but he still averaged over 10 yards per punt return, which is right where you want to be if you're the 49ers. And wouldn't it be interesting to have both James and Ellington back deep for kickoffs at the same time?

I fully expected San Francisco to use a draft pick on a player that excelled in returning punts in college, but they elected not to indicating they might be more content with James than many outsiders think.

Does Ellington make James more expendable? Sure. But does his addition mean James is gone? Again, too early to say.


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