49ers Training Camp: Grading Each Position
Can you believe football is almost here? The offseason was a blur, but of course it helps when your team makes offseason headlines. And that the 49ers did, by bringing in Randy Moss and pursuing Peyton Manning. They also retained many of their own, and for the most part this is the same team that almost won the NFC Championship. There are some positions that need to be resolved in training camp, like right guard, but this should be the least eventful training camp in recent memory.
Though Alex Smith had the best season of his career, this offseason was not much different than last offseason for Smith. The front office still tried to replace him, feelings were hurt and just when it looked like Smith's relationship with the 49ers was irreparable, the 49ers convinced Smith to come back.
What is different is that Smith, for the first time in his career, will start in the same system. Continuity is important for quarterbacks and continuity is something that Smith's career has lacked. It will be interesting to see how much Smith will improve as he gains a better understanding of Harbaugh's complex offense. It also helps that Smith will have more weapons.
Why then am I not giving this position an A? Because a career season for Smith is not like a career season for Drew Brees or Tom Brady, as Alex Smith's 2011 stats translate to the stats of a game manager. It should be noted though that this is partly because he plays in a run-oriented offense.
Another reason why I'm not giving this a better grade is Smith has yet to show that he can be successful consistently. 2011 was the only year that he had posted a quarterback rating over 90. More importantly, it was the only year that he had lead a team to a winning record.
Lastly, Smith has durability issues as he has suffered multiple shoulder injuries, such as in 2008 when he broke a bone in his shoulder and was out for the season.
If the 49ers were to lose Smith to an injury they do have either Josh Johnson or Colin Kaepernick. That's right, we have the first position battle of this article. Johnson is a three year veteran from Tampa Bay that was signed in the offseason. Johnson dominated the collegiate level at University of San Diego where none other than Jim Harbaugh used to coach, and thus has experience in Harbaugh's system.
As previously mentioned, Harbaugh's system relies more on the runningback than the quarterback, which won't put Johnson in a position to do it all himself. Johnson's scrambling ability will also open more running lanes for the 49er runningbacks.
Kaepernick is a very similar player to Johnson—mobile and dominated the collegiate level— but the 49ers have bigger plans for Kaepernick as they are grooming him to be Smith's successor. Last year's preseason suggested that the sophomore needs some more grooming, and the 49ers want to be cautious not to permanently stunt his career by playing him too soon, which is why I expect the 49ers to lean towards Johnson being the backup quarterback.
The 49ers don't have a top five fantasy running back like Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson or LeSean Mccoy, but they do have Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon.
In other words, what the 49ers lack in star power they make up for in depth. Gore, the best in between tackle runner out of the group, will play on first and second down. When it comes to passing downs, such as third down, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter—the speedsters—can contribute. And what about when you're in the red zone and need a big running back to finish the job? At 260 pounds, Brandon Jacobs can do that. Dixon's role will most likely be on special teams.
My only concern is that Frank Gore is not getting any younger at 29, and was running out of gas towards the end of the season. The 49ers will most likely reduce Gore's carries to preserve him for a most likely postseason entry, but who will pick up the slack?
Playing fullback is Bruce Miller. Even though Miller had no previous experience at the position (he played defensive end at USF), the 49ers run game instantly improved when Miller was inserted into the starting lineup. He needs to improve on recognizing which guy he's supposed to block, but another year under his belt will help him understand Harbaugh's complex blocking schemes. Miller did suffer a concussion late in the season, and if he suffers another one, he could be out for awhile.
Wide Receiver: C+
Going into the offseason, no position had to be addressed more than the wide receiver. The lack of production from the receivers, along with Kyle Williams fumbles, cost the 49ers the NFC Championship.
The 49ers attempts to address the position were signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and drafting A.J. Jenkins in the first round. I question whether these are the right guys though to fix the 49ers wide receiver woes. Jenkins will fix the 49ers wide receiver woes one day, but till then needs to be developed before he can contribute. Moss is 35 years old and I doubt that a year away from football helped him find the fountain of youth.
Before you tell me how great he's looked in workouts, I've heard it before; the Titans, the Vikings and the Raiders all said the same when they acquired Moss, and look how that turned out. And why didn’t Manningham, who is penciled in to play the slot, produce more with a future hall-of-fame quarterback throwing to him, Eli Manning, and a talented supporting cast in Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz?
Michael Crabtree is also hard to evaluate. Will this be the year that he finally breaks out? It's encouraging that his foot is healthy for the first time since he came to the NFL. It's also encouraging that he's attending the offseason programs and shouldn't miss any time in training camp, as he’s been absent in previous years due to injuries, a rookie contract dispute and the lockout. Has he grown up though?
