San Francisco 49ers: 7 Players Who Will Surprise in Training Camp
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The regular season is getting closer each day.
The San Francisco 49ers, one win and one play removed from a sixth Super Bowl championship last year, stand poised to return to the Super Bowl and win it this time.
San Francisco remains mostly intact from last season. There are the core of young stars which include linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman along with tight end Vernon Davis. There are also timeless veterans like running back Frank Gore and defensive end Justin Smith who have defied the aging process. Then there are the newly emerging stars such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick and linebacker Aldon Smith.
Each one of those players are supplemented by a commendable group of talented and diverse athletes that helped the 49ers become one of the most dominant franchises in today's NFL. Add to that a mix of newly-drafted rookies, headlined by the highly-touted safety Eric Reid, and there are plenty of reasons to believe San Francisco is a Super Bowl favorite this year.
Amidst all that hype and chatter however are the stories, controversies and circumstances that face each and every NFL team. The 49ers are no different this year.
San Francisco has already endured a hectic and busy offseason.
Whether one wants to cite the trades of Alex Smith and Anquan Boldin, the stockpiling of picks before the 2013 draft, or perhaps the loss of wide receiver Michael Crabtree to an Achilles injury the first week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the 49ers have already had their fair share of headlines.
Why would their training camp be any different?
If there is one understatement about San Francisco's coaching staff, it is that they love competition. Much of the 2013 49ers roster was designed that way. Some of that competition emerged during the team's OTAs last month. More shall be showcased during training camp which is set to begin on July 19.
Of course there will be the "no-doubters" who will perform at or above expectations. Willis and Bowman shall be amazing as per usual. Gore will do his thing and Boldin has already established that he is the top wide receiver.
Yet there are a number of other players who may turn some heads and wind up being pleasant surprises during camp. Certainly many are driven by the competition that the coaching staff has created. There are still roles and positions on depth charts to be filled. In some cases, those players are yet to be determined.
Here are seven players plus some notables to keep an eye on this month during training camp. Some of them, perhaps all, may wind up performing integral roles once the regular season commences.
Other Players to Watch
Veteran linebacker Parys Haralson wants playing time.
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There are a number of 49ers on the fringe of making the final roster, let alone having a starting job. Some of them may be guaranteed a roster spot even if they only serve as backups. Others may be in jeopardy of missing out on the final cut.
Linebacker Parys Haralson is one such player.
Haralson, who took a pay cut during the offseason, is an aging veteran who has seen his role diminish ever since the emergence of the young and talented Aldon Smith.
In Smith's rookie year back in 2011, Haralson primarily handled the coverage responsibilities at the position while Smith was inserted primarily as a pass rusher. Yet in 2012, an injury forced him to miss the entire season, leaving the job entirely in the hands of Smith.
At 29, Haralson still has plenty of years left in him but can he compete with the slough of young pass rushers that San Francisco now employs? Fortunately for him, Haralson is a veteran and the 49ers are well aware of what he can do on the field. While they have confidence in their younger players, Haralson may wind up being a go-to guy in certain situations.
Furthermore, Haralson is set to be a free agent after the season so he will undoubtedly be playing for a big contract.
While that contract may not come with San Francisco next year, the preparations will start now. Haralson will be working towards that goal and his efforts may show very soon.
Running back Anthony Dixon is another player to keep an eye on during training camp.
Dixon is one of those backs who seems to be on the cusp of making the team each year. Like Haralson, Dixon will be a free agent after 2013 and has a lot to prove if he hopes to sign with someone next year. His services are best felt as a short-down back or as a lead-blocking fullback. Yet as the 49ers have begun to shift away from traditional I-formations on offense, electing to utilize more of the pistol and read-option formations, the fullback position has become less critical.
Yet Dixon's services may still be necessary.
Jewel Hampton figures to be the primary competition for Dixon at the position. Both have similar body size, although Dixon is slightly heavier. Again, competition here is key and the incumbent Dixon may have the edge on Hampton in the long-run.
Dixon will have to prove that however.
Linebacker Cam Johnson also has a possibility of making the 53-man roster.
