49ers Talk

Six 49ers vets whose roles will be challenged by '23 rookies

The 49ers have an influx of young talent after the 2023 NFL Draft.

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While all of the 49ers’ draft picks are far from guaranteed to make the team this season, their arrivals apply pressure to some of the team’s veteran players.

The 49ers did not add to their roster until trading up to No. 87 overall to select Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown.

Then, the 49ers selected two more players in the third round, two in the fifth, one in the sixth and three in the seventh to wrap up the 2023 NFL Draft.

Here are six veteran players on the 49ers’ roster who will face the biggest challenges to hold onto their jobs with the influx of young talent:

TE Ross Dwelley

In his fifth NFL season, Ross Dwelley faced weekly challenges last season to suit up for games as a reserve behind starter George Kittle.

After playing every game in the previous three seasons, Dwelley was a healthy scratch for seven games late last season, including twice in the NFL playoffs.

Charlie Woerner played in all 17 games for the second season in a row. And veteran pickup Tyler Kroft regularly nudged Dwelley out for playing time down the stretch.

It was clear the 49ers wanted to bring in some new talent, as the club selected two tight ends: Cameron Latu of Alabama in the third round and Brayden Willis of Oklahoma in the seventh.

The 49ers want to create better depth behind Kittle, who had 60 receptions for 765 yards and a career-best 11 touchdowns during the 2022 season.

Dwelley had three catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, while Woerner, a blocking specialist, did not have any receptions on just two passes thrown his way.

CB Ambry Thomas

The 49ers got major contributions from cornerback Ambry Thomas at the end of his rookie season.

Thomas started the final seven games in which he appeared in 2021, including two games in the playoffs. His interception in overtime in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams clinched the 49ers a playoff spot.

But something happened with Thomas last season.

Or, maybe, it’s more appropriate to point out that nothing happened with Thomas last season.

He played just 41 snaps of defense the entire season. While Thomas’ game clearly regressed, fellow second-year player Deommodore Lenoir stepped up in a big way.

Lenoir took over as the 49ers’ starter after Emmanuel Moseley’s season-ending injury and played well enough to lock down the starting job for the foreseeable future.

The 49ers already like what they see in draft selection Darrell Luter Jr., a fifth-round pick from South Alabama. The onus is on Thomas to fight hard to win a backup role this season.

WR/RS Ray-Ray McCloud

The 49ers signed Ray-Ray McCloud a year ago in order to remove a chore from Brandon Aiyuk’s list of responsibilities.

McCloud fared well in his first season with San Francisco. He averaged 10.8 yards on 33 punt returns with 21 fair catches. He also averaged 23.0 yards on 26 kickoff returns. He had only two fumbles and recovered both of them.

McCloud clearly is the odds-on favorite to remain in that role, but it is possible promising rookie Ronnie Bell could provide a challenge.

Bell, a seventh-round draft pick from Michigan, will compete for playing time when the 49ers feature three- or four-receiver sets. He also has experience in the return game and has the opportunity make a case to fill a significant role as a rookie.

LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles

After being the fourth linebacker and a spot starter in 2020 and '21, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles was pushed a notch down the depth chart with the arrival of veteran Oren Burks.

Azeez Al-Shaair signed with the Tennessee Titans this offseason, but two rookies come in to increase the competition for the No. 3 linebacker job behind Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.

The 49ers selected speedy TCU linebacker Dee Winters in the sixth round and came back to grab Jalen Graham of Purdue to round out their draft class.

The 49ers did not tender Flannigan-Fowles as a restricted free agent. But they thought enough of him to re-sign him on a lesser contract for one year.

Now, he's going to face an even stiffer challenge to retain a roster spot.

S Tashaun Gipson

The 49ers re-signed Tashaun Gipson to a one-year contract to line up at free safety alongside Talanoa Hufanga. Gipson turns 33 in August.

While Gipson had a strong season with the 49ers — and pushed Jimmie Ward into a full-time role as the nickel back — the organization also clearly likes Brown, the team’s top draft pick.

If Brown is a quick study and makes an immediate impression in training camp, it is certainly within the realm of possibility the 49ers could determine right away that he is too good to keep off the field.

K Zane Gonzalez

The 49ers acquired kicker Zane Gonzalez from the Carolina Panthers for a conditional swap of late-round picks in the 2025 draft.

When the 49ers selected Michigan kicker Jake Moody at No. 99 overall, a clear signal was sent that he would be the team’s starter to open the season.

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So where does that leave Gonzalez?

With so many teams around the NFL still uncertain about their kicking situations, the 49ers will try to hold onto Gonzalez as long as possible to see if they can flip him in a trade before the start of the regular season.

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