Throughout his NFL career, Crabtree has been labeled as prima donna, which comes with having Deion Sanders as your mentor. He didn't' block like a prima donna though last season. This to me shows that he has grown up to an extent; while most receivers show no interest in blocking, Crabtree didn't stop until the whistle blew. If a healthy Crabtree can continue to mature and make the most out of training camp, he will have that breakout year we've been waiting for.
Because there is so much uncertainty surrounding this position, it is hard to grade this position. By the end of the season it could be an "A" as a year off could just be what Moss needed. Manningham could thrive without being overshadowed by the receivers he played with in New York. A.J. Jenkins could be the steal of the 2012 draft; and Crabtree could reach the 1,000 yard mark for the first time.
It also could be an "F," with Moss not finishing the season with the team, Manningham's routes not crisp enough to be an effective slot receiver, Jenkins being more raw than we thought, and Crabtree returning to his immature ways.
I predict a mix of the following scenarios will happen: Moss not having anything left in the tank and Jenkins not being pro-ready, but Manningham and Crabtree having breakout seasons, which is why I'm giving this position a B-.
Tight End: A+
When you have Vernon Davis as your starting tight end, you know you’re pretty well off at the position. He didn't have the career season many were expecting playing in Harbaugh's offense which relies heavily on its’ tight ends.
However, this was because Davis was utilized more for his blocking early in the season, which he doesn't get enough credit for, and barely scratched the surface of Harbaugh's offense. He finished the season strong though as Harbaugh utilized his receiving skills more, and showed in the post season that he is the 49ers' most dangerous offensive weapon; he had 292 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Another year in Harbaugh's system should result in Vernon Davis leading tight ends in every category imaginable.
As previously mentioned Harbaugh's offense relies heavily on the tight end position, usually starting two tight ends. The second tight end that plays across Vernon Davis is the underrated Delanie Walker. It seems like every mock drafter forgot about Walker when they mocked Colby Fleener to the 49ers in the first round.
They shouldn't have. His stats don’t show it, but Walker is one of the most versatile players on the 49ers roster. And when Walker is out of the lineup, the 49ers offense isn’t the same. Take this one stat for instance, courtesy of Mike Sando of ESPN; during a seven game stretch last season, the 49ers "12" personnel package that featured one tailback and two tight ends, averaged 102 yards per passing per game. After Walker broke his jaw this package only averaged 49.7 yards passing per game. Why the drop in this statistic?
Mostly because Davis and Alex Smith aren't the same without him in the lineup. Walker is an emergency outlet for Smith if Vernon Davis is blanketed by the defense, and he takes away attention from Davis. He can also relieve Davis from his blocking duties or serve as an extra pass protector for Smith.
Nate Byham is a mauler in the run game and will come in on running downs when the 49ers use three tight ends. If the 49ers decide to keep four tight ends on the roster, it will most likely be Konrad Reuland, who has been catching everything in the mini-camps, who gets the spot.
Offensive Tackle: B-
If it wasn't for right tackle Anthony Davis, this position would be graded higher. But unfortunately it appears the 49ers are giving Davis one last chance to prove he isn't a bust.
In his first two seasons Davis has done nothing to warrant his first round draft status, giving up a total of 22 sacks; his greatest strength coming out of college was supposed to be protecting the passer. He also has mental lapses and lacked maturity, being penalized eight times last season, and punched a Kansas City player. If there is one shred of hope for Davis, it is Andre Smith.
Like Davis, Smith plays right tackle, and also like Davis, Smith was a first round talent that, through his first two seasons, did not perform like a first round draft pick. Lastly, Smith was immature, holding out for a richer rookie contract and showing up to the combine overweight.
In 2011, his third season, Smith appeared to get serious about football, showing up to training camp in shape. As a result he performed like a first round draft pick, only allowing two sacks in 14 games. Davis, in his third season, has the athletic ability to turn his career around, as there was a reason he was drafted in the first round; the question remains, "will he will put in the work."
On the left side is Mr. Consistent, Joe Staley. You won't find Staley's name in the list of top five offensive tackles, but he has never had a disappointing season in his six year career; hr has never given up more than 10 sacks in a season. Staley finished last season strong, only giving up one sack after week 11, and as a result was voted to the Pro Bowl.
My one concern is that Staley has had two seasons cut short by injuries. And if Staley goes down, the 49ers have little depth behind him, as none of the offensive line's reserves have spent more than two years in the league. The 49ers should have brought in a veteran to fill in for Staley just in case the youths aren't ready to start.
