By: Mike Messner (@teachermike72)
One of the most painful parts of life, in and out of sports, is the near miss. Everyone goes through it at some point. You put in the hours, you memorize the lines, you study for the test for hours, you get in top shape. You do everything right, and you go to the audition, the test, or the tryout, and you put in the performance of a lifetime. Then after all of that, you still don’t get the part, or the grade you want, or in this case, the spot on the roster.
This is going to be the fate of at least 37 men who currently bear the title of “49er.” Even if Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch wanted to keep all of the guys who just left OTAs, they can’t. They have to build this new team with the best material available, and that means tough decisions — no more tough on the players than the coaches, perhaps.
For some of the athletes who are told “thanks but no thanks,” it means they will be picked up by another organization. For a few, they will be sticking around Santa Clara for a stint on the Niners practice squad — not a glamorous gig, being a tackling dummy, but at least it’s an NFL job. Unfortunately for others, it will likely mean the end of a career path.
Here are nine players whom I expect will give a pretty good training camp performance, but who, for better or worse, will probably be given their walking papers.
Kapri Bibbs |RB|
This may be one of the more painful cuts the team will make. The team traded a 4th round pick in 2018 to nab Bibbs from the Broncos this offseason, and in so doing they got a Super Bowl winner from Denver’s last appearance there (at Levi’s Stadium, of all places). However, they also got a player who was not drafted, and who didn’t do much other than occupy practice squad places until 2015 — when he was active for a single game against the Niners. Plus, he was rated an unimpressive 63.3 by PFF (below average).
So why is this so painful? Two reasons: Bibbs suffered a high ankle sprain late last season and is coming off some time on IR — and he didn’t finish his degree at Colorado State before turning pro. Granted, he can go back to school, but to be out of a job after such a big gamble has got to hurt.
Raheem Mostert |RB|
Mostert has bounced around a lot since being signed as an undrafted free agent with the Eagles in 2015; he has hung his hat in Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York (Jets) and Chicago before joining the 49ers’ practice squad in November 2016. When he finally did get promoted to the active roster, he carried the ball exactly once from scrimmage.
However, I can see Mostert being a close call, because the guy can return kicks. Okay, plenty of people can do the same job, but Mostert averaged 32 yards per return last preseason. You don’t get those kinds of numbers without having stamina and a certain amount of ability to evade tackles; his talent belies the 65.0 PFF rating he got. Sadly, I think he will return to the practice squad circuit for as long as the NFL rules will allow him. After that, all bets are off.
DeAndre Smelter |WR|
I can only imagine how disappointed he will be, because he has had a run of hard luck. Smelter spent his rookie season on the NFI list as a member of Trent Baalke’s ACL All-Stars, and then injured a hamstring, which kept him out of the preseason a year ago. Plus, his shoulder has been a sensitive spot, which means his body catches have been less than ideal and his drops have been more frequent as time has gone on.
Smelter has good size, knows how to stiff-arm defenders after the catch, and has some natural athleticism. It’s just that the team has already cut him once (after that hamstring injury), and his return didn’t really impact the team in a meaningful way. As much as the 49ers need a skillful wide receiver, I haven’t seen anything to merit him staying around. I’m thinking the Kansas City Chiefs might take some interest when he is cut, though.
Blake Bell |TE|
Blake Bell, TE: Damn, damn! How I wish that had worked out. Bell looked like a great developmental prospect when he was drafted in 2015 — he had been a quarterback before switching to tight end, and he had some size and blocking ability. I actually had Bell on my fantasy team during the very brief experiment I did with that pastime. What’s not to like, right?
Well, the competition was, and is, just too much for the guy. Bell will get lost in the crowd of players who want the starting position…read ‘em and weep: Celek, Paulsen, Kittle, Hikutini, and maybe Juszczyk. His versatility notwithstanding, Bell will be given his walking papers, or asked to stay on the practice squad.
Vance McDonald |TE|
Vance McDonald, TE: The ultimate blasphemy, I know. Haven’t we been down this road before with McDonald? And why would you cut a player with a 71.6 PFF rating, who also just happens to be the highest ranked 49ers tight end? Besides, we just re-signed the guy!
The 49ers will give McDonald his walking papers because the guy is consistently inconsistent. No matter what quarterback he was working with, McDonald kept dropping passes last year. I can count on one hand the number of times he made any sort of superstar moves, and in a time where the team is completely rebranding its offense — there will be much more running than passing, mark my words — he isn’t a good fit. The team will eat the guaranteed money and move on, either via release or trade.
Tim Barnes |C|
This seemed like a good move when the 49ers signed Barnes away from the Rams back in May. Barnes was indefatigable when he played in St. Louis; he won the starting center position after time on their practice squad and as a backup, and started all 16 regular season games in 2015 and 2016. Kudos for his work ethic.
Except…he rated as one of the worst centers in the NFL during those two years. He hasn’t played any position except center, and he has competition that has much more ability to switch out on the offensive line. No one called him a camp body when he came to San Francisco, but my sense is that title applies to him this year. I predict he will be sent packing and end up with the Saints, if he is active at all this next season.
Ray-Ray Armstrong |OLB |
On paper, Armstrong seems like he was a solid performer. Before coming to the 49ers, he had played 20 games for the Rams and 21 for the Raiders, and had put up respectable numbers on both special teams and defense. Since coming to San Francisco, though, his productivity has been halved, he missed a number of coverage assignments, and has generally shown a lack of discipline on the field.
Armstrong’s PFF rating isn’t bad (80.4), but between his low performance last season and the presence of the more seasoned (if not more talented) Malcolm Smith, the Niners aren’t going to be enthusiastic about him. The two year contract extension they offered him is a small price to pay if they let him go. My sense is he returns to the Rams.
Will Davis |CB|
This is one that makes sense to me. Davis was signed to a one-year contract at the league minimum by the 49ers after 2 years in Miami and 2 more in Baltimore. The latter two seasons, he appeared in less than 16% of the Ravens’ games and registered a grand total of five tackles, two passes defensed and one interception. Within the space of 11 months, he tore his ACL not once but twice (Trent Baalke would have loved this guy).
There isn’t much tape on Davis, and although there is a huge amount of change going on in the Niners secondary this year, I don’t see the team being so pressed for talent that they settle for Davis. They could just easily (and probably will) keep Rashard Robinson, Keith Reaser, Ahkello Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, and K’Waun Williams. A ticket to Cleveland is likely in Davis’ future.
Will Redmond |CB|
This one may be the most unfair. Redmond was drafted last year in the 3rd round with idea of strengthening the 49ers nickel package, but he immediately was placed on IR and was never activated. As a result, he’s spent most of his time as a 49er either rehabbing or waiting for the season to roll around again; he hasn’t played a snap in a regular season game yet.
I truly feel that Redmond ought to be given a chance and that the team should honor the contract he signed. Alas, that contract was under the Kelly/Baalke regime, and Shanahan/Lynch may not feel especially indebted to Redmond. The presence of those other competitors will make it tough for him, too. I would be thrilled if he made the 53, but his window may have closed in San Francisco.
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