San Francisco 49ers: 7 Players Feeling the Most Pressure Heading into Camp
A few things to note about pressure: It is prominent in pro sports, it comes in many forms, people react to it in a variety of ways and it can define a career.
Pressure is fostered from circumstances individuals are thrust into, whether they are rookies, veterans, coaches or others involved in the sport. And with each year, there is an elemental change which shifts the tides league-wide.
When that happens, certain people are no longer feeling that weight, while others have all of a sudden had the heat turned up on them. And as mentioned, it is about how people respond to it when it happens to them.
In the San Francisco 49ers training camp this season—along with many others—there will inevitably be examples representing both sides of the spectrum.
As they tend to do annually, the fretful will buckle while others channel that pressure as their driving force. For a look at players on San Francisco’s roster feeling the heat in 2013, proceed through the following slides.
A.J. Jenkins, WR
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In order to keep perpetuating itself, the NFL’s infrastructure relies on rookies stepping up and growing into roles.
It is the life cycle of the league.
That is why there is often dismay when a first-round pick fails to live up to expectations. NFL teams and fans feel they were deprived of a great talent—one that was hopefully going to replace another exiting player.
In the Bay Area, the 49ers are waiting on development and eventual assertion of a former top pick from a year ago.
Regardless of the first-round tag, A.J. Jenkins is down the depth chart, competing with a very crowded wide receiver group. No one—staff included—is going to roll over or give him special treatment because he’s a high-profile investment.
Like everyone else, he is going to have to suit up, line up and battle it out.
Ultimately, that is what makes this team so unique and desirable from a player’s perspective. The 49ers are grounded on the idea of competition, and it has bred elevated results, especially for those confident in their ability.
For this reason, 2013 might be the year of the receiver for San Francisco.
In the last two years, intense competition yielded results at outside linebacker and quarterback. This coming season, the Niners' receiving corps is set up for a similarly Darwinist outcome.
By the end of the season, Jenkins will either prosper from it or fall victim to it.
Entering his second year, the Illini alum has competition facing him at nearly every turn. While most first-rounders have a starting spot waiting for them, that is out of the question in San Francisco.
The 49ers are set at Nos. 1 and 2 with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as the entrenched starters. Therein lies the first barrier blocking Jenkins’ road to progress—the fact that he cannot maximize his reps.
A lot of players lean on the trial-and-error process, which allows them to learn by doing.
This is difficult for Jenkins, who is still in line to make his first NFL catch. There is also no guarantee he will be slotted between Nos. 3-5 either, with Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and new arrival Quinton Patton on board.
All of these receivers are equally or more talented, and two of which have seniority over Jenkins.
It is also detrimental that the 49ers have a bundle of similar-type slot receivers. This does not help Jenkins stand out from the rest, which is often what young players rely on to stay on the roster. If they cannot be better, they must be different.
This, in fact, is what might help WR Ricardo Lockette make the final roster.
At 6’2”, 211 pounds, Lockette is the biggest wide receiver the 49ers have on the roster. After signing him in 2012, the team may discover that he is very complementary to what they already have in place.
On top of the size, the speed factor is also there. Lockette clocked a 4.37 40-time at the scouting combine, tying the fastest of the wide receivers in 2011, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle).
Jenkins will have an uphill battle in what may be a make-or-break season.
49ers still badly need speed at WR. A.J. Jenkins can give them that off the bench, but he hasn't shown that he's ready yet.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) March 11, 2013
Carlos Rogers, CB
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Of the defensive veterans with pressure on them, Carlos Rogers tops the list.
The 31-year-old cornerback has been riding a decline since the end of 2011, when he had six interceptions and earned Pro Bowl honors. His prestige as an impact defender faded last season as he saw pedestrian numbers across the board.
In the team’s postseason run, Rogers allowed several big catches, including a few to Anquan Boldin in Super Bowl XLVII.
Going back to the regular season, it was not hard to find Rogers’ errors during the 16-game schedule. Operating primarily out of the nickel, he had trouble with shifty slot receivers like Victor Cruz (6-58-1) and Danny Amendola (11-102-0).
To put it simply, his execution was not what it was in his first season with the team.
This past season, opposing quarterbacks averaged a 92.9 rating when throwing at San Francisco’s highest paid defensive back, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
In retrospect, Rogers was the third-most efficient corner on the roster, ranking behind Tarell Brown (75.2) and Chris Culliver (76.9) who were both better. It was deflating to see the 49ers’ alleged No. 1 corner so vulnerable.
