San Francisco 49ers: What to Watch for at OTAs
Following the money-spinning free agent period and an extensive draft process, NFL rosters are now reloaded, and it's time to kick the tires on preparations for the 2013 season.
For the San Francisco 49ers, the first day of offseason workouts began on April 15, when facility doors opened to veteran players, many of whom hit the weight room to receive workout bonuses.
After the draft, it was rookie minicamp (May 10-12), wherein San Francisco’s 11 draft picks and group of UDFAs showed up for on-field workouts and valuable classroom time.
This has now led into the ever-popular OTAs, which will take place from May 21-23, May 28-30, and June 3-6, per Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports. This is the official beginning to offseason training activities, uniting the rookie class and returning veterans.
These sanctioned practices mark the first mixed live sessions before the start of the 2013 training camp. Proceed through the following slides for a guide to the 49ers' offseason training activities in Santa Clara, California.
Underwear Olympics, Part II
As many well know, the NFL Scouting Combine is commonly referred to as the “underwear Olympics.”
As the NFL eases their players back into seasonal form, the beginning of OTAs are really an extension of that.
It is essentially a rehearsal; there is no hitting, contact is regulated and there is no protective equipment allowed, as it should not be needed. In turn, these padless sessions effectively limit what an observer can take away from these periods.
The quarterbacks, in black jerseys, are not making throws under under fire and their receivers have no fear of getting tuned up over the middle.
Although OTAs are very much a dance, it is a step forward, having players and coaches back in a football setting. The value lies in the meetings, strength and conditioning and overall time on task.
The players—new and returning—are familiarizing themselves with fresh faces, new plays and, ultimately, a new team.
But when it really comes to evaluating the roster, training camp is where the picture becomes clear. Once the full-speed contact sessions are underway, that is when the coaches and local beat writers alike will truly start taking notes.
OTAs are constructive, but things really take off once training camp begins.
Last week: overhyping/killing rookies based on padless rookie minis. This week: overhyping/killing everyone based on padless OTAs. Carry on.— Andrew Garda (@Andrew_Garda) May 13, 2013
Receivers vs. Corners
- Which receivers are getting open?
- Which receivers are fluid and on point with their timing/depth of routes?
- Who is in tip-top shape, and who is not?
- Which corners are consistently winning their match-ups?
- Which players can contribute in multiple facets?
- Which players are showing natural ball-skills?
As mentioned in the previous slide, these sessions are light on contact. This makes it fairly tough to assess the defensive line, linebacking unit and offensive line—outside of technique, which doesn’t tell the whole story.
Moreover, just like the “underwear Olympics,” this is where the natural sprinters get a chance to show what they’re made of. The receivers, defensive backs and return specialists are allotted a window to shine in front of the coaches.
The players with top-flight speed and agility will be on display, which is rousing because there is an open competition in all three phases for the 49ers. At WR, CB, FS and in the return game, San Francisco is looking to settle the depth chart.
New Fastest Players for the 49ers:
As a bundle of young players with speed, each of these new additions brings an element to the team that 49ers are not known for. Also, outside of the tailback position, they will be competing at groups where depth is open for competition.
If the upside is higher with one of these under-the-radar signings, there is a chance that they will overthrow a past UDFA for a spot on the final 53-man roster. This includes players like Tony Jerod-Eddie, Jewel Hampton and Joe Hastings, who saw time.
OTAs will ignite the battle of the unheralded players.
New #49ers WR Quinton Patton admits playbook is "a little heavy." Might explain why A.J. Jenkins barely got on the field as a rookie in 2012— Alex Marvez (@alexmarvez) May 19, 2013
Also among the receivers and defensive backs, the 49ers will get a real first look at higher profile offseason acquisitions like Nnamdi Asomugha (CB), Anquan Boldin (WR), Eric Reid (FS) and Quinton Patton (WR). These are players that San Francisco is counting on to make an impact—the last three in particular.
For a third year in a row under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have had to focus on solidifying the wide receiving corps. With a careful, systematic approach in the draft and in free agency, San Francisco previously missed on finding a complement to Michael Crabtree.
