Here are a few thoughts based on what I've seen to this point in the San Francisco 49ers preseason and my expectations for the year ahead.
1. The 49ers will have an awesome running game.
O-linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were first-round picks in 2009 for a reason. They're a couple of earth-movers with quick, agile feet.
Iupati has established himself in the pros quicker than Davis. It's fair to say Iupati was a fringe Pro Bowl candidate last year. However, to be fair to Davis, he plays mostly on an island on the right side, and goes 1-on-1 against elite pass rushers—like Jason Babin, Chris Long or Clay Matthews—week after week.
Iupati plays guard, a spot where it's more difficult to be beaten cleanly off the snap unless you're truly wretched—like Chilo Rachal—and even then there's a center or a running back to help you out half the time.
Davis was, at times, dominant as a run blocker last year and he showed flashes of his ability again on Saturday night against the beefy Texans front four. He did get called for one holding penalty in the game, but it looked pretty ticky-tack to me and I'm not someone who's been exactly soft on Davis these past two years.
The real reason I'm bullish on the 49ers running game though is the additions of right guard Alex Boone and receiver Randy Moss.
The former is a 6'8" monster, a tackle playing out of position at guard. While keeping the proper pad level will always be a challenge for the towering Boone, he is substantially stronger than Adam Snyder, the previous starter at right guard. It remains to be seen whether Boone can get out on those traps, sweeps and pulls as nimbly as Snyder did, but as a straight ahead blocker his power will make a difference.
Moss has never been known for his blocking, but just lining him up on the outside will take away the defense's ability to put an eighth guy in the box, which will open up running lanes for Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, et al.
2. Randy Moss is not finished.
The days of 50-yard, moon-scraping bombs that Moss hauled in weekly as a rookie are just about done. But he still has just enough straight ahead speed to scare corners into playing considerably off of him.
Basically, the 49ers have a free five to seven yards on 1st-and-10 whenever they want it as long as Moss is on the field. All Alex Smith needs to do is take a one- or three-step drop and fire a quick hitch to him like we saw on Saturday. How many times each week they'll go to that well and how much punishment Moss will be willing to subject himself to for relatively short gains remains to be seen.
For me, the most interesting route to watch for is the hitch-and-go, where Moss and Smith will try to bait corners into jumping the short route and hit them for a deep one. It's the kind of play that has to be set up with a series of plays early on in a game.
Moss got himself open for a potential touchdown against the Texans. Instead, Smith attempted a short pass that was dropped by Vernon Davis. Moss also dropped what would've been a 24-yard gain along the left sideline on a perfectly thrown pass from Colin Kaepernick as he easily out jumped his man but just couldn't pull in the pass.
What seems clear early on is that Moss looks engaged, even for the preseason. That has to be a good sign. Of course, with him the true test will be whether he can stay into it the whole season, even when he's not seeing many balls thrown his way.
3. Pass protection is still a concern.
Boone had his moments in the running game but as a pass blocker he's got a ways to go. I don't think pad level is his issue as much as lack of experience. He's basically learning a new position on the fly.
Davis continues to struggle with speed rushers. He needs to maintain his balance and get off the snap, particularly on the road. I'm not sure he'll ever be more than an average starting right tackle because he's only good at half the job.
Iupati's difficulties haven't been as pronounced, but there are times he still gets caught reaching, looking to engage a pass rusher who's backing off to loop on a stunt or a twist. While Iupati gets to fire off on runs, he has to constantly remind himself to be patient on passes and let the man come to him.
Look for opposing defensive coordinators to target Iupati with their zone blitz schemes since outsmarting him remains a lot better tactic than trying to overpower him.
4. All the quarterbacks took a step backward.
Smith, who was sharp in his lone drive against the Vikings in the preseason opener, had a number of mental mistakes on Saturday.
He didn't remember what protection the offense was in on the first sack, spent too much time focusing on two covered targets before absorbing a second sack and the aforementioned play when he missed Moss for a potential touchdown. He also had an easy interception dropped on a pass attempted to Mario Manningham—Smith wanted a holding call but Manningham was never open on the play.