At the left guard position is the 49ers most talented offensive lineman, Mike Iupati. Iupati is not well known yet around the league, but another good season under his belt and he will be.
In his rookie season he was ranked the fifth best guard by Pro Football Focus, and though his sophomore season wasn't as good, giving up one more sack and being flagged for holding three times, the 49ers still had more success running the ball from the left side, his side, than the right side; 938 as opposed to 763 rushing yards.
The right guard position is not set in stone, but it appears that it is Alex Boone's to lose. After patiently waiting on the 49ers bench ever since the 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent, Alex Boone will finally get his chance to start. It's rare for an undrafted player to stay with a team for so long, as they're usually cut before they get the chance to start, but Boone always impresses in practice. My two concerns are he has little experience playing the guard position, being a tackle in college, and is a bit underweight to play in the interior at 300 pounds.
Boone's competition will be second year players Mike Person and Daniel Kilgore, rookie Joe Looney and the recently signed Leonard Davis. Davis was a victim of a salary purge by the Cowboys, and actually had a decent season, allowing a career low in sacks. He will most likely be Boone's biggest threat. Daniel Kilgore was pancaking people left and right during the 2011 preseason, but he played for a Division II school and will most likely need more time to develop.
Also, Kilgore has played center at voluntary workouts and it now appears that Kilgore is being groomed to be Goodwin's successor, instead of right guard. Person has a lot of heart, but according to scouting reports, his ceiling is only that of a backup guard.
Looney will start training camp on the active/non-football injury list, and miss the first six games of the season, due to a foot injury he sustained in his last college game. Though not now, Looney will be Boone's biggest threat in upcoming years. Harbaugh was quoted in an article from the Press Democrat saying, "that they drafted him with the intention of starting him."
Jonathan Goodwin did not have one of his better seasons, struggling to protect the passer. He gave up the most sacks ever in his career, six—a lot for an interior lineman. He's 33 years old, so it's possible he's beginning to decline. Regardless, Goodwin will be the starting center for 2012 as the 49ers didn't pursure another veteran center, and Jason Slowey and Daniel Kilgore need time to be groomed into centers. Neither played center in college and like Kilgore, Slowey did not play at a division one school.
Slowey is an intriguing prospect considering how much he's bulked up since his freshmen year. When he first came to Western Oregon he was 265 pounds and could only do three bench reps of 225 pounds. After spending more time in the weight room—a lot more time— Slowey now weighs 305 pounds and benched 38 times at his Pro Day. What he has on Kilgore is athleticism, as he ran a 4.96 40-yard dash, .32 seconds faster than Kilgore's fastest time.
Overall both guards play with a nasty streak, a quality that is highly coveted by the 49ers organization, and they should provide an entertaining competition for the starting center spot a couple years down the road.
Defensive End: A
In my opinion, Justin Smith should have won Defensive Player of the Year. I know he didn't have as many sacks as Terrell Suggs, but he lead the league in almost every other pass rushing category, including total pass rush snaps, total pressure and pass rusher productivity.
You can also measure his success by how productive the 49ers linebackers were. When he wasn't getting to the passer, he was occupying blockers so that the 49er linebackers were free to attack the offense. And all of his success was because of his relentless motor. The man doesn’t quit, and it can be inspiring to watch.
Playing the other end position is Ray McDonald. Before the start of 2011, the 49ers opened eyes when they gave McDonald a five-year, 20 million dollar extension—a lot for a rotational player who would only come in on pass rushing downs. But the 49ers had bigger things in mind for McDonald when they extended him, and promoted him to the starting position.
Many questioned whether or not McDonald could be an every down player, specifically how he would fair against the run on first and second downs. Not the case, as McDonald set a career high in tackles and lead the team in stops behind the line of scrimmage. He also had a career high in sacks, but that's never been a problem for him, being the situational pass rusher he is. He was slowed at times during the season because of hamstring issues, but the offseason should have been enough time for his hamstrings to heal.
The only reason I'm not giving this an A+ is that the 49ers could use some more depth behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Besides Ricky Jean Francois, the rest of the 49ers defensive line reserves are undrafted free agents.
Speaking of Ricky Jean-Francois, I would like to see him get more snaps next season. This is his walk year and this is the 49ers last chance to figure out what his ceiling is. It could be high considering he was one of the top defensive tackle recruits coming out of high school before he was a bust at LSU.
Nose Tackle: B
The 49ers run a 3-4, so instead of grading the defensive tackle position, I'm grading the nose tackle position. The 49ers decision to move Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle was one of the many great decisions they made last season, as Sopoaga had his best season as a pro.
