With San Francisco 49ers rookie camp nearing completion, the next few weeks are sure to be full of speculation regarding the direction second-year coach Jim Harbaugh plans to take the 53-man roster following training camp.
After a stellar 13-3 season and a fumbled chance at Super Bowl glory, expectations are high for the Niners entering 2012. Following what most considered a successful first year by Coach Harbaugh, the Niner Nation has been anxiously anticipating how the team will react to a full offseason and training camp under Harbaugh's watchful eye.
Following a surprising run to the NFC Championship Game, it would be easy for the San Francisco front office to set the offseason cruise control and trust player growth/system familiarity to get this franchise its sixth Lombardi Trophy. Coach Harbaugh has never been about "easy."
Instead, the 49ers' offseason was spent entirely in fifth gear, signing Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs away from the Giants, drafting offensive playmakers and coaxing a little-known receiver from Marshall University out of retirement. The San Francisco 49ers then proceeded to re-sign all 11 defensive starters from the NFL's best unit in 2011 and even spent a little time flirting with...er...evaluating...Peyton Manning.
Now that the majority of the acquisitions are over and mini-camps are nearing completion, it is time to take a look at the team Jim Harbaugh is putting together to to get "The First to Five" trophy No. 6.
As recently as last season, the phrase "the battle to backup Alex Smith" would have sent NFL fans into hysterical laughter. However, following a 13-3 record and (arguably) out-dueling Drew Brees in the NFC Divisional Playoff, the Quarterback Formally Known as Bust has entrenched himself as the 49ers starter. The real question for San Francisco's coaching staff is who will emerge as Smith's backup.
On one hand, you have former Nevada standout Colin Kaepernick, who boasts the team's strongest arm and highest ceiling. On the other hand, you have Harbaugh's former University of San Diego pupil and Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Josh Johnson.
Reports from training camp have been mixed for both quarterbacks. Kaepernick struggled even entering the spring to grasp Harbaugh's difficult playbook, and despite his athleticism Johnson had been nothing but a disappointment in Tampa Bay.
More recently, Harbaugh has praised Kaepernick's development, stating he was "near perfect" for an entire mini-camp practice, while Johnson has been separating himself in the 2-Minute Drill. Chances are this battle will not be decided in training camp, but instead during the preseason, with Harbaugh giving both backups ample opportunity to prove themselves.
For the sake of this article, I'll say Kaepernick is listed second on the depth chart to start the season. The franchise moved up in the second round to draft him in 2011 and are invested in his development as the possible future face of the franchise. Johnson will be slated as QB3, meant to push Kaepernick, as well as teach him the intricacies of Harbaugh's offense.
Trent Baalke surprised a lot of people with the selection of LaMichael James in this year's NFL draft. Conventional wisdom suggested the 49ers, who boasted the league's fourth-best rushing offense in 2011, were set at the running back position for the foreseeable future. The emergence of backup Kendall Hunter left Niner Nation excited for not just the present, but the future of the position.
But unfortunately for NFC West defenses, Jim Harbaugh saw plenty of LaMichael James while coaching in the Pac-12. The front office saw far too much upside in the diminutive back to let him slip past their position in Round 2.
James looks to dethrone yet another undersized ball-carrier in Kendall Hunter, who amassed nearly 500 yards and multiple touchdowns as Frank Gore's backup in 2011. While Hunter may not have the shiftiness of James, he is also a dangerous runner in space.
While James has more upside, Hunter looked ready and willing to carry the load last season. His knowledge of the playbook and hard-nosed attitude will keep him on the field this season. Harbaugh will use James as a Sproles clone, catching swing passes and running draws in hopes of giving him space to make tacklers miss. Both will see plenty of action this season and may even be on the field at the same time in certain packages.
Frustration mounted with the fanbase last season any time Anthony Dixon made his way onto the field. Criticism ranged from "too soft" to "happy footed," not exactly desirable traits in a goal line back.
Enter Brandon Jacobs, the 260-pound mountain of a halfback with a nose for the endzone. The two-time Super Bowl champion Jacobs spent the last several seasons in New York, splitting carries with Ahmad Bradshaw and handling goal-line duties for the Giants.
However, Jacobs himself has faced criticism in the past for running "too soft" and saw his role with the Giants diminish enough last season that they did not feel it necessary to renew his contract. Conversely, Dixon has rededicated himself this offseason and came into camp in the best shape of his young career.
While Brandon Jacobs may be on the tail end of a successful career, he won't be asked to do much in San Francisco other than lower his shoulder and plow ahead a yard or two. Dixon is still young enough and hungry enough to land somewhere, but I don't think it will be in the Bay.
OK, so this prediction isn't exactly surprising. Since making the move from swing tackle to right guard, Alex Boone has been head and shoulders above the competition for the starting spot. Behind Boone lies a group of inexperienced, but athletic big men, including 2012 draft pick Joe Looney and 2011 draft pick Daniel Kilgore.