Johnson only played in two games last season, yet the second-year veteran has a chance of a much larger role in 2013. As an outside linebacker, Johnson will probably not offset either Smith or Ahmad Brooks any time soon. Yet he could be in open competition with both Haralson and rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier.
Like both Dixon and Haralson, Johnson will also be a free agent following the season. While the 49ers may have little interest in a new contract, Johnson should be determined to find a long-term job somewhere. That would provide motivation enough to insert himself onto the final roster even if it is only as a backup or a member of the special teams unit.
#7: Ian Williams - Defensive Tackle
Ian Williams may start at nose tackle.
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Defensive tackles do not typically warrant the same attention given to other members of the 49ers' defense.
They especially seem less important as San Francisco has utilized more of its nickel and dime packages negating the need for a top-tier nose tackle. Just ask Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois.
Yet defensive tackle Ian Williams may beg to differ.
Signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2011, Williams has struggled to get onto the field over his first two seasons, playing in a total of four games during that span. Yet Williams is poised to make his presence known on the field even if his role is limited by the defensive schemes San Francisco is currently using.
Following the free agent departures of both Sopoaga and Jean-Francois, Williams initially appeared to be the heir-apparent at the position. Yet the 49ers went out and signed former Kansas City defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey to a two-year, $6 million contract during the offseason. The 2008 first-round draft pick Dorsey never amounted to much with the Chiefs and has a chance to reinvigorate his career in San Francisco.
Williams stands in the way however.
There are a number of key attributes that Williams has over Dorsey. At 305 pounds, Williams is slightly heavier than Dorsey and he stands one inch taller. In addition, the 49ers coaching staff knows that Dorsey never lived up to expectations in Kansas City. Sure, the situation for Dorsey there was not all that good, yet Dorsey will continue to play with the reputation of being an underachiever thus far.
Williams is also still blossoming at age 23 and coaches should still be excited to see what he can bring. At 27, Dorsey has probably already shown the extent of what he can do.
In Williams' case, the sky is still the limit. While never having the chance to beat out veterans Sopoaga and Jean-Francois in years prior, Williams now has the best shot as ever before to legitimize his role with the team.
Clark Judge of CBS Sports agrees and feels that Williams is the most logical choice for the 49ers to fill the void left by Sopoaga and Jean-Francois.
All of these factors point to the situational battle going Williams' way. He appears to be a better long-term option for San Francisco and has the physical attributes to back it up.
Training camp will give him the opportunity to put all of it together.
#6: Nnamdi Asomugha - Cornerback
Nnamdi Asomugha hopes for a rebirth in San Francisco.
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There was a time when cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Those times were when Asomugha was a member of the Oakland Raiders, a team that he spent the first eight years of his career with. Then Asomugha became a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and his career flopped, putting it mildly.
After those two forgettable years in Philadelphia, Asomugha signed a one-year, $1.775 million contract with the 49ers. The contract included zero in guaranteed money meaning San Francisco engaged in a low-risk, high-reward with the 32-year-old corner.
There are little doubts surrounding the nature of San Francisco's secondary. It struggled last season, especially in the playoffs. Then the 49ers lost Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to free agency. Fellow corners Chris Culliver and Carlos Rogers both underachieved, most notably during the postseason, and it was evident that the team needed help.
Why not take a gamble on Asomugha?
In fact, it should be a win-win scenario for both parties involved. Asomugha gets a chance to show that he still has what it takes to be a top cornerback at the NFL level. He leaves a volatile situation in Philadelphia and should benefit from returning to Northern California. For the 49ers, they can still rely on their other corners while examining what Asomugha can do for them on defense. It also comes at minimum cost and if Asomugha does not work out, they can simply cut him without a significant cap hit.
Furthermore, Asomugha will return to a press-based defense like he enjoyed with Oakland.
Before OTAs, the jury may still have been out on Asomugha. After all, how much can a 32-year-old corner give the team, especially coming off such a disappointing tenure in Philadelphia?