Nose tackles aren't stat sheet stuffers, as their job is to occupy as many blockers as possible, so their fellow defenders have a clear path. At 330 pounds, Sopoaga had no problem occupying blockers. As a result, the 49ers defense ranked second in rushing yards allowed, went 14 games without giving up a rushing touchdown and sacked the opposing quarterback 42 times, which tied for seventh highest in the league.
The nose tackle position though has even less depth then the defensive end position. There is only one true nose tackle on the team, Ian Williams, and he is a bit underweight for a nose tackle at 305 pounds. Like Ricky Jean-Francois, Williams's ceiling is a bit of a mystery, as he also had the talent to be drafted higher than he was, or in his case, be drafted at all.
Unfortunately he suffered a knee injury midway through the season that scared away too many teams. If not, he could have been a fifth round pick, as his anchoring ability received high marks by scouts.
Outside Linebacker: A
The 49ers will have Ahmad Brooks back after he signed a six-year, $44.5 million contract extension in the offseason. He earned it as he set career high in sacks (seven), and could have had more if it weren't for bad luck. He participated in 93 percent of the 49ers defensive snaps, showing he is an every down linebacker.
It wasn't an easy road for Brooks, as he was cut by the Bengals in 2008, but has kept on improving ever since being claimed by the 49ers. He's always had the potential to get where he is today, but would fall into bad habits during past off seasons; not the case this offseason as he was present for all of the voluntary mini-camps.
The other outside linebacker position will be played by the runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year—Aldon Smith. The 49ers were criticized in the draft for reaching for Smith, but he proved to be the steal in the draft by registering 14 sacks, second most ever by a rookie, despite only playing 49 percent of the defenses' snaps.
I'm concerned though about the 49ers intentions to expand Smith’s role. At the OTA's Smith has struggled in coverage drills, and he's struggled against guys who may not even make the team, like rookie tight end Garrett Celek. The man he's replacing, Parys Haralson, is very valuable against the run. All of these extra responsibilities will result in Smith having more opportunities to rush the passer, which is never a bad thing, but will more sack opportunities cancel out the drop off in the defense’s ability to defend the run and pass?
I'm also concerned about his off the field actions. Smith was arrested for DUI in January and was stabbed at a house party this offseason. However, after reading an article about Smith on the 49ers blog sfgate.com, I'm convinced Aldon Smith isn't a bad guy, but as the Minnesota governor recently stated, football players just have too much time on their hands.
Still, driving under the influence is no excuse and Smith could face suspension from Roger Goodell. And though it is not Smith's fault for being stabbed, it is his fault for putting himself in that situation. I hope this recent incident was a wake up call for Smith, and he understands that his ill-advised actions are putting his promising career in jeopardy, as well as his health.
The reserves include the replaced Parys Haralson and the rookie Cam Johnson. Parys Haralson did not develop into the elite pass rusher many thought he could be, but as written earlier, he can still contribute on running downs. Cam Johnson was ranked number 50 on Mike Mayock's big board, but fell due to having a blood disease, Sickle Cell Trait. Ryan Clark has a similar blood disease, but still has had a successful NFL career. If Johnson can persevere like Clark has, he’s another potential pass rusher to add to the mix.
Middle Linebacker: A+
What's better than one Patrick Willis? Two. And that’s what the 49ers have in NaVorro Bowman. Which is why this position is the most talented position on the 49ers roster.
Willis deserves credit for Bowman's success, as Willis served as a mentor to Bowman. Maybe that's why he plays so much like him. It even got to the point last season where announcers mistook Bowman for Willis. And could you blame them? Usually Willis is involved in every tackle, racking up 174 his rookie season. But this season it was Bowman racking up the tackles with 154, earning him First Team All-Pro honors. He also showed he can rush the passer, sacking the quarterback twice.
Playing next to a player that is as good as himself at stopping the run allowed Willis to be utilized for other purposes like defending the pass. And Willis did a lot of that last season, which is why it appeared he had a down year. This was not the case at all, as Willis became more of a complete player by improving his pass coverage, posting a completion percentage against that was top among linebackers and defended a career high 13 passes.
The scheme adjustment also allowed Willis more freedom to make plays, resulting in him forcing a career high four fumbles. It will be exciting to see what he improves upon this upcoming season, if there's anything left to improve at all.
But what if Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman get injured? Well that question was answered last season when Larry Grant, a Bay Area native, filled in for Willis when he went down with a hamstring injury. Playing next to NaVorro Bowman and in front of a defensive line that earned an "A" in this article helped Grant do an admirable job filling in for Willis. Grant agreed to come back to the 49ers for another season, but this will probably be his last season as a backup, and will look for other opportunities as a starter.
