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Top 8 Position Battles to Watch in SF 49ers Training Camp

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IMay 15, 2012

Top 8 Position Battles to Watch in SF 49ers Training Camp

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    Even the most casual observer of the NFL has to know that the San Francisco 49ers, those noted upstarts of 2011, seem to have loaded up for bear in 2012. Key free-agent acquisitions coupled with intriguing draft choices will make for a compelling training camp in Jim Harbaughville.

    It is a team that, two months prior to training camp, will be ripped with competitive battles at key positions. The new players—free agents and draftees alike—always bring a rich attraction based on potential, but neither we nor the coaches will know how it all pans out until we see the head-to-head clashes in camp.

    Head-to-head battles will go a long way toward assessing general manager Trent Baalke’s intent, which is to bring in as many good players as possible and let them battle it out for a roster slot. Here are the eight top battles from a mid-May perspective.

Running Back

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    The addition of Randy Moss at receiver opened some eyes in terms of a free-agent signing, but the addition of Brandon Jacobs resonated deeper around the league. Here is a power back with bigger size than Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon, who is capable of being a real force on the field.

    At the same time, Giants fans note that Jacobs has a tendency to dance rather than dash, and there were more than a few clashes with former head coach Tom Coughlin.

    Add to that the second-round draft pick LaMichael James, who is smaller, faster and fresher than Jacobs or Gore but also seems to be a replica of Kendall Hunter, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2011 and who had a good year as Gore’s backup.

    Dixon, though promising, may feel like some people cut in line. Gore, who signed a three-year contract last year after a short holdout, has to wonder whether he’s been given a message.

    The only one in the backfield who doesn’t seem to have a worry is second-year fullback Bruce Miller. And this still doesn’t include Rock Cartwright, signed off the Raiders, who might be needed more for special teams than offense.

    The intriguing element is Gore, who finished on IR in 2010 and struggled with injuries late in 2011. I say only four backs remain on the roster–Gore, Jacobs, Hunter and James. It will be interesting to see how Dixon performs in camp.

Deep-Threat WR

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    Moss is said in May to have shown good speed. So what. It’s gym-shorts time.

    Put a helmet on him and let some CBs take some shots at his ribs. In mid-July we’ll have a better idea.

    The Niners also added A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois as their first pick in the draft. And if you consider the previous slide in which the team added two running backs to the squad that includes a running back in the middle of a three-year contract plus a surprising second-year RB, the message is obvious:

    No one’s guaranteed a slot.

    It also shows that Baalke and the rest of the organization, including the kid president Jed York, is not afraid to bring in the best players, even if it means having to eat some credibility (Moss) or contracts (Gore).

Slot WR

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    Mario Manningham (pictured) adds depth to the receiver corps but also is a direct threat to Michael Crabtree, now entering his fourth year.

    By the end of 2011, when injuries took away Ted Ginn Jr. and Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards had been cut, Crabtree was the lone threat. He had to play the split end position and better cornerbacks like Aaron Ross of the Giants negated him with press coverage.

    Putting Crabtree in the slot gives him more room to move, and he is strong at midfield. It remains to be seen if Manningham can add more speed from the slot and further keep the safeties from creeping to the line of scrimmage.

Third-or-First-String QB

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    There’s no doubt that Alex Smith had his best year in 2011. There’s no doubt that he’ll enter the first preseason game as the starter. After that, all bets are off. To his credit, it’s something Smith seems to accept, and Harbaugh loves him for it.

    The addition of Josh Johnson from Tampa Bay, another eye-opening free-agent signing, is an obvious statement about Harbaugh’s love of former college players (Johnson played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego). It’s also a move up from Scott Tolzien, last year’s third-string QB.

    Last year’s second-string QB, Colin Kaepernick, is safe because he brings more versatility to the Niners. There’s a good chance that, with James in the backfield, Kaepernick could come in for a series or two and present zone option plays to give the defense even more things to consider.

    Johnson is bigger than Tolzien and has a strong arm. There’s no telling whether that fact, along with the new receivers who can get deep, may influence the Niners offense. With Moss and Jenkins, the Niners have two players who can race up the sidelines. But throwing deep to the outside is Smith’s weakest attribute, and thus we’ll see how that plays out in camp.

Kick Returner

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    Ted Ginn Jr. was one of the best in punt and kick returns. His absence in the NFC Championship game was felt deeply. And after a semi-serious free agent search, he returned to the Niners with no guarantee at all.

    Ginn Jr. is one of the fastest players in the league, but the Niners have added James (21), who also was a first-rate kick returner in college. They have Kyle Williams, he of the famous botched punt that led to the loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship game, and they have Kendall Hunter.

    Special teams play glued the Niners together. With a defense that excelled at not giving up big plays, the special teams play secured superior field position. Having a player who is secure in catching the ball and hitting lanes for an extra 10-or-15 yards means one less first down the team has to acquire in a scoring drive.

    It’s a huge position, one easily overlooked when assessing a team’s chances.

Cornerback

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    Bring in Perrish Cox (32), let Chris Culliver gain more confidence, re-sign Carlos Rogers, let Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock improve, and there you have a formula for creating a competitive camp among the cornerbacks. Cory Nelms, the second-year player out of Miami, has to be on the edge.

    Cox is the X-factor. He didn’t play in 2011 and his rookie season in 2010 for the Broncos was OK but nothing extraordinary.

    Prior to last month’s draft, many “experts” thought the Niners would draft a player here. Baalke thought better of it and just added Cox. But fans have to remember that there are mountains of proof that cornerbacks don’t have to be all that good when the opposition’s quarterback is on his back (sacked). Example 1A: The 1985 Chicago Bears.

Right Guard

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    I predicted in several of my mock drafts that the absence of Adam Snyder at right guard did not present a dire threat to the Niners. One option was to move 6’8” backup tackle Alex Boone (75) to the slot. Lo and behold, there it was.

    The team added guard Joe Looney out of Wake Forest and has backup Daniel Kilgore as well. This is not a worry for the team. However, the slot proved troublesome at times last year. Snyder would get bulled back and backup Chilo Rachal had a hard time picking up stunts.

    Baalke does have options, but remember what Harbaugh said prior to the 2011 season: All interior offensive linemen have to learn to play other positions. This is just another example of that credo.

Linebacker

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    Add Cameron Johnson and Darius Fleming (pictured) to go along with the Fab Five: Aldon Smith, Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. There’s Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden as backups. That’s nine players for maybe eight slots.

    This is a rich position for the Niners. If the Niners develop into one of those once-in-a-generation defenses, a la the ’85 Bears, this position will be its foundation.

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