Burning Questions for San Francisco 49ers Training Camp

Dylan DeSimoneCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2013

Burning Questions for San Francisco 49ers Training Camp

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    Last season was another leap forward into the Jim Harbaugh era for the San Francisco 49ers. With the new head coach and his staff, there have been several changes, and most of them have been for the greater good. The ‘Niners are performing at a level at they have not been at since the mid-90s. 

    However, with change comes uncertainty.

    Beyond the surface, there are a lot of moving parts that directly affect the final product San Francisco fields on game day. This team is widely considered a contender but several things need to fall into place for that to happen. A lot of these questions will be answered in training camp, while others will become clearer toward the conclusion of the regular season.

    Things to note:

    1. The following will contain an assortment of topics we think but don’t say about the 49ers.  
    2. All statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference, while contract info is provided by Spotrac
    3. This purpose of this article is to inspire debate, so feel free to contribute to the conversation in the comment section. In a lot of cases, there is no right or wrong answer, as the series of events are yet to unfold. 

How Does the Story End for Frank Gore and Justin Smith?

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    Will Frank Gore and Justin Smith get to walk away as champions, or will it be an ugly breakup? 

    In the 80s and 90s, when the 49ers were snatching up world titles and considered a first-class organization, they did not always handle players the right way. Even their most beloved all-timers—ones that helped build this franchise from the ground up—received less than favorable treatment upon their exodus.

    In Nos. 21 and 94, San Fran has two more generational greats nearing the end.

    Is it “Super Bowl or Bust” for them in 2013? If they are cap casualties like Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee theorized (and still without rings), will there be bitter feelings toward the franchise for making a business decision?

    Given their ages and contract details (via Spotrac), this should make for a prevalent story as the season ensues and the playoff chatter heats up. It would also not be shocking to see Gore and Smith playing each game like it’s their last. The ‘Niners may actually benefit from a “last ride” type of motivation, à la Ray Lewis in 2012.

    The urgency to win right now is surely present, but is San Francisco fated to win it all this season? At the end of the day, the Faithful want to know how the legacies of Frank Gore and Justin Smith will be defined.

Who Is the No. 2 Wide Receiver Going to Be?

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    In OTAs, the ‘Niners lost their lone reigning 1,000-yard receiver, Michael Crabtree, with an Achilles tendon injury. For the defending NFC champions, it was a whirlwind to lose their No. 1 aerial threat as early as May.

    Furthermore, since USA Today’s Mike Garafolo broke the news, the 49ers have made no attempt to sign a free-agent wide receiver, which is limited to but at one point included Brandon Lloyd and Devery Henderson.  

    Fortunately, prior to the incident, the team finalized a steal of a trade, sending a sixth-round draft choice to Baltimore for Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin. No. 81 now projects to fill in as the primary wideout this season.

    Touting nearly 800 career catches, 10,000-plus receiving yards and 58 TDs, Boldin is an time-honored pass-catcher that happens to be coming off a dominant playoff run, which resulted in his first Super Bowl championship.

    The 32-year-old also possesses the proverbial “hot hand,” controlling his catch radius as good as any receiver in the league right now. He will be the focal point of the receiving corps as the ‘Niners look to rotate weapons around him.

    But which WR will be second behind Boldin in snaps taken?

    The 49ers have several promising up-and-comers that can step up and steal the show, especially with a top quarterback like Colin Kaepernick now in the lineup. Instead of naming all nine receivers vying for the job, there are three to focus on in training camp.

    First of all, Mario Manningham is questionable for the season opener, which is why this question is relevant, via NFL.com. No. 82 might be the favorite for the position had he not sustained a late-season knee injury (ACL, PCL).

    With that said, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Kyle Williams are in top contention for the No. 2 job. This projects to be among the fieriest and most luring camp battles in the National Football League. All three of these players are prospective 1,000-yard receivers, given that Kap is a gunslinger and Boldin is primarily a chain-mover.

    In this article for B/R, I take an in-depth look at the projected depth chart at wide receiver in 2013 and sound off on why Williams may be the favorite to win the two-spot this offseason.

What Sort of Role and Impact Is Eric Mangini Going to Have?

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    Despite rumors linking the 49ers and Nevada head coach Chris Ault, the SF front office deliberated and eventually allowed Colin Kaepernick’s former college-level instructor—and father of the pistol—to sign with Kansas City.

    Instead, they moved on Eric Mangini.