What held back the 49ers from taking it all perhaps was their secondary. The unit was torched in the postseason, giving up almost 800 yards passing, and was unable to stop the New York Giants from scoring on third and 17 in the NFC Championship game.
The 49ers defense ranked 15th in the league, but one would think the secondary would be ranked higher playing with pass rush that barely gives the opposing quarterback any time to throw. The more I look at the stats though, it has less to do with the cornerbacks, and more so with a particular safety, which we will get to in the next slide.
This position would have received a much lower grade if Carlos Rogers walked, but the 49ers were able to keep him at the last second. The Washington outcast was a blessing in disguise last year, outperforming Nnamdi Asomugah, the prize of the cornerback free agent class, and held receivers to a 57.4 completion percentage through 12 games. Known for having stones for hands during his time in Washington, Rogers also intercepted the ball six times, resulting in Pro Bowl honors.
Playing across from Rogers is Tarell Brown. Brown didn't have the best tape, such as when he gave up that 32 yard touchdown catch to Hakeem Nicks against the Giants, which is why I wrote in previous articles that he should be upgraded. However after reading an article by Pro Football Focus, I was mistaken, as the article had him ranked 39th out of 109 cornerbacks, and through week 12 held receivers to one of the lowest completion percentages. My apologies, Mr. Brown.
The 49ers have indicated that Chris Culliver is the leading candidate to play the nickel corner position. He had his ups and his downs, keeping Calvin Johnson in check, but like Tarell Brown, did not fair well against the Giants receivers in that regular season contest, giving up a touchdown to Mario Manningham. Keep in mind though he was a rookie and was making the transition from safety. He should improve with a full offseason of work.
Newly signed Perrish Cox could push Culliver. Perrish Cox was considered a first round pick once, but he dropped in the 2010 draft due to character concerns. Cox was then charged with sexual assault and was cut by the Broncos. He was out of football for a year, until he was recently acquitted of the charge.
The 49ers took a gamble, and so far it's looking like it could pay off as Cox has stood out in the 49ers offseason program according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
There are some stats that stick out more than others. Such as interceptions. These stats can be deceptive when evaluating a player.
There are also stats that don't stick out. Usually these are the stats that paint you the most accurate picture of a player. For example, completion percentage; when we look at how high of a completion percentage Goldson surrendered last season, it should come as no surprise that Goldson is holding back the 49ers secondary.
Looking at the numbers, Goldson is responsible for allowing four touchdown passes, which is ranked fifth worse among safeties, and a completion percentage that is the eighth highest among safeties. Imagine how much worse those numbers would be if he didn't play behind that front seven. But because he intercepted the ball six times he was elected to the Pro Bowl. I will admit that he is more valuable to the 49ers than other teams because of how well he plays the run, and it wasn't like the safety free agent pool was oozing with talent.
But the 49ers would be wise not to extend Goldson beyond 2012, and wait to see if the rookie Trent Robinson will be ready to start in a year or so. Robinson was a steal in the sixth round, and unlike Goldson, he can defend the pass according to scouting reports.
If any safety on the 49ers roster should have gone to the Pro Bowl, it should have been Donte Whitner. Donte Whitner was ranked the sixth-best safety according to Pro Football Focus and even though he had his lapses in coverage (such as against the Cowboys when he bit on a fake that resulted in a 77 yard reception by Jesse Holley), coverage skills aren’t a necessity when you play strong safety position, which has you play in the box more.
Special Teams: A+
Coached by the renowned Dan Seely, this special teams unit was the best in league and won the 49ers some close games, such as against the Seahawks when Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt and kickoff for a touchdown. Ted Ginn Jr. also ranked third in kick returns and fourth in punt returns. Except for the departure of Blake Costanzo, the special team unit remains the same. His presence will be missed, but the 49ers brought back C.J. Spillman to take his place as gunner.
Andy Lee will make Spillman's job easier as he specializes in minimizing returns on his punts, setting a league record with a 44.0-yard net average. Speaking of records, did you know David Akers holds the team record for most points scored in a season? Akers also broke the record for most field goals made in a season with 44, and only missed two of his field goals from 50 yards or more. It will be hard for Akers put up those stats again. And you can't forget about long snapper Brian Jennings who rarely botches a snap.
After doing some math, the 49er’s GPA was calculated to be 3.28. A GPA that high will get you into some pretty good schools. A GPA that high will also translates to being a Super Bowl contender. The 49ers just have to make it through training camp without injuries and maintain their high GPA throughout the season.