Moreover, it causes trepidation for the future with Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin entering the division. Between the draft and free agency, the 49ers made no attempt to get Rogers help in the nickel and this is the last memory of him in 2012.
This coming season, Rogers has a cap figure of $7.3 million, according to Spotrac.
It was a near-$6 million dead money hit that saved him from being a cap casualty in the offseason. Rogers’ salary escalates annually going forward, albeit the penalty is endurable if they decide to opt out of his deal before it expires.
All things considered—mainly his play and the monetary figures tying him to the team—Rogers may be playing for his job in 2013. After this season, the 49ers might want to find a younger, cheaper solution with more upside.
If Rogers does not pick up his game again, people will look back on his career, point to the 2011 season and call him a one-hit wonder.
Lawrence Okoye, DT
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With the nature of Lawrence Okoye’s situation, there is the conjecture that he has nothing to lose.
The staff is not anticipating him being a factor in 2013, even if he does make the final 53-man roster. At 6’6”, 304 pounds, the Olympian comes in as a project player with a great deal of upside if San Francisco is willing to be patient.
So, there is not a ton of pressure to perform right away, which is where the heat usually comes from. The practice squad is an option, but it creates distance, slows the learning process and makes him vulnerable to being plucked by another team.
Moreover, the opportunity cost on the 49ers’ part is non-existent, given that the team signed him as an undrafted free agent instead of investing in a draft pick. If Okoye does not work out for one reason or another, they will have no difficulty cutting ties.
The reality for Okoye is that he just deferred acceptance to Oxford University Law for a chance to play in the NFL.
As an individual navigating through the life, this was a considerable roll of the dice, passing on a sure thing. The stats say that if you’ve played high school football, there is a 0.2 percent you’ll make an NFL roster, according to the NFL Players Association.
That is not even one percent or half of one percent for that matter. It is two-tenths of a percent, if you’ve played organized football, which Okoye never has. He is learning the game from scratch with the hopes that he’ll be ready to compete one day.
And just because he is big, strong, fast and intelligent, does not mean he will be an effective football player.
He has the ideal foundation for a high-ceiling player, but that is not everything. One of the primary concerns is that once he grasps the technical side of the game, he lacks the killer instinct that separates greatness from mediocrity.
That is one example of the unteachable elements affecting what the final product may be.
Another risk that translates into pressure for Okoye is that he chose to sign with a team as loaded as San Francisco. By doing that, the risk-reward factor increases on Okoye’s part due to the high level of competition and few available spots.
If Okoye manages to make the roster, he would have overcome incredible odds.
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) May 10, 2013
Donte Whitner, SS
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One of the positions long-plaguing the 49ers has been at safety.
The team has drafted 13 players at the position since 2000 and brought in several more via the free-agent wire. The more recent failed experiments include Taylor Mays, Mark Roman and Michael Lewis, to name a few.
The deep part of the field was the Achilles of this team for quite some time, until the tandem of Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner emerged a few weeks into Jim Harbaugh’s new regime in 2011.
This was an embraced manifestation for San Francisco, which was not expecting such elite play in what was a transitional period. As a pair, Whitner and Goldson topped expectations, particularly the free agent from Buffalo.
After five losing seasons in the AFC East, Whitner was cast out by the Buffalo Bills—the team that made him a first-round selection in 2006. According to Scout.com, the veteran was the 11th-best safety available on the free-agent market.
He almost did not sign with a team until San Francisco called.
This was a great move by the 49ers, signing a former first-rounder who was miscast in Buffalo’s Tampa 2 defense. The six-year pro came in on a three-year, $11.75 million deal, according to Spotrac, which made him a stopgap at worst.
Heading into 2013, Whitner will be entering the final year of his contract with the 49ers.
By next season, the 49ers may be fielding two brand new safeties, despite having a dynamic twosome in 2011-12. Goldson has already moved on, and with talented draftees in line for a payday, Whitner may prove to be expendable.
This is the season that Whitner, 27, finds out if he was nothing more than the stopgap San Francisco originally signed him as.
The deck is already stacked against him with the arrival of Eric Reid (LSU), who is, perhaps, the long-term answer at strong safety. His style bears a likeness to Whitner, except he is younger, faster, stronger and conceivably the better cover defensive back.
To compensate for Goldson’s immediate absence, Reid can fill in and play the free spot in 2013. However, since the safeties are interchangeable, he can move over to SS in the future.
This would alleviate a little coverage responsibility on Reid’s part and allow him to engage in the downhill style that made him famous at LSU. The 49ers are all for scheming to fit the player’s skill set, which makes this a genuine long-term plan.
