To no surprise, the San Francisco 49ers have optimized their offseason to date, seeing several players step up to the plate already. It is always a positive when teams, especially reigning conference champions, are seeing results as early as June.
The 'Niners have players, both new and returning, that have been building strong cases for field time in 2013.
Unfortunately, the 49ers still have several injured players in recovery, which has concentrated the participation in Santa Clara. On the other hand, it has opened windows for other players to shine—particularly the newcomers.
There is nothing better for a rookie or an incoming free agent than to show that he can rise to the occasion during the team's time of need. At this point, certain players have already used the opportunity in front of them to get recognized.
At this time of year, practices are regulated to non-contact drills, which means offensive lines and entire defenses hardly have a chance to benefit. By and large, the activities pander to the finesse players like pass-catchers and special-teamers.
When it comes to the totality of the team, the true value of OTAs and minicamp lies in mental reps and overall time on task.
With that in mind, let’s take a peek at which players have been grabbing headlines in the Bay Area.
Will Nnamdi Asomugha return to form in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense?
It’s hard to fathom the 49ers squeezing another All-Pro into their robust, league-leading defense. But as Nnamdi Asomugha looks to get back to his roots in the Bay Area, San Francisco may have a sleeper candidate to do just that.
First of all, this signing has gone overlooked for several reasons.
Following two underwhelming seasons from 2011-2012, Asomugha was given his outright release from the Philadelphia Eagles. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks had a 107.3 rating when targeting him during that time (73 of 113, 1,074 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle).
These career lows, followed by his release, were particularly startling given Asomugha’s free-agent prestige two offseasons ago and general notoriety around the league. In 2011, he was the No. 1 defensive player on the market, commanding a lucrative five-year deal that included $25 million in guaranteed money.
Only two years later, the former All-Pro cornerback did not sign until a month after free agency began, well after the talent pool had died down. He was not heavily courted, either, only drawing interest from New Orleans before inking a one-year, $1.7 million contract with San Francisco (via Spotrac.com).
In 2013, Asomugha, 31, joins the 49ers looking to rehab his career.
According to the new CB, the “adjustment hasn’t been that hard,” per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. The reports from OTAs have been positive so far, indicative of a systematic fit between Asomugha and Vic Fangio’s defense.
In a pressure-generating 3-4, he will be in an extremely advantageous position, especially competing in the two-man coverages employed by San Fran. This is a team that likes to get after the passer, while trusting its corners to line up and win their individual battles.
Despite questions about Asomugha’s age and his evident decline, there are several reasons to believe this new pairing could work out for all parties involved. His physical ability and new mindset—coupled with this apt system—may guide his return to prominence as soon as Week 1.
There are very few legitimate points on why Asomugha would not be able to succeed.
To draw a comparison, two similarly high-caliber defensive backs that have performed well into their 30s are Ed Reed (34) and Charles Woodson (36)—one of whom made the most of a career-defining team change, the other looking to do the same.
Reed had one of his best seasons at 32 years old, racking up eight interceptions in 10 games in 2010. Woodson has had his best NFL seasons in Green Bay, having gathered 38 career picks since joining the team in 2006 at age 30.
At this level, players stay in incredible shape, so anyone counting Asomugha out because he’s north of 30 years old may be doing himself or herself a disservice.
Even though there has been a lot of negative vibes toward him since his two-year regression in Philadelphia, he still has incredible potential and the license to sneak up on teams this season.
As one of the league’s few lockdown corners, Nnamdi Asomugha's impending comeback will be a storyline to watch.
Nnamdi Asomugha is the 7th member of 49ers D with Pro Bowl experience. (Cowboy, Aldon, Pat, Bo, Donte, Los).— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) April 4, 2013
How will Anquan Boldin fare as the No. 1 WR in San Francisco?
It is not often an offensive player puts on a clinic against the 49ers defense.
Bearing in mind that the 'Niners only surrendered a sixth-rounder for the three-time Pro Bowl receiver, Peter King of Sports Illustrated called it the best trade of the offseason, via Twitter.
For such a low cost, this is a proven, quality player that will start from Week 1 on.
In early May, Scott Kegley of 49ers.com stated that Boldin was “picking up the offense,” acclimating to a new system at age 32. Later in the month, the team’s official website reported that he was “setting the example” at OTAs.
Throughout the non-contact practice sessions—which cater to the offensive skill players—Boldin was the clear standout on that side of the ball. The hot hand he exhibited toward the end of last year’s run looks to have carried over.
Like he did in 2012, Boldin was controlling the catch zone and making tough grabs over the top of defenders.
This is great news for the 'Niners, who desperately need a front man for the WR group now that Michael Crabtree will miss a good portion of the 2013 regular season with an Achilles tear.
Of the players on the roster, Boldin was the only one capable of shouldering such a responsibility.
This coming season, Anquan Boldin will provide a safety blanket for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while filling an imperative leadership role for his respective position group.
Most impressive 49er player today by far was Anquan Boldin--multiple tough catches with coverage on top of him. QBs kept going to him.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 28, 2013
Are people sleeping on rookie TE Vance McDonald?
For one reason or another, there does not seem to be enough general excitement around this draft selection. As sexier picks, the media and fans have largely gravitated toward players like first-rounder Eric Reid (S), Quinton Patton (WR) and Marcus Lattimore (RB) instead.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have a potential contributor in the No. 55 overall pick.
