Rounding Up the Latest Offseason Buzz Surrounding the San Francisco 49ers
With the new league year well underway, the San Francisco 49ers have been working feverishly to optimize their offseason. Operating with lofty expectations, the team is preparing to follow up a storybook season that saw them finish as conference champions.
Only five yards away from a sixth Lombardi Trophy and an undefeated Super Bowl prestige, the ‘Niners have since developed a chip on their shoulder, while locking on to a common goal for 2013.
As one of 16 teams in the NFC vying for a spot to represent their conference at MetLife Stadium in Super Bowl XLVIII, head coach Jim Harbaugh has given his players a full plate already.
The rookies, veterans and incoming free agents have each had their work cut out for them, grinding tirelessly to get noticed. Whether a player is a reining All-Pro or a first-round selection, the ‘Niners staff is watching to see if they are indeed getting better or getting worse.
For all of the latest offseason buzz from Santa Clara, Calif., proceed through the following slides.
All quotes from players and coaches are courtesy of 49ers.com.
Colin Kaepernick Has Taken Control
Most every NFL team wants their quarterback in a power position. The hitch is that the man behind center has to possess the on-field talent and bona fide confidence to truly be the shepherd that leads the flock.
According to reports from the San Francisco Bay Area, quarterback Colin Kaepernick has asserted himself as a leader for the 49ers. In record time, it only took the 25-year-old 10 career starts, including a Super Bowl berth, to embrace that role.
In 2013, Kaepernick will be entering his first 16-game schedule as an NFL starter.
“I am trying to improve on everything,” said Kaepernick. “From the playbook, to being faster, stronger, being quicker mentally on the field, putting us in better situations. Everything.”
Since he first arrived, this is a player that characteristically led by example. Although, with Alex Smith now in Kansas City, the third year gunslinger from Nevada now has the license to be a vocal leader for the team.
Kap believes this is a recently earned right, and one that would not have been acceptable with No. 11 still on the roster. It is not a backup’s job to address the players, but fortunately, Kaepernick is no longer second-string.
Now that the big job is incontestably his, he felt it was his not only his right, but it was his duty to assert himself in such a manner; to echo the sentiments of coach Jim Harbaugh and the staff.
“My leadership out here. Being comfortable taking that role. Being comfortable talking to any player on the team, telling them if they need to do something a little different to help our offense,” Kaepernick told the media at OTAs.
He has exhibited leadership qualities; directing players on the field, helping them prepare and practice, while teaching the playbook to those less familiar. The media even caught wind that WR Ricardo Lockette has been living with the 49ers QB, who has provided “24/7” homeschooling, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
His evident talent combined with this confident, vocal direction has helped him evolve as San Francisco’s signal caller as early as June. And this is by no means an easy feat—the players have to look into his eyes and believe that what he says is 100 percent factual.
It is not easy to lead 53-plus men, especially as the fifth-youngest player on the team, only three years removed from college. However, Kaepernick has unconditional support from his teammates and the coaching staff.
“His approach, his expectations, his understanding of everything. He’s light years ahead of where he was last year,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman, endorsing the first-year starter.
Even though the offense continues to introduce new concepts and plays, Kaepernick is fully acclimated to the system. He is taking it in stride, growing within it, while spending extra time with players to catch them up to speed.
This is Colin Kaepernick taking steps forward as a player and ultimately as the face of the franchise.
A.J. Jenkins Is Improving
It would be an extraordinary boost to the 49ers if the team can manage to gain a first-round talent at wideout, especially from a player that had unfortunately been written off by many following an ice-cold rookie debut.
As he prepares for his second NFL season—and his first full 16-game campaign—A.J. Jenkins has tuned out the naysayers and put his nose to the grindstone. By all means, it has been a constructive offseason so far for the No. 30 overall pick from Illinois (2012).
First off, Jenkins addressed his biggest issue, which was his featherweight size, by recently adding weight, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Coming out of the Big 10, the receiver was a mere 190 pounds, but recently said he is “closer to 200” now.
The plan is for him to continue weight training, which should help him tremendously at the line of scrimmage. As a receiver, it will make him more effective in terms of getting a clean release and blocking successfully in the run game.