However Asomugha performed well during OTAs and earned the respect of his teammates and coaches. He stated:
The locker room is great it’s a really good group of guys. They told me before I got here that was the case, but you never know what you’re going to walk into. These have been some great teammates, some hard-working guys so it’s been really good. Right now I’m just competing. I want to come out here and do my best and help the team out as much as I can. (via 49ers.com)
Asomugha makes this list based on what he was before and what the 49ers may be able to get out of him. While he may not be as exciting to watch as some of the younger rookies that are vying for depth position, Asomugha still generates a buzz around the NFL.
NFL.com writer Adam Schein listed Asomugha as the fourth-overall most fascinating player to watch in 2013. Schein elaborated on this decision by saying:
This offseason, Asomugha signed with arguably the most talented team in the NFL, to play on arguably the most talented defense in the NFL. Plus, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has a way of bringing out the best in players. Asomugha escaped Philly after being the poster child for disaster, returned to the Bay Area and just got married. I am fascinated to see which Nnamdi we get this year. (via 49ers.com)
If training camp and the preseason are any indicators to how the regular season unfolds, Schein's prediction and statement certainly warrant 49er fans paying attention to what Asomugha does over the next few weeks.
Hopefully, Asomugha returns to the style of play he enjoyed during his Raider tenure. Granted, he is 32, but there are certainly signs that he can resurrect his career in San Francisco.
For that reason alone, he is worth watching.
#5: Tarell Brown - Cornerback
Tarell Brown enters a contract year in 2013.
Tyler Kaufman-USA TODAY Sports
After spending the majority of his first four seasons with the 49ers on the sidelines, cornerback Tarell Brown finally came into his own in 2011.
While much of the recent news surrounding the 49ers and their corners has focused on players like Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver and the newly arrived Nnamdi Asomugha, Brown has quietly emerged as a solid veteran in San Francisco's backfield.
Sure, he may not be considered "elite" by any stretch of the word, not having been selected to a Pro Bowl over his six-year career, but Brown is reliable and reaching a point of his career where many corners hit their prime.
He is also entering the final year of a five-year, $8.135 million contract.
His contract year aside, Brown has consistently played behind the shadows of Rogers, Culliver, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Now Brown has the addition of Asomugha to compete with.
Despite not receiving the recognition that some of the other 49ers defensive backs have received, Brown has possibly emerged as the best cornerback on the roster.
In 2011 during the 49ers' first nine games, quarterbacks had a 117.8 rating when throwing against Brown. Their rating in San Francisco's final nine games, a stretch that included the postseason: 19.3 (sfgate.com) Brown enjoyed similar success in 2012 and hopes to replicate that moving forward.
Being overshadowed has also not thwarted Brown's prospects for a successful season. "When you have two Pro Bowl players that you're playing with a lot of times you get forgotten about," Brown said via SF Gate. "But my game will speak for itself."
Now Brown will head towards 2013 trying to be even better. Certainly the thoughts of a contract year and possible extension weigh on his mind, yet focusing on making things happen on the field are at the forefront.
In a recent interview published by 49ers columnist Taylor Price, Brown stated:
There are always doubters and people who are naysayers about what you do and what you don’t do. I really don’t focus on that. The biggest thing for me is to focus on the 49ers in a positive way and represent myself in a positive way and represent my last name. That’s something that’s always been important to me and it’s something I live by. (via 49ers.com)
With a bolstered secondary, Brown will have that opportunity to showcase his talents and prove that he belongs atop the depth charts. Currently CBS Sports has him as the starting right cornerback on San Francisco's depth chart.
Brown has plenty of reasons to be motivated. There is the addition of Asomugha as well as the existing competition against Culliver and Rogers. There is the contract year and possible extension. Most importantly however, there is the thought of Brown helping San Francisco get back to the Super Bowl.
Everybody has to bump their level of play by 10 percent. I think if everybody bumps their level of play, minus the mental errors, the sky is the limit for this secondary and for this team and this defense as well. (via 49ers.com)
That opportunity will come during training camp. While much of the focus on the 49ers' secondary will be directed to Asomugha, Rogers and the recently drafted safety Eric Reid, Brown cannot be overlooked. He will certainly continue to showcase his abilities and talents.
