Training camp opens Saturday for the San Francisco 49ers, and with it, a new season of story lines to follow and players to watch. Below are five players poised to take a step forward, or at least make some noise, in 2016.
Bruce Ellington, WR
Early OTA and minicamp reports are that Ellington is the prohibitive favorite to take over as the second wide receiver in the 49ers’ offense and that his projected role will be in the slot. While the slot is traditionally a team’s third receiver, Chip Kelly runs a three-receiver set so often that his most productive receivers in Philadelphia were usually out of the slot (Jordan Matthews last year). Ellington is entering his third season in the league, but he has only 31 targets in his career, so he ‘s not really a household name, not even in 49ers circles going into the year. Set to be the second wide receiver in a wide open offense, Ellington is set to make sure NFL fans learn his name.
Jaquiski Tartt, DB
If you had to choose one word to describe the 2015 second-round pick, it’s versatile. Tartt’s a bit on the big side for a safety and a bit on the small side for a middle linebacker, and he fills a role that has seemingly developed in the NFC West in recent years. With Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon, the Rams and Cardinals have a hybrid backer-safety combo (Arizona calls Bucannon a “Money Linebacker”) that allows them to keep a big player on the field to help mitigate the issues that come with running in the nickel or dime. Tartt has great run stuffing skills for a second level defender, and the 49ers believe he will develop in his coverage enough for him to play this versatile role. If the scheme rolls this way, expect Tartt to play a huge role in any success the 49ers might have going forward
Eli Harold, LB
Like Tartt, Harold enters his sophomore campaign with expectations that he will become a much bigger force than he was in 2015. And by bigger I mean that quite literally. Reports are that Harold was placed on a specific diet of “eat all the protein you can find and also drink smoothies” and gained 20 pounds in the offseason, mostly muscle. With Aaron Lynch set to miss the first four games, Harold will be the main player in town among 49ers’ edge rushers. He will have his work cut out for him with the 49ers taking on two of the slipperiest runners in the NFL with Cam Newton and Russell Wilson with Harold as the main edge rusher in weeks two and three. The 49ers are hoping that the talented outside linebacker can convert his promise into production and bookend with Aaron Lynch for the foreseeable future.
Gerald Hodges, LB
Last season Hodges had the odd distinction of playing both for and against the 49ers last season. He was a Viking when the 49ers defeated them week one but was traded to San Francisco partway through the season. When he got the starting role in week fourteen thanks to a Michael Wilhoite injury, he averaged nearly ten tackles a game down the stretch. He is a moderately solid tackler and jumped off tape compared to the JAG that is Michael Wilhoite. He should easily beat out Wilhoite for the starting role next to NaVorro Bowman.
Mike Purcell, DT
Last preseason, Jarryd Hayne made all the 49ers’ headlines, but what quietly flew under the radar was a beastly preseason by Purcell. Injuries thrust him into playing time down the stretch, and he was a decent run stuffer, and his deficiencies can be masked by the twin towers of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Ian Williams may start the season on the PUP, and Glenn Dorsey is 30 and oft-injured. This could finally be Purcell’s chance to shine.
The NFL season has officially started with the opening of training camps. The long, dark offseason is over and it’s time to start the seventeen weeks of bliss all over again. The defense has the majority of players to watch, but Chip Kelly’s scheme might lead to more impressive and noticeable production. Either way, these are five players to keep an eye out for in the preseason and beyond.