At the beginning of the offseason, not long after the Super Bowl, Jenkins joined Colin Kaepernick in Atlanta for private workouts. The 49ers quarterback was at his handpicked training facility for seven weeks, during which time he had one-on-one time with Jenkins.
“[Jenkins] is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year,” said Kaepernick, via the team's official website. “Now we just need to get him on the field.”
As fate would have it, the 49ers need a player to step up at the wide receiver position with the team’s No. 1 option, Michael Crabtree, going down with an Achilles tendon injury, per Mike Garafolo of USA Today Sports.
Jenkins has a genuine window of opportunity to see field time in 2013, though, that is not say he won’t have fierce competition. The edge he may have over others is the investment the ‘Niners made a year ago, along with the receiver being in a critical developmental year.
In addition to that, his focus seems uncompromised, which has led to high remarks from the coaching staff. Greg Roman said Jenkins was “making plays,” “clutch catches” and “moving the ball” in practice.
Jim Harbaugh contributed to the conversation, per the Sacramento Bee:
Thought A.J. had his best week of football since he's been a 49er the last four days of OTAs. And he continues to build on that. Anybody that's going from Year 1 to Year 2, it's a great window of opportunity to improve in the kind of fashion that you'll never have again in your career. Because you're going from doing things for the first time to now everything that you do, you've already done.
It appears that Jenkins is on the right track, and at this point, fans can assume to see him on the field in 2013. He might not be the No. 2 opposite Anquan Boldin, but a featured role in the slot may be in the works.
LaMichael James Ready for More Touches
Since Jim Harbaugh reined in this new era in 49ers football, San Francisco has improved offensively each season. This team has been more efficient with the ball, while fielding a more explosive unit overall.
If you believe in trends, it would be fitting to anticipate another leap in 2013.
As part of that continual offensive advancement, second-year RB LaMichael James may see his role evolve. A 2012 second-rounder, James is another individual that the ‘Niners invested in with the hopes that he would be a dangerous weapon for them down the road.
During his time at the University of Oregon, James was an explosive all-purpose threat that humiliated NCAA defenses, racking up 5,668 career yards from scrimmage and 58 touchdowns in just three years.
He was a spectacular open-field runner, proving to be quite a mover and a shaker. As part of his unique design as a tailback, James displayed ankle-breaking stop-and-start ability, as well as that highly coveted top gear.
Given his high profile and clear ability, the ‘Niners staff will make an effort to get him more touches, whether it is as a return specialist, a featured weapon in the read-option or as a receiver.
According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, No. 23 has been working closely with special teams coordinator Brad Seely, preparing to take over for the role left by the departed Ted Ginn Jr.
In just four games, James was efficient taking the ball back as a rookie.
In limited time fielding kickoffs in 2012, James finished with 14 returns for 417 yards (29.8 YPR). This average ranked him third in the league behind players that had 15-plus returns, trailing only Percy Harvin (35.9) and Jacoby Jones (30.7).
Those same tools that made him effective as a return man will aid his development as a key cog in the offense.
“Last year I wasn't even here and didn't get to do any of this stuff,” James told Inman. “I've been in the offense for a year, picked it up pretty fast to my knowledge and it's second nature to me. I'm trying to be an all-around athlete.”
Despite the return of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, the second-year man will have an opportunity to be a Darren Sproles-type weapon for San Fran. His growth may result in the team adding yet another wrinkle to their offense.
Darius Fleming Moving to Inside Linebacker
One of the reports from minicamp indicated a position change for second-year linebacker Darius Fleming, an OLB from Notre Dame. The fifth-rounder is returning from an ACL injury, finally looking to finally kickoff his pro career.
But before he can do so, he will have to learn the nuances of a new position in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense.
“Darius Fleming was doing very good work at inside linebacker, which we switched him to at the start of OTAs,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “I’m more excited about last year’s rookies. I’m more excited to see where they’re at because they should be much further along.”
This is a decision that makes sense for several reasons.
As a member of the Fighting Irish, Fleming was never a fierce pass-rush specialist with any sort of unique physical ability. At 6’2”, 255 pounds, he excelled as a run-stuffer and cover backer during his days as a collegian.
Moreover, with the add-on of Auburn’s Corey Lemonier and the return of veteran Parys Haralson, the ‘Niners figure to have solid depth at outside linebacker. Though, in the middle, the organization parted ways with Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden, which left an opening behind the All-Pro starters.
