The 49ers open training camp Saturday, with the first practice Sunday. There are plenty of interesting battles for starting jobs, but here are the five most critical to watch this summer, starting with the most prominent position:
The competition between Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick is fascinating because, even though new coach Chip Kelly has been running offenses since becoming the coordinator at the University of New Hampshire in 1999, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what he wants at quarterback.
Kelly has had a wide array of passers. His first starter in Philadelphia in 2013, Michael Vick, was one of the NFL’s most mobile; his last, Sam Bradford, ran for only 39 yards in 14 games last season.
Gabbert is a more refined passer than Kaepernick, especially on shorter throws, and his athleticism is underrated. His leadership also won over the locker room last year because he struck an excellent balance between humility and assertiveness when he became the starter. Kaepernick is the more aggressive of the two under center, and that quality may be at the core of what Kelly is seeking in his always-attacking offense.
Gabbert has the edge as training camp begins, but a scenario in which both players start games in 2016 is not far-fetched. After all, Kelly and the 49ers must make a decision on both. Kaepernick will be owed $14.5 million if he’s on the roster April 1, and Gabbert is signed only through this season.
2. Right tackle
The 49ers would have loved to wash their hands of Anthony Davis, who some felt quit on the team at the end of 2014, and they would have loved to switch Erik Pears from tackle to guard, the position they envisioned when they added him last year.
Both scenarios depended on youngster Trent Brown building on his promising finish to 2015 and seizing the starting right tackle role for 2016.
But when spring practices got under way, Pears was back with the first-string offensive line while Brown was huffing and puffing and seemingly struggling to keep up with Kelly’s lightning-paced offense. Brown, who battled weight issues in college, still has time to prove he can handle the job.
The best-case scenario may be that Davis, who abruptly retired last June, is reinstated and returns to the form and focus he had before his injury-plagued 2014 season.
Draft picks John Theus and Fahn Cooper, as well as Canadian Football League product Colin Kelly, also figure into the mix.
3. Inside linebacker
NaVorro Bowman is noticeably more confident in – and spry on – his surgically repaired left knee than he was last year. That’s bad news for ballcarriers, considering he led the league in tackles in 2015.
The question is who will play beside him.
Michael Wilhoite has started 28 games the past two seasons and is one of the smartest and most dedicated players on the defense. Coaches, however, want to know if Gerald Hodges or Ray-Ray Armstrong are better playmakers, and all three will get opportunities to play alongside Bowman this summer. Wilhoite, Hodges and Armstrong are former safeties, which underscores how important coverage skills are at linebacker in today’s NFL.
The 49ers also have the option of playing a true safety, Jaquiski Tartt, as a quasi linebacker on passing downs. At 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, Tartt is nearly the size of a linebacker.
4. Wide receiver
If the season started tomorrow, Torrey Smith would start at right wide receiver, Quinton Patton would be on the left, and Bruce Ellington would line up in the slot.
Kelly likes to have six wideouts on his roster, and the remaining three spots are a toss-up among a largely young, undistinguished and unknown group. Eric Rogers, who starred in the CFL last year, flashed in spring practices. So did second-year players Dres Anderson and DiAndre Campbell. The 49ers also used a sixth-round pick on Aaron Burbridge, who looked good in the final June minicamp.
So expect that at least a couple of unheralded receivers will make the roster and are bound to be pressed into service at some point in Kelly’s offense.
5. Outside linebacker
The 49ers are looking for a young pass rusher to step up for the start of the season while Aaron Lynch misses the first four games due to his suspension by he NFL.
The frontrunner is Eli Harold, last year’s third-round pick who is a budding leader in the locker room and who is being eyed as the heir apparent to 32-year-old Ahmad Brooks. Harold will get competition from slimmed down Tank Carradine, who was used exclusively as an outside linebacker in the spring, and perhaps from impressive rookie Ronald Blair.
Corey Lemonier, who showed so much promise as a rookie in 2013, hasn’t had a sack in the two years since and his roster spot is in jeopardy.
At a glance
Training camp: Santa Clara; players report Saturday; first practice Sunday
Preseason opener: Aug. 14 vs. Houston, 4 p.m., Ch. 13
Regular-season opener: Sept. 12 vs. L.A. Rams, 7:20 p.m., ESPN