    Mangini has 14 years of coaching experience, which includes two stints as a head coach and a nice run at Camp Belichick. After two years away from the game working as an analyst for ESPN from 2011-2012, Mangini will operate under the title of Senior Offensive Consultant.

    Now with the 49ers, his role will be similar to that of an advanced scout; he will join the staff, which will provide an extra set of eyes and ears during weekly preparations. This is totally worthwhile for San Francisco, because oftentimes, the weeks just are not long enough.  

    In any given week, teams have players healing, coaches conducting diligent self-scouting, classroom time, scouting the opponent, development of a game plan, conducting walk-throughs and narrowing down the play selection, and that is just a very rough outline.

    By nature, Mangini’s job will involve a lot of work behind closed doors. 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman touched on the addition of Mangini, per Christian Gin of the Examiner:

    Eric Mangini is a wealth of knowledge [and has] a great pedigree. He is hard working, intelligent and comes at things with a different angle. He's getting caught up with what we're doing…We'll look to the future and it's been great, a great addition to our staff. He'll boost us in certain areas throughout the season. 

    Moreover, Mangini will spend a great deal of time watching cut-ups, looking for patterns and tendencies that will help San Francisco decode opposing offenses. This will very likely impact San Francisco’s defensive unit over the course of the season, for the better.

    On the offensive side, Mangini has intimate knowledge of New England’s system and can potentially add elements from Bill Belichick’s West Coast offense. These varying looks, formations and strategies can help the 49ers’ passing attack evolve accordingly. 

    Will his efforts help San Francisco field a more efficient team on Sunday? 

What Kind of Super Freak Is Colin Kaepernick Going to Become?

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    In 2012, Colin Kaepernick finished with 2,688 all-purpose yards and 19 total touchdowns in 10 starts (including playoffs). If you extrapolate his total yards/scores over a 16-game schedule, he’d have just north of 4,300 yards and over 30 touchdowns.

    Theoretically, this makes Kaepernick a top-10 quarterback vying for top-five recognition…and he is just getting started.

    A livewire out of Nevada-Reno, No. 7 has since ridden his play-making ability to the forefront of the 49ers offense. In an effort to maximize production, the ‘Niners have tailored the system to fit Kaepernick’s strengths, while steadily building around him.

    Standing on his own merit, Kap’s persona as a bona fide dual-threat gives the 25-year-old NFC champion an incredibly high ceiling. The QB has also had the fortune of being able to work directly with head coach Jim Harbaugh, which in all likelihood will keep him playing at a high rate of efficiency.

    If you believe in trends, Harbaugh, the overall team talent and the system built around the quarterback, there is reason to believe Colin Kaepernick is destined for great things in this league. Going forward, he will continue to transcend what is the “it” position in all of sports.

    After Aldon Smith, Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis, you can now add San Francisco’s quarterback to the list of super freaks on the roster. It’s early but Kap has the potential to lead the league in all-purpose yards and total touchdowns, which may put him in the MVP conversation in 2013. 

    At this rate, what kind of output will we see from Kaepernick over his first 16-game regular season and beyond? 

Is LaMichael James the New Weapon-X in San Francisco?

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    Taking a look at this roster, the 49ers have managed to acquire grossly productive offensive players at the college level and flip them into legitimate weapons in the NFL (See: Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick).

    The former Texas Tech wide receiver and Nevada signal-caller were two of the best at their respective positions. RB LaMichael James is another player that fits in that criteria, as his 5,000-plus rushing yards at Oregon places him in the top 15 all-time in the NCAA (No. 2 in Pac-12 history).

    The common football fan is well aware that YouTube is not scarce on James’ highlights with Chip Kelly’s Ducks. Week in and week out, even though they knew he was getting the ball, defenses just could not stop this guy.

    And then Jim Harbaugh, a man who had a front row seat to the LaMichael James show, which included 382 yards and four touchdowns in two games, proceeds to draft him in Round 2 of the 2012 draft. This is no coincidence, just like Harbaugh drafting Kaepernick was no coincidence.

    There is a vision for James on this team (Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints is a wise comparison).

    What are the plans for him in his first full 16-game schedule: Red-zone threat? Kick returner? Punt returner? Receiver? Read-option weapon? Given his ability, there are no limits with James, who can potentially emerge as the ‘Niners best open-field runner as soon as 2013. 

Is NaVorro Bowman More Valuable Than Patrick Willis?

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    This is just fan fodder because at the end of the day, it does not really matter either way.