This move will put Darius Fleming in a position to optimize his particular skill set, while increasing his odds of making the final 53-man roster.
Frank Gore Has a Chip on His Shoulder
Through quarterback changes, failed experiments at wide receiver and years of shaky O-line play, running back Frank Gore has been the lynchpin that has held this offense together since 2006.
Now, with nearly 12,000 yards of mileage on him, the 30-year-old tailback is facing questions about productivity and longevity. And even though he posted 2,425 yards on the ground in the past two seasons, Gore has doubters.
Fortunately, this is familiar territory for No. 21, who has never been the most highly regarded back due to a lack of sexy physical attributes. He is not exceptionally fast or immensely powerful—he just sees the field extremely well and outwits defenses with his football IQ.
In 2013, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher will have to prove that his particular strengths can effectively carry him past the dreaded 30-year mark. Oddly enough, the ‘Niners most proven player will be under the microscope.
Can he improve, will he remain the same or will the decline begin?
How many carries, if any, will he lose to this new three-headed backfield?
Will he be able to endure another long season now that San Francisco has established itself as a perennial contender?
“I feel like every year it’s something with me,” said Gore, per 49ers.com. “I got to overcome everything, every year. Coming off a hip injury, ‘would I be able to be the same?’ When I turned 29, would I still be able to play? Will I be able to be Frank Gore, now 30?”
The Pro Bowl rusher is used to the scrutiny, and in fact, thrives on it.
The naysayers are not going to do anything but fuel his work ethic this season. Not to mention, he is fresh off a Super Bowl berth and knows that there will not be too many more opportunities for that in his career.
“I’m just going to keep working and training hard and prove everybody wrong again,” said Gore. “I love it.”
49ers-Seahawks Rivarly in Full Effect in June
It's June and tempers are flaring up in the Pacific Northwest, as the football world has been reminded of the growing disdain between the 49ers and Seahawks. As NFC West rivals competing for a title, they are both directly in each others' way.
The riff has been given a kick in the behind this offseason, and it may have started with San Francisco’s hometown MLB team, the Giants, sending Seattle head coach Pete Carroll a customized World Series jersey.
The jersey is even complete with Carroll’s name and a No. 12, undoubtedly signifying the ‘Hawks’ 12th man motto, per Inside USC on Twitter.
While 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh did not acknowledge this outright, this was certainly a noteworthy gesture, and one that preceded another headline-worthy story pertaining to the NFC West rivalry.
On June 11, Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com reported that Harbaugh openly recognized the prevalent use of performance enhancing drugs among Seattle’s players, which has led to six suspensions.
I've definitely noticed it. You don't know what it is. Even when people say what it is, you don't know that that's what it is. For this, throw it out, or it's that. But that's usually the agents of the players themselves saying it's, for example, Adderall.
But the NFL doesn't release what it actually is. So you have no idea. You're taking somebody at their word, that I don't know that you can take them at their word, understanding the circumstances.
Play by the rules. And you always want to be above reproach. Especially when you're good, because you don't want people to come back and say they're winning because they're cheating. ... So we want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules.
Harbaugh is not one for stirring the pot or creating unnecessary drama, as his focus typically lies within his own team. However, it has been difficult to ignore the recurring violations by San Francisco’s most significant competitor.
This rubbed the Seahawks the wrong way, particularly cornerback Brandon Browner.
“He’s a coach. He’s never going to be out there lined up against me. I wish he would; I’d put my hands around his neck,” Browner told Sports Radio KJR. It is not very becoming of a pro athlete to threaten physical harm to a coach, but this newfound rivalry is pushing all sorts of limits.
In their eyes, the two weeks they play one another are perhaps their most important outings of the season. For both clubs, there is not a single team they get more geared up to play against, as emotions are always running high.
The immense talent level, brute style, shared division and history between the coaches ultimately makes this one of the best rivalries in sports. At this point, there will be no peace between these teams in the foreseeable future.
49ers Have a Healthy Rotation at Free Safety
In the 2013 draft, the 49ers traded up in Round 1 for LSU safety Eric Reid, with the hopes that he would be the inevitable successor at free safety. The loss of Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson created a void at the position—perhaps the most notable one on the team’s roster.