While Vance McDonald will be the No. 2 TE on paper, tight ends are part of the rapid progression of the league. The position is evolving in a big way and, moreover, has a prominent place in San Francisco’s system.
A former all-conference product from Rice University, McDonald enters the league as a skill player handpicked by coach Jim Harbaugh. The offensive guru is very fond of his new role player, under the impression that he is going to turn heads this season.
Harbaugh cannot wait for the league to see McDonald play, particularly his former coach and friend, Mike Ditka. On several occasions, the 'Niners coach drew comparisons between McDonald and the Hall of Famer during his playing days—a beast that people had come to know as “Iron Mike.”
The 49ers coach believes McDonald bears a likeness to Ditka, given his size, rugged style and receiving ability. At 6’4” and 267 pounds, the rookie is the largest receiving option on San Francisco’s roster.
McDonald is a big bruiser with an ability to get vertical, which will add a dimension to this offense.
As a complement to starter Vernon Davis, he is going to give the 49ers another player that defenses have to account for. As the new joker tight end, he will draw attention to the middle of the field, ultimately opening things up for the wide receivers and running backs.
This new-look two-TE set may become a strength in San Fran’s unit.
While he has been regarded as the “replacement” for Delanie Walker, an “upgrade” would be a more accurate assessment. McDonald has a higher ceiling than Walker ever had, which is what makes him a unique up-and-comer in the Bay Area.
It was fairly unanimous, but Eric Branch (San Francisco Chronicle) and Grant Cohn (The Press Democrat of Santa Rose) were two of the local beat writers that came away thoroughly impressed with McDonald’s performance at minicamp and OTAs.
His work in practice has been consistent and well documented, which should alleviate any concerns about his ability to replace Walker in the passing attack. McDonald is arguably a more fluid route-runner and sure-handed receiver.
Do not be surprised if Vance McDonald becomes a household name sooner rather than later.
#49ers select Rice TE Vance McDonald with No. 55 pick. 6-4, 267. Strong blocker. Put up 31 reps of 225 pounds at combine, best among TEs.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) April 27, 2013
Will LaMichael James become a top return man in the NFL this season?
Given his prolific college career at the University of Oregon, LaMichael James was always going to garner attention at the next level. In 2013, the scat back will be entering his second NFL season—and perhaps his first full 16-game schedule in the lineup.
The 49ers made an investment in James, taking him with their second draft choice a year ago (No. 61 overall). With that said, the staff feels he is now ready to assume more responsibility on Sunday, which has prompted an expanded role with the team.
According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, James is preparing to take on a featured role as a return specialist. As a favorite to fill the duties left by Ted Ginn Jr., he has worked closely with special-teams coordinator Brad Seely this offseason.
The kind of explosiveness James displayed with Chip Kelly’s Ducks makes this an intriguing fit.
At the end of the day, it is all part of San Francisco’s plan to get the running back more touches. He was drafted for his big-play ability, so the 49ers do not want to handcuff him to the bench simply because Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter can carry the load.
As a returner, James has the opportunity to carve out his own niche on the field and further prove his worth to the organization.
Moreover, on the offensive side of the ball, James may develop into a receiving back and a primary read-option weapon. However talented the roster, he is arguably the most dangerous RB in space.
His particular set of skills will ensure that those aspects of the 49ers offense continue to progress. Speed, quick-cut ability and overall talent as an open-field runner are his ticket to a larger role in the offense itself.
And much like Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints—who also operates in an attack by committee—the 49ers will create a window for James to contribute as an all-purpose dynamo.
LaMichael James says he's up to 205 pounds after playing at 195 last year. Says the goal was to become stronger, more explosive.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) May 28, 2013
The 49ers bring consistency back to place kicking with free-agent signee Phil Dawson.
This is not so much a player as it as an entire division of San Francisco’s football team.
The 49ers have gone out and aggressively made several additions with the intent of upgrading their special teams. This was largely prompted by down years that saw career lows from Ted Ginn Jr. and David Akers.
The coverage unit also regressed significantly.
Among the new faces, the organization signed Kassim Osgood (WR), Craig Dahl (S), Dan Skuta (LB) and Ray Ventrone (S), while also drafting Florida State’s Nick Moody (LB). Each one of these players has potential to compete for a role as a gunner in 2013.
In all honesty, this was as significant a haul as we’ve seen any team make in a single offseason, especially for a unit that often goes overlooked by conventional standards.
The team also re-signed safety Darcel McBath, tendered cornerback Tramaine Brock and will be returning running back Anthony Dixon and safety C.J. Spillman. These were core players a year ago that will bring continuity to the group, while helping the newbies transition.
This should ultimately support San Francisco’s attempt to win the field-position battle this season.
Another big-time signing was kicker Phil Dawson, a 15-year pro formerly of the Cleveland Browns.
Dawson, 38, is a reining All-Pro place-kicker coming off a career-best season. In 2012, he hit 93.5 percent from the field, which was a league-high. He also went a perfect 7-of-7 from 50-plus yards out, which is no easy feat.
All in all, Dawson can be pegged as the most accurate kicker in the NFL today.
There has clearly been a lot of time and resources spent on upgrading the special-teams unit. The sum of this group also has an opportunity to see its ceiling with special-teams coordinator Brad Seely running things.
This appears to be an attempt to top the 2011 campaign, when players like Blake Costanzo, Colin Jones and David Akers were performing at high levels. That year, the 'Niners had a dynamite group that greatly complemented both the offense and defense.
It is evident that 49ers want to have the best special teams in the league again.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' featured 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.