If he is able to do so and live up to the promise of increased performance and capability, Brown will finally set himself apart from the shadows that have followed him over his career.
#4: Ricardo Lockette - Wide Receiver
Ricardo Lockette (right) could be a receiving "wild card."
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Much like most of the players on this list, wide receiver Ricardo Lockette has something to prove in a 49ers uniform.
He also has a tremendous opportunity to seize the moment.
At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, Lockette has all the physical attributes of a dominant wide receiver. Lockette is also very fast to put things mildly. He looks the part, yet the question is whether or not he can act it.
His career attributes include a mere two receptions playing in two games, both of which came during his rookie season in 2011 with the Seattle Seahawks (pro-football-reference.com). While he did record a touchdown on one of those receptions which went for 61 yards, there has been nothing else.
After one year in Seattle, Lockette signed with the 49ers in 2012 yet spent the entire season on the practice squad.
Yet plenty of focus has been given to Lockette this offseason. Putting his physical attributes aside for a moment, Lockette has been presented with an opportunity to earn his way onto the 49ers' depth chart.
The situation at the position is one that opens the door for Lockette. Michael Crabtree's injury to his Achilles tendon shakes up the depth chart. Sure there is Anquan Boldin who moves into the number one slot, but aside from that, the 49ers do not have anyone who fits the bill as a number two receiver. Instead, there are bunch of guys who are best suited as a number three or four.
Could it be the recently drafted Quinton Patton? Perhaps, but he still needs to learn the playbook. Will A.J. Jenkins rebound from his disastrous rookie year last season? It is likely and Jenkins is worth examining closer. What about veterans Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, each of whom suffered ACL injuries last year? They should return in 2013 but it is anyone's guess regarding how effective they will be.
Thus, Lockette is on the doorstep and eager to make something happen.
Reexamining his physical attributes, one cannot ignore Lockette's best strength: his speed. During the 2011 combine, Lockette ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash. That is not only fast, but rather blazing fast. Put that alongside the current roster of 49er wide receivers and it is not too hard to disseminate that San Francisco needs a speed guy on offense. Lockette could be their man.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee describes just how Lockette could impact San Francisco's offense. He writes:
Lockette's track speed would provide a nice one-two punch with Boldin and would force defenses to keep a safety deep like they did last season when Randy Moss was on the field. That, in turn, would benefit Frank Gore and every other offensive player. The mystery with Lockette is, well, why he's still a mystery. Is he a late bloomer or a perennial underachiever? After all, he's never received the opportunity he's getting now. (sacbee.com)
Barrows brings up a good question: why has Lockette not emerged as a top receiver in the NFL?
Perhaps he has not enjoyed a situation that warrants him being higher on the depth charts. At least not yet. With Crabtree out, Lockette could step up and at least fill a void that San Francisco needs.
For starters, Lockette and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have both lived and worked out together. There is some chemistry there to say the least.
Mike Florio of NBC Sports says the relationship gives Lockette an unfair advantage over the rest of the 49ers receivers and that their dynamic can only help the tandem develop on the field.
Lockette described the interaction by saying:
The first time we met was at the NFL [Scouting] Combine, and I was like, "Man, you can throw." Then [Kaepernick] was like, "Man, you are fast.’” When I texted him last year and told him I was on my way to San Fran, he got really excited. When we saw each other we had this big hug like we grew up with each other. (via nbcsports.com)
Even the 49ers coaching staff has noticed the progression.
Reported by CSN Bay Area 49er insider Matt Maiocco, head coach Jim Harbaugh is excited about what Lockette can bring to San Francisco's offense. About Lockette, Harbaugh stated:
I'm really looking forward to Ricardo Lockette's progress. I can't wait to see what he does. A real inflection point for him is coming. I'm sure there's things I can specifically name, but there's just something about him that I'm really fired up about. He's got something else to him, too, besides just the analytical size, strength, speed. There's something special there. I just feel it. (via csnbayarea.com)
Now, Lockette has to put his chemistry with Kaepernick as well as the praise from Harbaugh into practice. Thankfully, training camp will do that and enable the young receiver in a way that should hopefully set him apart from many of the other receivers on the roster.