This year, the Harbaugh-led 49ers were more aggressive than ever, trading with the Baltimore Ravens for Boldin, who will now be their sixth-highest earner in 2013, according to Spotrac.com. He expects to be locked in as a starter opposite No. 15.
Then there’s the rookie from Louisiana Tech, Patton, who has received a ton of hype, pre- and post-draft. He was a hot commodity but slipped to the fourth round, where Trent Baalke scooped him up as clearly the best player remaining on the board. He is a very natural pass-catcher with a gold-star work ethic, which should earn him brownie points as early as Day 1 of OTAs.
In 2013, Boldin and Patton are two weapons that could finally fortify this group, turning it over from a weakness to a strength. They will mix in with Crabtree, who is the club’s premier receiving option and reigning thousand-yard receiver.
A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams and Ricardo Lockette will also be closely monitored as they compete for immediate depth on the roster.
In a group of speedsters, the 49ers coaches will be looking for:
Not Everyone Is Ready Yet
The 49ers are barely five months removed from the end of the 2012 season.
After the longest season in franchise history since 1994, San Francisco’s players will naturally require time to heal up. It is a physical sport, and a number of the team's players were banged up last season, to one degree or another.
The team had veterans that endured injuries during the season, which was noted by the media when they missed time. Then there were others that the Niners held under the radar until the conclusion of the season.
On May 7, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported that OG Mike Iupati was unlikely to be cleared for OTAs due to a minor shoulder surgery. This sort of surfaced out of nowhere, seeing as how the Pro Bowl guard missed no time in 2013.
In fact, Iupati has never missed a start, having competed in 48-straight games since his rookie year.
Still, this will be his second shoulder operation since 2007, and this one could sideline the offensive lineman until the start of training camp. The signing of Adam Snyder makes all the more sense in case Iupati is not 100 percent in a few months.
If he sees limited participation, it is nothing to worry about, as he projects to be just fine for 2013 and beyond.
Two months prior to the Iupati report, NFL insider Ian Rapoport informed the public via Twitter that All-Pro LB Aldon Smith had undergone shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Pro Football Talk reports there is no “set schedule” for Smith’s return at this point.
WR Mario Manningham is also not ready, after having suffered a bad knee injury (ACL, PCL) in Week 16 versus the Seahawks. Of San Francisco’s wounded, he perhaps has the longest recovery period of them all.
Then there is WR Kyle Williams (ACL) and RB Kendall Hunter (Achilles), who are returning from season-ending injuries as well. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk reported that Williams and Hunter are expected to be ready for training camp, but they will be sitting out of this week’s OTAs as they continue to recover.
The silver lining is that Williams ran on March 26, which was his first day of running since the injury occurred, according to his Twitter account. He will be eased back into workouts this offseason and could be poised for a breakthrough campaign.
Overall, the takeaway is that it is still early in the new league-year. The injuries and big names watching from the sidelines are nothing to panic over, as San Francisco’s players are simply healing up and recovering from the end of 2012.
Be Prepared for Jim Harbaugh, the Motivator
The most recent big event on the offseason schedule was the NFL draft, which was led by GM Trent Baalke. He has executed a strong offseason to date, enduring several key losses and making prudent additions.
Even though they were essentially out four starters from last season (WR Randy Moss, TE Delanie Walker, S Dashon Goldson and DE Isaac Sopoaga), Baalke was cost efficient this offseason, and one could argue that he even reinforced the roster.
Now, akin to a 4x4 relay, Baalke will hand the baton to Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff for the next part of the sprint. It is all part of their one-two punch—Baalke sets them up, and Harbaugh knocks them down.
For a team that values their time and likes to make an impact, it is now on Harbaugh to generate results from the OTA period, which is laced with rules. This is the picture-perfect setting and an opportunity for one of the coach’s renowned motivational ploys.
This week’s OTAs will also mark the first event where Harbaugh has the entirety of his team together.