    Nevertheless, you have to look at the way organizations value their players, which is almost entirely from an analytical standpoint. To start, NaVorro Bowman has seen more time on the field than Patrick Willis in two years, operating as their primary cover linebacker, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. 

    When the 49ers go to their nickel package and use a personnel grouping that only utilizes one ILB, more often than not, it’s No. 53. And boy has he excelled in pass coverage. Two of his notable plays were the Week 1 interception on Aaron Rodgers, who only threw seven more all season out of 508 attempts.  

    The next being in the NFC title game at Atlanta, where Bowman was tasked with covering WR Roddy White and managed to get a hand in to breakup the play. That fourth-down deflection sealed the victory and sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl.

    To that point, quarterback Matt Ryan had engineered seven game-winning drives that season.

    Moreover, in two consecutive years, Bowman has out-tackled Willis, for what its worth. The two do play off one another, but it just goes to show that No. 53 has as good a nose for the football as his six-time All-Pro counterpart. Not many linebackers out there can say they play as well in the box as Patrick Willis.

    But frankly, Bowman shoots the gaps and runs sideline-to-sideline just as effectively.

    However, the most prevalent and unopposed edge that Willis has—and will forever have—is that he is the lifeblood of the franchise. While Bowman is as good on the field, the digits, number 52, are becoming sacred in the Bay Area.  

    Still, this race is a lot closer than people think. 

What If Eric Reid Is Not Ready by Week 1?

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    It was all sunshine and rainbows until this slide. The truth is, this is a hot topic and perhaps the single most important personnel-related matter impacting San Francisco’s chances of a Super Bowl in 2013.

    Now that Dashon Goldson is in Tampa Bay, the 49ers have a void at safety where an All-Pro used to be. This is what beckoned general manager Trent Baalke to leap up in Round 1 and secure LSU’s Eric Reid, who was a top-rated player at his position.

    However, no rookie is the finished product, that’s why they’re called rookies. Every one of them makes mistakes, as it is part of the learning process. But in Reid’s case, the ‘Niners are counting on him to step in right away and play as clean a game as possible.

    In terms of covering space on the field, San Francisco is wise and likely wont give him more than he can handle. On the other hand, they don’t want to coddle him and make him an exploitable target late in the season when wins really count.

    San Fran also plays Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck in the first three weeks of the season, in that order. And while the 49ers added depth to the position in the offseason, they are not setup to win if Reid is not ready.  

    Is he going to be a liability in coverage? When he makes mistakes, when will they be? How many are there going to be? Will he learn from them? Are the 49ers a better defensive unit with him in the lineup?

    As the No. 18 overall pick, Eric Reid’s ability to catch up to speed is more important than any other player on the roster, bar none.  

Which Player Is Next in Line for an Extension?

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    Out of the blue, it seems the 49ers have several of the NFL’s premier players at their respective positions. In a few cases, SF either has guys with expiring deals or ones that are flat-out exceeding their pay grade.   

    Now, with another year in the books, the ‘Niners are inching closer toward the inevitable extensions of their prevailing 2011 class. They also have free agents that signed short-term deals and aging veterans to decide on.

    Taking a look at their tack record, GM Trent Baalke has been intent on drafting and extending; having recently done so with 2010 draft picks Anthony Davis and NaVorro Bowman.

    However, the team is just beginning to dish out some of the bigger contracts they’ve dealt in the Harbaugh era. Here is a list of notable would-be free agents over the next two seasons, via Spotrac (2014-2015):

    • Jonathan Goodwin, C (2014)
    • Tramaine Brock, CB (2014)
    • Tarell Brown, CB (2014)
    • Parys Haralson, LB (2014)
    • Mario Manningham, WR (2014)
    • Donte Whitner, S (2014)
    • Kyle Williams, WR (2014)
    • Frank Gore, RB (2015)
    • Bruce Miller, FB (2015)
    • Michael Crabtree, WR (2015)
    • Chris Culliver, CB (2015)
    • Kendall Hunter, RB (2015)
    • Aldon Smith, LB (2015)
    • Mike Iupati, G (2015)
    • Colin Kaepernick, QB (2015)

    There were other names omitted from this list, but as you can see, the foundation of San Francisco’s roster will be up for auction if they allow it to be. In order to bring back as many of these players as possible, it will take careful, strategic maneuvering by the front office.

    As you can imagine, not all of these players are coming back. Many of them will fall through the cracks and become subject to free agency, but which ones and when? For one or two players from 2014-2015, the 49ers could defer by using the franchise tag, like they had with Dashon Goldson.