Smith did have one nice 24-yard hookup with Ted Ginn early, on a rollout to the right and wasn't terribly inaccurate but he never got into any kind of rhythm out there. It's scary to contemplate how many hits he would've taken had the Texans had their top pass-rushers in the game.
Throughout his career the difference between an effective Smith performance and an awful one has been the play of his line. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any indication that he's developed to the point where he can make something out of nothing when all hell is breaking loose in front of him.
Kaepernick had a couple of effective zone read plays with rookie LaMichael James, a formation both are quite familiar with from their college days. Besides the one nice pass to Moss, he's still a long way from a finished product as a pocket passer.
Kaepernick's elongated windup continues to be an issue but the real problem is that he's not going through his progressions or reading coverages quick enough and not looking off safeties. The kid is staring down his target before letting the ball go and it's causing his passes to be deflected and nearly picked off.
For whatever reason, from the shotgun, Kaepernick's decision making is faster and his vision better. The coaching staff is taking on the challenge of trying to get him equally comfortable from the pocket, but the progress has been slow.
Kaepernick would still be the first quarterback off the bench should something happen to Smith, but I get the distinct feeling that the coaches would keep him almost exclusively in the shotgun since that's all he seems equipped to handle for the time being.
Josh Johnson came in as the third quarterback and had one nice 33-yard hookup with rookie A.J. Jenkins but then overshot Jenkins on a couple of other bombs. Johnson wasn't the most accurate passer in his days with the Buccaneers either, it continues to be his biggest obstacle to overcome as a pro.
Uncharacteristically, Scott Tolzien struggled with accuracy as well. He was too high on a number of attempts to rookies Nathan Palmer, Chris Owusu and Brian Tyms. Unlike Johnson, Tolzien can't make every throw in the playbook, so it's imperative for him to be on target with the throws he can make.
My guess is that the third quarterback job will go right down to the wire in the final preseason game against San Diego, where both Johnson and Tolzien figure to get significant playing time.
However, Johnson is the one with the pedigree and more physical tools as well. Tolzien will have to significantly outplay him to beat him out for a job and so far that hasn't happened.
5. Kendall Hunter refuses to be overshadowed by LaMichael James.
Hunter is not a big man, but does he sure run like one. I'm not sure if there's anyone else in the league with his dimensions who is as comfortable running it up the gut. Hunter has some agility to him, but he's already taken to heart the coaching staff's tutelage about running north and south, not east and west.
A guy like Anthony Dixon could learn a lot from watching Hunter.
James, meanwhile, is not soft by any means, but he still has plenty to learn about the pro game and I don't think the coaches feel all that comfortable with the idea of him blocking. He'll be in there in some specialty packages, perhaps in conjunction with Kaepernick, but outside of that I don't think he'll have a big role on the 2012 49ers.
6. 49ers continue to dodge bullets.
It looked bad when short-yardage specialist Brandon Jacobs crumpled to a heap after his only carry on Saturday night, but head coach Jim Harbaugh said there's no structural damage to his knee and there's a chance Jacobs could be ready for the season opener. In any event, it's not expected to be a long-term injury.
James sprained his ankle and he too was carried off but was back practicing by Tuesday.
Second-year man Aldon Smith's hip injury could've been a lot worse, but it was just a bruise and he's on target to be ready for Green Bay.
Guys like Ahmad Brooks, Perrish Cox and Delanie Walker have missed time with nicks, but they're all back practicing.
Really the only injury of any impact so far has been rookie linebacker Cam Johnson's knee, which has been slow to respond from a cleanup procedure in the offseason. Johnson hasn't been practicing or playing and it's opened the door for journeyman Eric Bakhtiari to steal a roster spot as the fourth outside linebacker.
7. Lack of depth on defense is an issue.
The 49ers have 11 frontline starters they can rely on, plus defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, inside linebacker Larry Grant and backup corners Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. Beyond that, it gets dicey.
On the defensive line, Demarcus Dobbs has shown some pass rushing ability but he lacks experience. Second-year man Ian Williams hasn't shown that he can hold the point at all in the running game. Will Tukuafu has more time in the league than both of them but he's brittle and barely serviceable.
