Five 49ers potential roster battles to watch after 2021 NFL Draft

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Five potential 49ers roster battles to watch after draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Running back Wayne Gallman Jr. stepped up for the New York Giants following Saquon Barkley’s season-ending knee injury last season.

Gallman performed well, averaging 4.6 yards per carry with a team-leading 682 yards rushing and six touchdowns.

He appeared to be set up for a good opportunity in free agency. However, the starting job and multi-year contract did not come calling.

Gallman signed a one-year contract with the 49ers to join a backfield that already had Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and JaMycal Hasty.

Then, the 49ers went out and selected two running backs for the first time in a draft since 1991, when there were 12 rounds — not the current seven rounds.

Gallman’s fight to make the team highlights five potential 49ers roster battles to keep an eye on:

Running backWayne Gallman Jr. vs. Elijah Mitchell

Why did the 49ers select a running back with their final pick in the draft over, say, a slot receiver? It was because the 49ers felt Mitchell had the best chance of making the team over anyone else on their draft board.

That probably tells you all you need to know about this competition.

Sure, Gallman Jr. could secure a roster spot over Jeff Wilson Jr., but that seems unlikely. The 49ers know Wilson. They like his toughness and versatility. Gallman also played only 17 snaps on special teams the past two seasons, so he does not bring a lot to the table in the kicking game.

Mitchell could find immediate playing time as a third-down back. He catches passes out of the backfield, and he’s got breakaway speed in the open field. 

If it’s close, Mitchell gets the job because, as a rookie, he is locked into a four-year contract.

QuarterbackJosh Rosen vs. Nate Sudfeld

It was a big deal when the 49ers signed Rosen off the Buccaneers’ practice squad late last season. He spent two games with the 49ers but never got off the sideline.

Rosen was a person of intrigue because he entered the NFL in 2018 as the No. 10 overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals. He was placed in a horrible situation. Rosen started 13 games as a rookie, and he struggled. But he did engineer two victories over the 49ers.

When the Cardinals selected Kyler Murray at No. 1 overall in the next draft, Rosen was traded to Miami. He was not there long, either. He left Miami when Tua Tagovailoa was selected No. 5 overall in the 2020 draft.

The 49ers likely will keep three quarterbacks. Trey Lance, of course, is one. Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to open as the starter.

The 49ers handed Sudfeld a $200,000 guarantee to convince him to sign with the 49ers after he spent his first four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Rich Scangarello, the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach, was on the Eagles’ staff last season. Those factors seem to suggest Sudfeld will stick around.

Offensive lineJustin Skule vs. Shon Coleman

Coleman started all 16 games at right tackle for the Cleveland Browns in 2017. Just prior to the start of the 2018 season, the 49ers acquired him in a trade.

Since that time, he was inactive for all 16 games in 2018, missed 2019 with an ankle injury sustained in a preseason game, then opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coleman originally was acquired to be a swing tackle. But, now, he has not played in a regular-season game in three full seasons.

Skule is a third-year pro who filled in admirably with eight starts as a rookie. He started four games last season.

The 49ers know what they’re getting with Skule because they’ve seen him play a lot of football in his first two seasons. Even after the 49ers brought him to the team three years ago, Coleman still is an unknown.

Defensive lineKentavius Street vs. Zach Kerr

There are a few unanswerable questions along the defensive line.

Will Dee Ford, physically, be able to play this season?

How will the assault allegation against Kevin Givens impact his status with the 49ers and the NFL?

Those questions will be answered in time.

Regardless, there will be good competition for backup spots on the defensive line.

The 49ers collected some good depth in the offseason, including the addition of Kerr, a 334-pound nose tackle who has played a lot of football the past seven seasons. He started four games for the Carolina Panthers last year.

Street sustained a torn ACL a month before the 2018 draft. The 49ers still selected him in the fourth round. He endured a rocky road to get to the point last season in which he appeared in 15 games with two starts.

It can be expected the 49ers will keep one of these two players -- but probably not both.

RELATED: Projecting 49ers' 53-man roster after draft

Defensive backMarcell Harris vs. Talanoa Hufanga

Harris started 13 games of the 34 games in which he appeared over the past three seasons. He is a box safety, as well as being one of the 49ers’ top contributors on special teams.

In the fifth round of this year’s draft, the 49ers selected a box safety from USC. Hufanga is a player who drew some comparisons in the draft room to 49ers general manager John Lynch, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

Hufanga does not figure to be in the mix for a starting job early in his career. But that’s OK, he said. He said he has another lofty goal for his rookie season.

“This is a big, big statement but it's something I've always preached: Being a special teams Pro Bowler in my first year is a goal of mine,” Hufanga said in the moments after the 49ers drafted him.

Harris and Hufanga, the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, have similar attributes. With Jaquiski Tartt back on a one-year contract as a likely starter alongside Jimmie Ward, it seems unlikely there is room on the roster for both Harris and Hufanga.

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