    The 49ers will prioritize by looking at age, importance of the position and performance, while also considering the draft capital they invested. This puts Kaepernick at the top of the list, who may be line for a historic contract, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

    The next big three are Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree, who project as mainstays for this franchise. It is presumable to say that Kap is a top-five talent, while Iupati and Smith are arguably the best in the league at what they do.

    Then there is the argument that Crabtree is a top-10 receiver with Harbaugh’s protégé now in the lineup.

    Hunter, Culliver, Williams and Miller are secondary to the aforementioned players, but important players in need of deals nonetheless. This could put the veterans and short-term signings at the mercy of free agency (Whitner, Goodwin, Manningham and Gore).

    Will they all get paid according to their perceived ranking? When and in what order will they be inked? What if Kyle Williams has a 1,000-yard season in No. 15’s absence? Will the ‘Niners have to sacrifice Crabtree to sign more players? Will there be cap casualties of players not listed above?

Is Chris Culliver Going to Take the Next Step as a Pro?

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    In 49ers third-year pro Chris Culliver, the organization has an auspicious young talent at cornerback. At one of the toughest positions in the league, this 6’0, 199-pound DB from South Carolina has shown that he has what it takes on the field.

    In his two seasons with the team from 2011-2012, Culliver has taken on more defensive snaps each season (415 to 670). By the end of his sophomore campaign, he was the sixth-ranked cover corner in the league, according to PFF.

    Until DE Justin Smith (triceps) sustained his injury in Week 15, Cully was the No. 1 CB in the National Football League in yards allowed (256), per Jeff Deeney at Pro Football Focus. This was out of 66 players who qualified with 500-plus snaps.

    Though, in the playoffs, when San Fran was banged up in the front seven, Culliver’s performance took a dip. His character has also since been called into question with a couple off-the-field indiscretions, via Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk

    However, Cully was part of that very strong 2011 class by the 49ers, and from a talent perspective, appears to be on par with his draft mates. No. 29 is a very talented corner that might be the team’s most athletically gifted defensive back.

    That physical endowment has also translated on the field, as Cully revealed he could be San Fran’s best cover guy during the regular season. The upcoming season will be very telling of the player he will become, but he needs to take vast steps forward on and off the field.

    Chris Culliver has the potential to be a true No. 1, as he has quietly matured into one of the best boundary corners in the league. It will be up to him if he wants to be a marquee player for San Francisco in the long haul. 

Are Glenn Dorsey and Nnamdi Asomugha Going to Revitalize Their Careers?

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    Eric Reid was not the only first-rounder the 49ers added to their robust defense this offseason. The team made two low-risk signings, bringing in former top picks Nnamdi Asomugha (No. 31 in 2003) and Glenn Dorsey (No. 5 in 2008).

    Collectively, their contracts will only run the ‘Niners $3,957,500 for the 2013, which is a bargain considering they are prospective starters. Considering they are vets with mileage, riding a bit of a rough patch, the team was able to acquire them at a premium.

    Not long ago, Asomugha was an outstanding All-Pro cornerback, having taken three consecutive trips to Hawaii prior to his stint with the Eagles (2008-2010). In Philly, he played uncharacteristically bad, which prompted his release.

    As the reason for his regression, many have alluded to Asomugha being crammed in a defensive system that was not built around his strengths. It is a viable argument given how steep of decline it was and how fast it happened.

    Now people want to know, is Asomugha done in this league or is he in line for a career resurgence with a team that knows how to utilize his strengths? In a top-ranked defense that pressures that quarterback, can he return to form as quickly as he fell off?

    Then there is Dorsey, 27, who is a bit younger but in a like situation nonetheless.

    The Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner from LSU played good football in Kansas City but never saw his true ceiling. The Chiefs chalked it up is a failure and let him walk…right into the arms of the league’s best DL coach, Jim Tomsula. 

    Can Dorsey see his potential on San Francisco’s D-line, playing alongside Ray McDonald and Justin Smith? Will he raise his game in this environment and fortify the middle of this unit? Originally heralded as a dual-threat, can he develop into a clogging and penetrating defensive lineman?

    These two players have a terrific opportunity to jumpstart their careers in the Bay Area. Being placed in this top-rated defense, surrounded by great talent and a proficient system, both Asomugha and Dorsey are already in a position to excel.

    As two potential role players, will they enhance this defense or make it worse? What is to become of their 2013 seasons and how will it impact San Francisco?