While his talent may still be raw, Lockette is still developing. If he can continue to develop, there is little reason to see Lockette not emerge as one of the better stories before the regular season. He may not be the most intriguing story this training camp, but he will certainly be big on the radar.
#3: Vance McDonald - Tight End
Vance McDonald has made strides as the team's second tight end.
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Goodbye Delanie Walker. Hello Vance McDonald.
And then some.
Like the 49ers' first-round selection of the 2013 draft Eric Reid, McDonald's drafting is clearly understood by even the most casual observer. San Francisco had a specific need at each position and they were able to supplement the need through the draft with the hopes that each player would provide near-to-immediate impact at their respective positions. The 49ers also moved up in the draft to select each player.
In McDonald's case, his draft was mandated by Walker's departure this offseason via free agency.
Walker, who had been heralded as the team's "Swiss Army Knife," was a difficult hole to plug. Fortunately, McDonald was the closest thing to Walker in this year's draft and the 49ers made no mistakes by drafting him in the second round.
Like Walker, McDonald is capable of lining up all over the field. He can handle transitional tight end formations as well as lining up on the outside. Simply stated, San Francisco is looking for a clone of Walker, only one who can perform better and be a more reliable pass-catcher.
McDonald should be able to fit the void nicely.
While fellow tight end Vernon Davis is the no-brainer position leader, McDonald will have a chance to immediately impact San Francisco's offense. The 49ers love utilizing multiple-tight end formations and McDonald's 6-foot-4, 267 pound stature will provide matchup problems all over the field. If he succeeds in this role, plays should open up for Davis and the remainder of the 49ers receivers.
That is unquestionably a good thing.
I recently wrote an article summarizing just how McDonald would impact San Francisco's offense in 2013. He was impressive during the team's OTAs and was one of several players that highlighted the 49ers' offensive practices.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area stated that McDonald was the most impressive rookie during the OTA period.
During the OTAs, McDonald was heralded for pulling in tough catches and showcasing his agility. His large frame and reliability helped him become one of the favorite targets thus far.
I also stated in the same article that McDonald's biggest challenge to his rookie season would be his blocking. Part of a tight end's asset is his ability to block, either in the pass or run-block, and McDonald will be no exception.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee elaborates on this further by writing:
The next big step for McDonald is blocking, which the 49ers could not practice during the spring sessions when contact is forbidden. How often McDonald sees the field - and how many passes go his way - will depend on how well he can block. (sacbee.com)
McDonald did not have the chance to showcase this during OTAs where contact is prohibited. Instead, he will have to wait until training camp for that to take place. Fortunately, San Francisco's coaching staff will have the opportunity to see what skill sets he has and make their adjustments. Both Davis and Walker were not the best blockers coming out of college, yet coaching was able to turn both of them into excellent blockers.
McDonald's fate may rely on that as well.
If he is able to perform as a top-tier blocking tight end, or at least show improvements to this aspect, then McDonald should have no problem getting onto the field as one of the 49ers' key play-makers. He has already demonstrated his pass-catching abilities and should be viable target.
In addition, McDonald's stock is improved by the fact that Davis has been spending time with the 49ers wide receivers and may see more playing time there, allowing McDonald to have more opportunity at the position.
Robert Carter of Golden Gate Sports predicts that McDonald will be the most impactful rookie on offense in 2013. While that statement is hard to argue with, his playing time shall be directly influenced on how he meshes all the elements of his game.
However the position works out, McDonald will be a sight to see this summer. Fans will unquestionably want to see what the young rookie does during his debut season and they will be closely monitoring his progress and impact.
Much of San Francisco's offensive questions surround the wide receiver situation. Fortunately, McDonald helps alleviate some of the concerns.
While he may not be the top story during training camp, McDonald will certainly draw attention and is a safe bet to be the third most impressive story over the next few weeks.