At linebacker, Tavares Gooden had a terrible game on Saturday and showed once more that he's strictly a special teamer. He's very fortunate that fifth-round pick Darius Fleming tore his ACL in rookie camp.
Likewise, injuries to Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Cam Johnson were a boon for Parys Haralson, who'll make the team more for his veteran presence than his ability. Bakhtiari is a one-dimensional player at best and if he really is a pass-rushing marvel then surely some other team would've discovered him by now.
Tramaine Brock was another fellow who played poorly on Saturday, but he too can make the club as a fifth corner for the sheer fact that no one else has challenged him. Cory Nelms and Deante' Purvis have had chances but haven't impressed.
At safety, C.J. Spillman is secure simply because he's the team's best special teams performer, but his only asset is his tackling. The closer he plays to the line of scrimmage, the better.
Sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson also figures to make the club as the fourth safety because, again, somebody has to.
8. No diamonds in the rough emerging so far.
Usually, the only compelling thing about the second half of a preseason game is watching some undrafted rookie make a name for himself by making play after play. The 49ers had a guy like that last year in Demarcus Dobbs.
In 2012, however, no one has really flashed for the club through two games and there seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the second- and third-teamers.
I had high hopes for Texas A&M defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, but he's been invisible so far. Fellow linemen Matthew Masifilo and Patrick Butrym have been mostly quiet as well.
Purdue's Joe Holland is the only pure reserve inside linebacker on the roster but he lacks footspeed and needs to seriously bulk up to be a pro.
I didn't notice Clemson's Kourtnei Brown out there on Saturday and it's a shame he's not taking advantage of Cam Johnson's absence more.
None of the defensive backs have opened my eyes at all, and while Stanford's Michael Thomas has a chance because he's been advertised as having the versatility to play both corner and safety, I haven't seen evidence that he's fast enough for the former.
Chris Owusu isn't really a hidden gem since the only reason he wasn't drafted was his extensive concussion history. Still, it sure seems they're hiding him by not giving him any kickoff return chances or playing time with the top two quarterbacks.
Fellow receiver Nathan Palmer might be the best of the lot for the no-names, but I think he's in the unfortunate position of being at the one spot where the team has serious depth—which sounds so weird to write after how last season ended.
Backup right tackle Kenny Wiggins is terrible. He got called for two holding penalties in the second half. The team's best (only?) backup tackle is their current starting right guard.
9. None of the team's draft picks are on track to be among the 35 most valuable contributors on the roster in 2012.
A.J. Jenkins certainly has speed, and he knows how to separate, but there is a logjam of receivers ahead of him and I doubt he'll see more than 10 snaps a game.
Ditto for LaMichael James, who will be behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs, and who looks lost as a return man.
Joe Looney will be the fourth guard and won't dress for the games.
Trenton Robinson likely won't dress either and Cam Johnson even making the roster is in doubt.
Jason Slowey won't make the 53-man roster and Darius Fleming will be on IR.
Obviously, it's way too soon to cast aspersions on the team's draft class but it's hard to envision any of them making an impact this season.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course. It means it is a deep, talented, veteran roster. It's a lot easier for rookies to play right away on talentless rosters such as those in Cleveland or Jacksonville.
10. Your 53-man roster plus practice squad guesses as of Aug. 22...
QB (3): Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson
RB (5): Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, Rock Cartwright
FB (1): Bruce Miller
WR (6): Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams
TE (2): Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
OL (9): Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Leonard Davis, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney, Mike Person
DL (7): Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams, Will Tukuafu
LB (8): Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Larry Grant, Parys Haralson, Tavares Gooden, Eric Bakhtiari
CB (5): Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Tramaine Brock
S (4): Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson
ST (3): David Akers, Andy Lee, Brian Jennings
Practice Squad (assuming Scott Tolzien gets signed by someone else)...
WR Chris Owusu, TE Konrad Reuland, OL Jason Slowey, DT Tony Jerod-Eddie, LB Joe Holland, LB Cam Johnson, DB Michael Thomas, S Colin Jones
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