Is Vance McDonald a Potential NFL Star?

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    Nowadays, tight ends are all the rage; they are bigger, faster, stronger and more physically unique than ever before.

    On the field, this evolution of genetic freaks has produced several match-up nightmares (See: Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski). These hybrid pass-catchers come in as rookies, and based on their measurables alone, are difficult to defend. DBs and LBs either discover that they are too small or too slow to effectively cover them.

    The 49ers already had a top-ranked TE in Vernon Davis, who has boggled defensive coordinators.

    But to fit their system and adapt with the changing times, the front office invested a high draft choice in former Rice Owl Vance McDonald. Together, this twosome may become highly problematic for opponents in 2013.

    His size (6’4”, 267 lbs.), speed (4.6 40-time), sure hands and whopping catch radius (34.5” wingspan) gives the rookie the potential to start his career with a bang and keep climbing. Had McDonald not been drafted to the ‘Niners, he likely would’ve been a No. 1 tight end by Week 1.  

    With that said, having two starter-caliber TEs with freakish athletic ability is going to bring a whole new facet to the 49ers offense. Will this tandem take precedence in the wake of Michael Crabtree’s injury?

    Can the rookie out of Rice help the 49ers when it comes to situational football (red-zone/third-down)? Will he hold his own as a blocker, and ultimately allow No. 85 to roam around as a receiver?

    Down the line, will McDonald’s forthcoming emergence provide the 49ers with leverage in Davis’ next contract (2016)? Remember, Davis is one of the vets that has been around, and is approaching 30 years of age. 

Out with the Old, in with the New?

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    In coach Jim Harbaugh’s third NFL offseason, it might be time for a little spring-cleaning. Based on their offseason agenda, there is reason to expect substantial changeover in regards to depth on the roster.

    The 49ers were stacked going into this offseason but still drafted 11 players—trading up for three of them—and signed a few noteworthy free agents. The purpose was to deepen several position groups by adding players with more upside that can sub-in now while developing for the future.

    This happened all over the roster. If a number of these new faces live up to their billing, then San Francisco will be saying goodbye to a lot of one- and two-year players that were buried on the depth chart.  

    Will inside linebacker Nick Moody replace Darius Fleming?

    Will outside linebacker Corey Lemonier replace Cam Johnson?

    Will defensive tackles Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial replace DeMarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie and/or Will Tukuafu?

    Will the additions of quarterbacks Colt McCoy and B.J. Daniels make Scott Tolzien expendable?

    Will cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha relieve Tramaine Brock or Perrish Cox from the roster?

    Do the 49ers need tailback Anthony Dixon this year? Or will they carry a higher-ceiling player at another position (i.e., WR Ricardo Lockette, CB Marcus Cooper)?

    Are Trenton Robinson and Michael Thomas out with special teams aces/safeties Craig Dahl, Darcel McBath and C.J. Spillman?

Coming Back from Injuries, Can the Smith Brothers Return to Full Form?

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    In the late months of the 2012 regular season, the All-Pro tandem of DT Justin Smith (triceps) and LB Aldon Smith (shoulder) incurred injury, and as a result, the well-oiled machine that was the 49ers defense suddenly had a kink in it.

    That powering right side kicked into neutral and idled from Week 15 well into the Super Bowl. After the season, both players went under the knife and have since been recovering from their respective surgeries.

    Not that it needs to be said, but the defensive element brought on by the Smith brothers has been invaluable. Every week, opposing offenses were forced to specifically prepare for Nos. 94 and 99, which was often an exercise in futility.

    When the two were really humming in weeks 7-14 of 2012, Aldon was on another planet, averaging 2.3 sacks per game, via Chris Wesseling on Twitter. Over the course of the season, he set a 49ers franchise record with 19.5 sacks, which was only three shy of the single-season record (Michael Strahan – 22.5).

    However, the unit relied on Justin’s forte for controlling the line of scrimmage, either by clogging gaps, collapsing the pocket or absorbing protection schemes. Once he was hurt, that was that. When they return to the lineup from injury, are Justin and Aldon Smith going to pick up where they left off?

    Can the 49ers expect to have this dynamic back in full swing for Week 1? Will they improve in their second year starting together or will this be the year that Justin’s age begins to show? How much longer can the team expect to have this duo together in the Bay Area?

    They have found one another at curious times in their career: Justin is on his way out, while Aldon is on the rise. If they return to form and are firing on all cylinders this season, the 49ers will be Super Bowl favorites 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.