The rookie minicamp was part of the introduction process, as the coaches got their new players acclimated to a fresh environment. Now, a month after the draft and minicamp, the 2013 class should be settled in.
It is very likely that the coach views this as an opening to reach the players on a mental and personal level. In that process, he could also unite the rookies and veterans, whereas other camps create separation with rookie hazing.
Harbaugh's goal, however, is to encourage his players and have all of them performing at an optimum level. He routinely knows what buttons to push and has had months to stew over his next grand plan. Whether it is a tangible item or an everlasting message, the 49ers head coach may have something up his sleeve.
Any inspirational tactics to lighten the mood at camp would be a worthwhile use of the time they have. At the very least, hopefully the rookies are issued their customized blue-collared work shirts.
Jim Harbaugh had a Marine colonel, a buddy of his, address the Niners last night. Message: Importance of being calm w/so much on the line.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 3, 2013
Safety Competition Underway
Heading into the 2013 season, the 49ers have Donte Whitner (SS) as the lone starter entrenched at one of the two safety spots.
His partner at free safety, however, is yet to be determined.
Dashon Goldson’s bounty was too high for San Francisco to match, which caused the All-Pro to pack his bags for the Sunshine State this offseason. The exodus left a serious void on the back end of the Niners’ defense, which will be replenished through good old-fashioned competition.
The 49ers have returned four safeties to compete for Goldson's spot, while also adding two new ones through the draft and free agency.
Before this season, C.J. Spillman, Michael Thomas, Darcel McBath and Trenton Robinson operated primarily as special teamers. These are promising young players that have fought hard just to stay buried on a talent-laden roster.
Admittedly, there is not a great deal of game experience here outside Spillman, who is entering his fifth season.
However, all of them will be provided with an opportunity to compete at free safety in 2013—whether it is for the starting job or as the primary reliever. But as was the case two years ago, it will be an uphill battle in training camp.
Craig Dahl was also added to the roster in free agency, coming over as a special teams ace from rival St. Louis. He is a threat to make the roster because San Francisco will be looking for players to revamp their special teams unit. However, he is a real long-shot to win the starting free safety job for the 49ers.
Furthermore, this so-called “competition” will be less of a legitimate battle and more of the beginning of Eric Reid’s preparation. By leaping up in Round 1 of this year's draft to select him, the 49ers tipped that they believe he is ready to start as a rookie.
With the opening of OTAs, the 49ers can begin grooming their top draft pick, making sure he is 100 percent ready for Week 1 against Green Bay.
The biggest mountain he has to climb in in regards to coverage, so the notes to look out for are his fluidity in coverage, anticipation and hip snap when turning up field. He is a big, tall, bruising FS who plays downhill, and tackling is not his issue.
Be sure to lookout for Reid’s development as a cover defensive back.
Enter the Colin Kaepernick Era
After a decade-and-a-half of trial and error, the 49ers clubhouse finally has a new leader at the quarterback position.
At the behest of the head coach, San Francisco is full-steam ahead into the Colin Kaepernick era. After winning the starting position late in 2012, the dual-threat quarterback played an inspiring brand of football.
The Niners committed to Kaepernick by completing a trade that sent former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith to Kansas City this offseason.
Kaepernick, now a third-year pro, will be entering his first offseason as the undisputed starting quarterback. This is new territory for him, and if he conducts himself right, it could be monumental for his progress.
The bar has been set pretty high by past 49ers greats, as well as by Kaepernick’s own actions after having brought this team to the Super Bowl as a midseason fill-in.
The upside is that Jim Harbaugh now has more time to devote to Kaepernick’s development, which involves his mechanics. The focus is now solely on him, so this could be his most productive offseason to date.
Kaepernick can also get to work on establishing chemistry and timing with his receivers.
From here on out, the 25-year-old gunslinger will be getting No. 1 reps in practice. He is now in a better position to familiarize himself with his surrounding cast, which should lead to increased production on the field.
The two main players he is looking to build a rapport with are TE Vernon Davis and second-year WR A.J. Jenkins.