#2: A.J. Jenkins - Wide Receiver
Will A.J. Jenkins step up in 2013?
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Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins would probably like to forget his 2012 campaign.
Or perhaps he would like to learn from it.
Drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 2012 draft, the former Illinois receiver was intended to bolster an aging, and then depleted, San Francisco receiving corps. That never happened, and Jenkins spent the majority of his rookie season on the sidelines playing in only three games over the course of the year including the playoffs.
During that time, Jenkins recorded zero catches and was only targeted once.
Those are not the types of numbers any team would expect, let alone hope for, out of a first-round draft pick.
Heading towards the start of 2013, Jenkins' situation became even more precarious. There was of course the trading for Anquan Boldin which bolstered the position. There will be the eventual returns of injured receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. San Francisco also drafted former Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round.
Heading into OTAs, Jenkins seemed to be a long-shot to make it towards the top of the depth chart. Yet when incumbent starter Michael Crabtree suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon that threatened his entire 2013 season, Jenkins was presented with a tremendous opportunity.
All he has to do is seize it.
Fortunately, Jenkins appeared to embrace the fact that his rookie year was something to build upon. Instead of complaining about and deflecting the negative press directed towards him, Jenkins spent much of the offseason getting into better shape and adding muscle to his frame.
Sacramento Bee 49ers columnist Matt Barrows highlights some of Jenkins' offseason work and points out how it shall translate over to the upcoming season. He writes:
Jenkins spent the offseason working on his biggest weakness in 2012: his strength. It was hard to tell whether he made strides during the non-contact practices in the spring, but Jenkins is noticeably more confidant than he was a year ago when he seemed to end up on the ground on every third play. Training camp, and especially the preseason, will be the true test for Jenkins, who must prove he can operate in spaces far tighter and more violent than those he experienced at Illinois. (sacbee.com)
While Jenkins still remains in open competition with Patton and other members of San Francisco's receiving corps, he does have the advantage of experiencing one year at the NFL level even if his impact was nonexistent. Furthermore, the fact that he was a first-round pick means that the 49ers will be more patient with his development, something a lower drafted receiver might not benefit from.
Jenkins is also signed through 2015, so the team is adamant about getting something out of their investment.
Fortunately, San Francisco is already seeing the signs of an excellent player in the making. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has repeatedly touted Jenkins' improvements despite the early criticism following Jenkins' rookie year. In a recent interview posted by Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Harbaugh stated:
[I] Thought A.J. had his best week of football since he’s been a 49er the last four days of OTAs, which was the last week of OTAs, and he continues to build on that. I think anybody that’s gone from year one to year two, there’s a great window of opportunity to improve in a fashion that you’ll never have again in your career. You’re going from doing things for the first time to everything you, do you’ve already done it. Big strides can be made that way. (via pressdemocrat.com)
Even Jenkins is recognizing the results of his efforts. He described the process by saying:
You’ve got to just tune everybody else out. You’ve got to just go into the season and just think about your job. Media comes with everything, being a first-round draft pick, they all want to put this label on you, call you all kinds of things, but you’ve got to just be focused and not worry about it. I’ve got to keep doing what I’ve been doing and be more consistent. I just pretty much had my head in the playbook last week a lot, and I knew what I had to do and I played fast. (via pressdemocrat.com)
As such, Jenkins may have that opportunity to emerge as the second wide receiver behind Boldin. His work has been in stark contrast to the efforts he put forth a year ago and it should pay dividends. OTAs were impressive enough and Jenkins has the opportunity to showcase his improvements during training camp where he will experience contact and a higher level of play.
Hopefully he thrives in this role.
Trevor Woods of Niners Nations thinks he will. He writes:
I would still expect big improvements, and for A.J. to be a contributor. Colin Kaepernick believes Jenkins is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year, and Jim Harbaugh thought that A.J. had his best play as a 49er during minicamp. Greg Roman also saw some of the strides made by Jenkins, stating he made clutch catches during two-minute drill situations in practices. Even Donte Whitner tweeted about Jenkins when a fan asked which young Niners receiver had impressed him the most. (ninersnation.com)
The coaching staff and fellow players are singing Jenkins' praises. That is a only a good sign moving forward. In addition, it appears that Jenkins has embraced what happened last year and is striving to build upon it. Of course, he will have to put the praise and commendation to work over the next few weeks but training camp shall provide that opportunity.
