8 San Francisco 49ers Flying Under the Media's Radar Heading into Camp
For all intents and purposes, the San Francisco 49ers are set. Now that the first offseason team activities (OTAs) are about complete, of the top 24 positions (11 starters offense and defense plus kicker, punter and returners), the Niners have signed 23 to long-term deals.
Going into training camp in July, there should be relatively little battle for starting positions, with perhaps right guard (Alex Boone vs. Daniel Kilgore) and right cornerback (Tarell Brown vs. Perrish Cox) being the exceptions.
Nonetheless, there are some compelling issues that head coach Jim Harbaugh and staff have to emphasize prior to September, and as such here are eight 49ers who are flying under the radar heading into camp.
Outside Linebacker Eric Bakhtiari
He played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and at first glance appears to be just another college-connect player signed as a free agent. But note that the Niners went through the entire 2011 season without any backup OLBs, and thus Bakhtiari could turn into a key acquisition.
He’s bounced around a little and his longest stay in the league was with the Titans in 2009. But at 6’3” and 258 pounds, he has size to play a run-enforcing position a la Parys Haralson.
Also, with the pre-camp injury to draft pick Darius Fleming, Bakhtiari’s experience and size might give him an inside slot to one of the team’s final, but very important, roster positions.
No. 3 QB Josh Johnson
Very little of Johnson has been reported out of Santa Clara OTAs. That’s probably because the coaching staff wants to set basic elements of the offense and the first-string is the best way to demonstrate to newcomers how to to call plays, line up and so forth.
However, Johnson’s play in Tampa Bay centered on accurate mid-range passes, which are essential to a West Coast offense approach. We may have to wait until preseason games to be able to judge Johnson’s effectiveness as well as his comfort level with the offense.
Defensive Linemen Will Tukuafu & Demarcus Dobbs
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee listed the team’s depth chart for the OTAs, and surprisingly it included both Tukuafu (92) and Dobbs at the fullback position.
Much like Isaac Sopoaga filling in at the position last year, “Took” and Dobbs might see some time on the offensive side of the ball much like Sopoaga did last year. More importantly will be there roles in spelling Sopoaga, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith on the defensive line.
This latter role will keep the front three of the defense fresh for the year.
Backup Safety Michael Thomas
Unlike Stanford teammate Chris Owusu, Thomas gets to participate in OTAs because he has graduated. He also gives the team a little security in this position.
Sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson is well-regarded, but Thomas, who also is on the small side, brings smarts and heady play to the position.
Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson performed very well last year; their continued play at this position will be pivotal in the Niners’ continued stellar play on defense. However, if either go down with injury, quality backups are needed.
Thomas is that added player who can provide stability to the position.
Tight Ends Nate Byham and Konrad Rueland
Byham (pictured) is 6’4” and 264 pounds and really is like another tackle when the Niners go “heavy” in their offensive line, an obvious tactic meant to beat the defense physically. The coaching staff really liked him during last year's camp and signed him even though he suffered a season-ending knee injury last summer.
Reuland (6’4”, 260 pounds) has more speed and has the capability to flex away from the line and play in “bunch” formations that can confuse assignments in the opponents' secondary.
With Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker assured of roster spots, it will be interesting to see how the team plays these two players during OTAs and camp.
Byham’s a better blocker whereas Reuland can run and catch. Either way, each gives Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman some flexibility, but it remains to be seen if both will be on the game-day roster during the season.
Slot Receiver Mario Manningham
Manningham had some injury issues when he was in New York. But he made many critical catches last year, including some against the Niners in their two games last year. There’s no doubt that he can be an effective third-receiver.
But he also had Eli Manning throwing to him, and few are more accurate than Eli when it comes to throwing “outside the numbers” along the sidelines, especially in the up patterns that hit an open area between the rolled-up cornerback and the deep safety of the Cover 2 defensive scheme.
In contrast, the weakest element in Alex Smith’s game are those same “up-the-sideline” throws, particularly deep ones. Inside a rectangle of 15 yards deep stretching between the numbers, Smith is excellent.
Let’s see how Manningham fits into that domain as opposed to running up the sideline.