These two former first-rounders have the potential to be very dynamic with Kaepernick behind center, but their on-field chemistry needs work. If they can effectively develop a rhythm and trust, it could launch San Francisco’s passing attack up the ranks once more in 2013.
And again, Kaepernick’s ability to bring this to fruition would exemplify both his talent and leadership qualities.
Once OTAs get underway, it will be attention-grabbing to see how authoritative the quarterback is. His ability to master this offense, improve himself fundamentally and lead by example will all be critical during this transitional period.
With the foundation he laid, he also has to be prepared for players to look to him, on and off the field, for guidance. This translates to accountability on his part. Now that Smith is out of the picture, there is no one for him to share the blame with.
Kaepernick is now the key cog of this organization, standing front and center like a shield for this team. For better or for worse, the wins and losses in San Francisco now rest on his shoulders.
The expectation is that Colin Kaepernick will go above and beyond, officially taking the reins of this team this offseason. This aspect of the 49ers in 2013 will be a captivating one to monitor.
Restoring a Special Teams Unit
The 49ers are taking on a rebuilding project right now, attempting to restore what was a dominant special teams unit in 2011.
Since that spectacular campaign, the team has made renovations regarding the special teams unit, both willingly and unwillingly. San Francisco lost Blake Costanzo (Chicago) and Colin Jones (Carolina), while allowing Tavares Gooden and Larry Grant to walk this year.
The team’s production dropped significantly, as they struggled to both cover and return kicks. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers special teams dropped 18 spots from 2011-2012, going from the No. 2 ranking to the No. 20 slot in a single year.
During the self-evaluation process, this must have stood out to the higher-ups in San Francisco. This offseason, the team spent significant capital on Brad Seely’s unit, signing a kicker and two gunners in free agency alone.
They also looked to supplement their current corps through the draft.
Darcel McBath, Anthony Dixon and C.J. Spillman highlight the key contributors from last season that will be returning. Although, this is a relatively thin group in contrast to the unit that they fielded only two seasons ago.
The offseason additions include, but are not exclusive to: Nick Moody (LB), Marcus Cooper (CB), Craig Dahl (S) and Dan Skuta (LB). These new additions will be apparent at OTAs as San Francisco looks to upgrade their punt and kickoff coverage teams.
As raw players at the pro level, there will be a good amount of time spent on technique. However, Dahl and Skuta bring top-notch special teams experience—one of which may finally replace the prevailing role left by Costanzo.
The 49ers also finally parted ways with return specialist Ted Ginn Jr., who has since signed with the Carolina Panthers.
In 2011, Ginn averaged a career-high 27.6 yards per kick return, and he had three returns for TDs in his three-year career with San Francisco (2 punts, 1 kickoff).
Two-thirds of those scores came in one game, which happened to be Jim Harbaugh’s first-ever regular season NFL game. Ginn hit two clutch home runs late in the game to put Seattle away in Week 1 of 2011. This earned Ginn Player of the Game honors and subsequently extended his tenure with the team.
This past season, however, the former top-10 pick from Ohio State lost his role on offense, and his special teams duties were also greatly reduced. Ginn finished with 587 all-purpose yards and four fumbles in 2012, opposed to his 1,554 all-purpose yards and zero fumbles a year before.
This declining play and diminished responsibility frustrated Ginn, as both he and the team realized that No. 19 was now obsolete.
This season, the 49ers are in the market for a new return maven.
That level of productivity may be replaced by a committee, but the team is no doubt looking for a front-man to emerge. In an attempt to get him more overall touches on game day, LaMichael James might be a favorite to lead the pack.
He also brings more experience than any of the incoming rookies or undrafted free-agents. In a short period of time in 2012, James looked good as a return specialist, bringing dynamism as an open-field runner.
He has the speed, quickness, vision and elusiveness that teams look for in return men. It was also clear that he grew more comfortable as the reps started to build up. James even made an impact play, setting up the game-winning touchdown against New England in Week 15.
He is another exciting player that is still very early in his development.
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.
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