What's made Boone stand above the rest (other than his 6'8" frame) is his insane work ethic and willingness to do whatever it takes to get on the field. Harbaugh loves players like Boone because they will never give a coach less than 100 percent effort.
Boone's two biggest hurdles are (yet unforeseen) injuries and problems staying low enough for quarterbacks to see over. However, I think his size is overplayed (quarterbacks throw through lanes; not over them), and he's been relatively healthy his whole career.
With both Boone and Iupati patrolling the interior for the 49ers, I fear for the lives of defensive tackles lining up against these mountainous men. The 49ers' run blocking will actually improve this season, as Boone (as well as my 91-year-old grandmother) is a major upgrade over the two-headed fail monster that was Snyder/Rachel.
Unless the Bay Area media, 49ers players, coaches and fan accounts are all blowing smoke on Randy Moss' much-anticipated return to football, the top three wide receiver positions are locked down. Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams and first-round pick AJ Jenkins all hold very little chance of significant touches this season.
However, with all the new weapons (including a pass-catching running back), it is safe to say the 49ers will be airing it out more consistently than in recent memory. This gives two of the three remaining receivers a good chance at making the roster and contributing to the team's success in 2012.
With its first-round pick this year, San Francisco selected Illinois burner AJ Jenkins, a fluid and sure-handed speedster in desperate need of a couple dozen protein shakes. Despite reports to the contrary from a nepotistic newsreporter whom will remain nameless, Harbaugh has been happy with Jenkins' development thus far.
Second in line for the prize is Ted Ginn, the former top-10 pick turned return specialist with A+ straight line speed and alligator arms. Ginn's value as a receiver is nonexistent, but his value as a return man became apparent in the 49ers' OT loss to eventual champions New York in last year's playoffs.
Finally, the much-maligned Kyle Williams is fighting for a roster spot on a team that struggled to field receivers in 2011. While he showed flashes of brilliance last year as a slot receiver, his errors in the NFC Championship game have not been forgotten by anyone in the Niner Nation.
Prediction: Williams and Jenkins
It's easy to blame a lot of things on Kyle Williams. But the fact of the matter is, he is a ferocious blocker with good speed and serviceable hands. While there will likely be no more return duties in his future, his role in the 49ers' offense will remain the same next season. The franchise has invested too much into AJ Jenkins to cut him, leaving Ginn the odd man out.
In all honesty, the drafting of LaMichael James may have been the last nail in Ginn's coffin. In the first two rounds, the 49ers took two return men, thus negating any advantage Ginn may have held at getting a roster spot.
With the two starting cornerback positions pretty convincingly in the hands of returning starters, the increasingly important nickel spot will be up for grabs between second-year player Chris Culliver and recently signed Perrish Cox.
For those of you who don't know, Cox was a highly gifted member of the Denver Broncos 2010 secondary. However, some legal issues kept Cox out of football last season. He has since been exonerated of all criminal charges and has signed on with the 49ers.
The player Cox is fighting for playing time with is 2011 third-round pick Chris Culliver, who was (in my opinion) the biggest surprise of last year's campaign. Culliver is both strong and fast, and instinctual enough to play the nickel in Vic Fangio's defense.
The biggest question here is whether or not Cox can gain the trust of the 49ers coaching staff. He has shown great physical ability and appears dedicated to the team ,according to all accounts of out Niners camp. However, those looming character question marks remain, and it is possible the 49ers take a "wait-and-see" approach to their new acquisition.
This is not a knock against Chris Culliver. I'm probably the captain of the Culliver bandwagon (I see him as a franchise CB), but I just see Cox as more ready to contribute in 2012. Reports from camp have been very, very high on Cox, so much so that he may actually be more in competition with Tarell Brown for the CB2 spot than Chris Culliver for the nickel spot.
Let's skip the pleasantries:
QB: Smith*, Kaepernick, Johnson (3)
RB: Gore*, Hunter, James, Jacobs, Cartwright, Miller (6)
TE: Davis*, Walker, Byham (3)
WR: Crabtree*, Moss*, Manningham*, Williams, Jenkins (5)
OL: Staley*, Iupati*, Goodwin*, Boone*, Davis*, Kilgore, Looney, Beeler, Person (9)
DL: Smith*, Sopoaga*, McDonald*, Jean-Francois, Dobbs, Tukuafu (6)
LB: Smith*, Bowman*, Willis*, Brooks*, Haralson, Johnson, Grant, Gooden (8)
DB: Rogers*, Brown*, Cox, Culliver, Brock (5)
S: Whitner*, Goldson*, Robinson, Spillman, Jones (5)
Special Teams (3)
Get excited, 49er fans. This could be a special season.
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