The hopeful "night-and-day" difference between Jenkins this year versus last may be the highlight of this upcoming preseason and warrants a selection as the second most critical player to watch during training camp.
Given the significance of San Francisco's situation at the position, the team would like nothing more than to see Jenkins thrive in 2013.
#1: Eric Reid - Safety
Will Eric Reid live up to his first-round draft status?
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There is an unquestionable amount of pressure put on any prospect drafted in the first round.
Such is the case with rookie safety and 2013 first-round draft pick Eric Reid.
Reid's journey to the 49ers is well known. Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson left San Francisco via free agency to sign a lucrative contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Fellow safety Donte Whitner could be gone after the 2013 season as he is set to become a free agent.
San Francisco needed a safety. They drafted Reid in the first round.
Enough said perhaps. Or perhaps not.
As an insurance policy and also as direct competition for whoever San Francisco drafted at the position, the 49ers signed former Rams safety Craig Dahl before the draft. As it turned out, Dahl provided the immediate competition for Reid during OTAs.
Initially, it seemed that Dahl was getting the upper hand on the position battles while Reid was struggling to keep up.
That makes sense of course. Dahl is a five-year veteran who has played all of his career in the NFC West. He has seen the 49ers and knows what they can do on both sides of the ball. Reid is still learning and trying to make the necessary adjustments.
Even Reid acknowledged the difficulty. During OTAs, Reid stated:
They help immensely because they've seen it all. There's not too many things from a safety standpoint that they haven't seen. Any question that I have, they can answer right there on the spot. That's good for me. Like I keep saying, I'm just trying to be a sponge. I want to know as much as I can because that will help me play the game. (via 49ers.com)
Reid spent most of OTAs behind Dahl as the second-team free safety but made every effort to learn from the veteran as well as his fellow teammates.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also felt that Reid is taking those steps and knows what he needs to do in order to emerge as the type of safety San Francisco wanted when they drafted him. He said:
The first step in a rookie's got to learn what to do to where he can actually tell you what he's supposed to do. And then he's got to be able to show you he knows how to do it. And then he's got to be able to make the adjustments on the run that come within those different assignments and techniques. (via ninersnation.com)
What this means is pretty simple. Reid has the potential to become a top-tier safety in the NFL. However he still has to translate his raw skills over to the professional level. This of course will take time, but fortunately Reid is using that time to his advantage.
Dahl will still stand in his way, forcing the competition that San Francisco's coaching staff loves. Of course, Dahl may still wind up being in the 49ers' long-term plans and could potentially switch to starting strong safety if Whitner departs after 2013.
In the meantime, Reid has the possibility of becoming the viable replacement for Goldson. He hits just as hard and could probably even be better in coverage.
Garrick Chan of Golden Gate Sports elaborates by saying:
For starters, Reid possesses the physical tools to play man and defend deep coverage. That being said, Reid, likely any other rookie, will have a steep learning curve. Nonetheless, his developed physical strength, speed, and intelligence are still his best assets. A lot of young safeties in the league possess some but not all the necessary skills. Some can run toe-to-toe with any receiver but cannot tackle, and others have all the strength to tackle but no speed to get anywhere near the receiver. Reid has a great balance of size and speed. (goldengatesports.com)
He will have to prove that however. Fortunately, training camp shall provide the necessary grounds to showcase what he has learned and adjusted to thus far. The 49ers would love to see their first-round draft pick step up into that role as quickly as possible, similar to how Hall of Fame corner and safety Ronnie Lott did in 1981.
The fact that Reid is this year's first-round draft choice means that there are plenty of expectations the team has upon the young rookie. If he embraces them and then produces, his performance during the preseason should be more important than arguably anyone else on the 49ers' roster.
The 49ers training camp may be that moment where the team gets to see this year's first-rounder shine.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.