It justifies the capital the ‘Niners spent on the former All-American.
However, as coach Harbaugh has noted before, it is a "meritocracy" in San Francisco, in the sense that everything is earned. Vic Fangio and the defensive staff are not in the business of handing away starting jobs, so the former SEC banger will have to win it.
During OTAs and minicamp, the No. 18 overall pick rotated with C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl, taking turns with the first-team. Reid has not been confirmed as a starter, nor is he being treated like one.
“Spillman and Dahl have been alternating who works with the first group. There is nobody set right now,” said Fangio about the competition.
This does not condemn Reid by any means. If anything, it is reassuring that he will not be inserted into the starting lineup until he is ready. So far, he has made progress and may very well be the best option come Week 1 of the regular season.
“What happens with a lot of guys like that, the light just kind of comes on one day and it all starts,” Fangio added. “Right now, the screen is blurry a lot of times, and one day that screen will be fixed and it will be like a brand new HD.”
St. Louis Rams Knocking on the Door
Even though there is a budding rivalry between the 49ers and Seahawks, the neighboring St. Louis Rams refuse to be brushed aside.
San Fran was winless versus Jeff Fisher’s troop in 2012, going 0-1-1 against them in regular season competition. It is a ball club that has been noticeably more competitive since the head coach arrived following a 16-year stint in Tennessee.
The organization has since added talent on both sides of the ball via the draft and free agency, while playing a cleaner, more fundamental brand of football that helps them finish contests on Sundays.
However, it was not just its technical approach that helped St. Louis stifle the reining NFC champions. According to newly signed safety Craig Dahl—a former Ram—his old team had decoded several of San Francisco’s offensive calls.
“We had a few tips off of film that we were able to differentiate between run and pass early,” Dahl told the media. “So that kind of gave us an added benefit on defense. It was a few different things. Some different personnel and alignment stuff really were the big keys, as far as our giveaways.”
This news prompted a fiery response from current Rams defensive players, CB Cortland Finnegan and DE Chris Long. Both starters took to social media, venting their frustrations in the Twitter-sphere.
"Craig Dahl is lame and weak for that glad he with another squad we know how he play thanks for the tips we know who 2 go at," Finnegan wrote. "Craig Dahl we know how you play thanks for the tips we know who to attack early and often", the Pro Bowl corner added.
Long, on the other hand, brought up the Super Bowl, saying, “neither of us got any trophies.” His rant did not end there, either, alluding to a 500-plus day period since the ‘Niners have in fact defeated the Rams.
During which time, Long claims to have “climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, turned 27 and 28, restructured [his] contract, sat courtside at a Heat game, ate over 2,000 small meals, you get the idea.”
The Rams took this act by Dahl as a betrayal, as several of them appeared to be legitimately offended. However, if you ask the 49ers head coach about the matter, it was a no-brainer to debrief Dahl, per the team's official website.
“Of course we asked him,” said Harbaugh. “It confirmed what we knew.”
Patrick Willis' Game to Reach New Heights
Can a six-time Pro Bowler and perennial All-Pro really improve as a player?
‘Niners inside linebacker Patrick Willis seems to think so. Entering his seventh season in the NFL, the defensive captain believes he is in a very comfortable place where experience meets talent.
This is a vital time where a lot of pros have seen their best years.
As a seasoned veteran, things are finally slowing down for him, which should make Willis more efficient reacting to offenses on game day. He is comfortable, battle-hardened and expecting the game to come to him.
“I feel like—for the first time going into my seventh year now—I really feel like mentally and physically, I’m in the best shape that I’ve been in since I was a rookie,” Willis told the media. “And I feel like mentally, I’m in a place that I’ve never been before.”
This milestone season for No. 52 was bound to arrive one day, it is just a coincidence that is happening the same year Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher decided to hang up their pads for good.
Willis will now be the one to set the bar at the linebacker position, making those veteran savvy plays that led to W’s. At the nucleus of San Francisco’s top-ranked defense, he believes he will play a more cerebral game than ever before.
“Being able to recognize, being able to see things before it happens, being able to just be comfortable. I’ve also learned this camp that you don’t have to move as fast if you’re smarter,” said Willis.
This begs the question: Is the best of Patrick Willis yet to come?
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' featured columnist for Bleacher Report and a former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.