It also keeps my theory afloat that cornerback Chris Culliver may be moved to free safety in the not-too-distant future. At the end of the day, it all translates to Whitner being phased out once his contract expires.
For all these reasons, Whitner will be feeling the heat in training camp this summer. His contract needs to be renewed, but likely won’t be because of the litany of other deals the 49ers have to do.
In all probability, the 49ers look in-house and to the draft to settle the position for the future.
No Pressure No Diamonds— TWHITNER (@DonteWhitner) October 18, 2012
Colin Kaepernick, QB
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It is only natural for Colin Kaepernick to be on this list. After all, the quarterback is supposed to feel more pressure than any of his teammates, largely because a great deal of the responsibility falls on his shoulders.
Kaepernick is a high-profile player at the most scrutinized position in all of sports, and he has had a taste of success early in his career. He dethroned a top-rated passer on his way to the starting gig and did extraordinary things from the QB position.
The 49ers have since parted ways with their former starter, putting all their eggs in the Kaepernick basket by shipping Alex Smith to Kansas City. Jim Harbaugh and Co. made a commitment to No. 7 by giving him the reins of the offense.
Now there is the expectation that he has to live up to.
The organization and its fans are expecting a franchise player at the quarterback position. That immediately puts him in an elite class, historically, as Kaepernick is quicker to draw comparisons to Steve Young than Jeff Garcia.
The talent is apparent, and in limited time, he managed to become the third quarterback in 49ers' history to start in a Super Bowl. He was also five yards away from surpassing Joe Montana as the fastest QB in team history to win a Lombardi Trophy (games played).
This offseason will be Kaepernick’s first as the starter, which makes this a unique, yet pressure-filled, year for the 25-year-old icon. And needless to say, all eyes will be on his development as both a player and a leader.
Since he first arrived in 2011, Kaepernick has demonstrated an incredible drive and overall work ethic. This sort of initiative is what helped him win the starting job, and now that he’s the front man, it’s going to help him craft a more well-rounded game with fewer weaknesses.
To rattle off a few things he can work on, his decisiveness, short-to-intermediate throws and chemistry with his teammates all make the list. It was duly noted that Kaepernick had little to no chemistry with Vernon Davis for a good portion of the season.
Until Kaepernick’s insertion, the star tight end was one of the focal points of San Francisco’s offense. Yet, in 10 games with his new quarterback, Davis racked up only 398 yards and two scores.
In seven of the first eight games, Davis averaged 15.0 yards per game receiving, catching two or less passes in each of those contests. In much of their time together, Davis was an arrant non-factor in the passing game.
It was actually the previously dormant Michael Crabtree who would end up thriving from the quarterback change.
A lot of the times, Davis was bracketed by defenses and used as decoy to pull coverages away from where the play was really going. He also got dirty in the trenches, fulfilling a role as a blocker in the run game.
There was a stretch of about seven weeks where No. 85 was a ghost.
At long last, Kaepernick and Davis began clicking during the postseason. In the NFC title game and the Super Bowl, the 49ers tight end caught 11 balls for 210 yards and a touchdown.
Interestingly enough, Crabtree’s production did not suffer either, as he caught 11 passes for 166 yards and a score in those games. Although they went 1-1 in those games, this is the ideal scenario for San Francisco’s functionality on offense.
Kaepernick wants to find all his receivers equally because it poses a greater threat. An evenly distributed passing attack—not to mention the top-ranked rushing attack—makes defenses guard the whole field.
In his three best games with Kaepernick (CHI, ATL, BAL), Davis averaged 5.6 catches and 97.6 yards per game. There is certainly potential for this passing attack to reach another level if their chemistry matures in the offseason.
And lastly, as Kaepernick looks to develop as a passer and a leader, he will attempt to sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump. This is the cursed follow-up season that often sneaks up on players in transition.
I believe one of the greatest elements influencing a potential decline is individual complacency. One could point to the regression by Cam Newton in Carolina as an example of this, citing his demeanor and lack of competition on the roster.
Eli Manning did not catch his groove right away either.
Though it’s clear Kaepernick is in a different situation entirely, moreover, history shows that past franchise quarterbacks who were asked to start early have been able to circumvent the sophomore slump.
As Scott Kacsmar of Cold Hard Football Facts notes, Dan Marino had one of the greatest individual passing seasons ever (1984), and Ben Roethlisberger managed to bring home a Super Bowl (2005).
