49ers training camp: 5 young players who must have a strong showing

On the surface, there may not be a more impressive roster in the NFL than the names the San Francisco 49ers can list on their depth chart. Despite the talent, there isn’t much drama in terms of who will start at any position with the exception of center and possibly inside linebacker (at least until NaVorro Bowman returns).

While it’s important for players like Daniel Kilgore and Michael Wilhoite to show they can handle the load, they do have at least some prior experience that the team can lean on in their evaluation.

What the 49ers need to find this year in training camp is what certain young players with limited on-the-field experience may be able offer to the team in years to come.

Here’s a look at five names to watch:

Tank Carradine

It’s fair to make the argument that the development of Carradine could be as crucial to the future of the 49ers as any other defensive player. Ray McDonald and Justin Smith have meant so much to what the team does on defense, and each face uncertain futures.

Both Smith and McDonald have two years remaining on their deals, but there is no guarantee either will be around to see the end of them. Smith will be 35 in September and only has so much gas left in the tank. He could even retire should the 49ers win a championship in 2014.

As for McDonald, he’ll be 30 when the season starts and could be a financial casualty come 2015, as his salary would count upwords of  $6 million towards the cap.

Carradine sat out all last season with a knee injury, but will have the luxury to ease himself back in behind Smith and McDonald. However, he does have to show enough in camp to warrant some playing time. If healthy, he’s a player the 49ers can build their defensive line around. If not, there will be a major void in that department very soon.

Marcus Lattimore

Two major knee injuries and almost two full years away from game action isn’t a recipe for success. Lattimore will have to prove that he’s recovered and close to 100 percent to have any prayer of cracking a lineup that includes Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James.

The 49ers will ease Lattimore in either way, and he’s in for a limited role at best in 2014. What he can do this season is show the team he’s ready to compete for a time share with Hyde come 2015. Look for Lattimore to get a long look in camp and preseason games, as the Niners try and evaluate what they have in him.

Quinton Patton

As intriguing a prospect as the 49ers have, Patton could find himself in the starting lineup come 2015 or with a very limited role.

With the futures of Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin murky after this season, Patton has a golden opportunity to be a cost-effective answer at wide receiver moving forward. To be in the conversation though, he’s going to have to show more than he did in a rookie season that saw him catch only three balls.

Granted, injuries slowed Patton for most of the year, but he’ll need his A-game and then some to warrant he’s worth snaps with guys like Crabtree, Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd ahead of him.

If Patton doesn’t show that he’s ready to be a contributor, or is overshadowed by rookie Bruce Ellington, his future with the team could be in doubt. He’ll see plenty of snaps in exhibition games, and could be in line to step up should an injury occur.

Marcus Martin

While Kilgore is the front runner at center, don’t count out the upstart rookie. The 49ers used a third round pick in the 2014 draft on Martin, who may have been the best center prospect available. Martin’s size (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and style of play make him a perfect fit in San Francisco’s power running scheme.

If Martin takes off, he could challenge Kilgore and maybe even unseat him before Week 1. There is also the possibility he could project to play guard, in which case he provides insurance should the 49ers let Mike Iupati walk after the season and/or can’t come to an agreement on a new contract with Alex Boone.

Vance McDonald

There’s a possibility that Vernon Davis‘ holdout could spill into camp, which would give McDonald a golden opportunity. His rookie season provided few bright spots, as the tight end could only haul in eight passes all year despite the 49ers being short in the receiving department.

With Davis not present for the offseason programs, McDonald has gotten valuable time with the first team. He’ll have to build on that in training camp in order to take the next step in his development.

Davis will be back eventually, but the 49ers will always be a team that values multiple tight ends as long as Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are at the helm. Even though it’s only year two, it could be a make-or-break season for McDonald.

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports



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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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