The good news about the weight on Kaepernick's shoulders is that he thrives in pressure situations. If you were to ask the 49ers quarterback, he’d likely spin you a similar yarn according to PFT:
I’ve said this before: Pressure, I feel like, comes from lack of preparation. This isn’t going to be a pressure situation, it is going to be a matter of going out there and performing physically.
Eric Reid, FS
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If there is a fire under any of the 49ers rookies, it’s burning hot beneath Eric Reid.
After trading up in Round 1, San Francisco let the world know that the former LSU safety was their picturesque stand-in for Dashon Goldson.
While the 49ers have made it clear that the free safety job will be an earned position, the team has a lot riding on Reid stepping up. Therein lies the pressure on the rookie, because if he is not starting at FS, who is?
Craig Dahl, Michael Thomas and Trenton Robinson are not starting safeties you win a Super Bowl with.
Before he left for Tampa Bay, Goldson played nearly 97 percent of defensive snaps in 2012 and at an All-Pro level, according to the NFL Players Association (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area). The 49ers need that caliber of player again, which only Reid is capable of being.
However, Reid comes in with that understanding—whether he says it or not—and that translates into pressure. With remnants of Goldson’s shadow left behind, there is an archetype the rookie has to live up to.
The fact is, Reid has to replace an All-Pro on a top-five ranked defense, and he’s never played a down in the NFL. And coming in, the SEC defender was not a unanimous first-round prospect, having several knocks against his game.
Mike Mayock terms LSU S Eric Reid a “wild card.” Could go anywhere from mid-first round to third. Teams “all over the board on him.” #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) April 18, 2013
Though he has the prototypical frame, Reid (6’1”, 213 lbs) often looked stiff in coverage, struggling against faster, shiftier receivers. This is mildly alarming, considering the inherent responsibilities of the free safety.
If he is going to be the last line of defense, that part of his game has to be strengthened. The concern grows when you play out the 2013 season and imagine the teams the 49ers have to get past in January for a chance at a Super Bowl.
Atlanta, Green Bay and New York are all going to come back with a vengeance.
San Francisco joins them in an elite class of NFC titans, along with Seattle, that are regular threats in the postseason. And each team pushes the ball downfield with great efficiency, testing and often embarrassing NFL safeties.
If Reid is not ready for pro passing attacks, the 49ers are in big trouble. It is a passing league, so the rookie will have to adapt and quickly.
Vance McDonald, TE
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Coming in as a second-rounder from Rice University, Vance McDonald is yet another rookie the 49ers are counting on for contributions in 2013.
While there is less pressure on McDonald than Eric Reid (FS) in terms of depth, San Francisco is expecting him to step up and play, nonetheless. And like Reid, McDonald is replacing a departed star on the team.
In seven years with the team, Walker was beloved and valued for his all-encompassing skill set. His job on the team curtailed a lot of different responsibilities, which is why the team has to replace him with two players.
McDonald is only one-half of the puzzle; players like Nick Moody and Marcus Cooper will battle it out for the special teams role. Really, the only two things No. 46 did not do were play defense and place kick.
For this reason, Harbaugh often referred to Walker as a “Swiss Army Knife.”
With that kind of versatility, McDonald has some big shoes to fill, and that’s just on the offensive side of the ball. Walker lined up all over on offense, including the backfield, and executed virtually every concept on the route-tree.
As a rookie, McDonald will have be that movable chess piece for Greg Roman’s inventive system.
He will also have to earn the trust of the coaches as a fundamentally sound blocking tight end. The 49ers will not jeopardize the integrity of the offense for a one-dimensional threat that has shortcomings as a blocker.
Though, admittedly in McDonald’s case, the 49ers like his upside as a receiver.
Based on results from 2012, he is going to get several looks from the quarterback as well. Once Kaepernick took over, the No. 2 TE was targeted 32 times (10 games), showing the quarterback’s comfort with the routes.
The route design and other offensive players on the field allowed Walker to get open fairly often. San Francisco is looking to take advantage of this with a more physically threatening pass-catcher in McDonald (6’4”, 267 lbs).
The offensive system also dictates the use of multiple tight ends, so as a rookie, McDonald will have to be prepared to play over 50 percent of the offensive snaps, according to the NFL Players Association (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
McDonald may have the biggest role of any player in the rookie class.
TE Vance McDonald was handed No. 89, digits of Jim Harbaugh's old coach and Hall of Fame TE Mike Ditka. Rookie had no say in matter. #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) May 10, 2013
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.