4 Areas San Francisco 49ers Must Address in Training Camp

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2013

4 Areas San Francisco 49ers Must Address in Training Camp

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    Like every other upper-echelon team in the National Football League, the San Francisco 49ers have questionable areas that they must rectify in training camp. 

    Whether it is finding a receiver to complement Anquan Boldin until Michael Crabtree returns or what has become a tangled mess in the secondary; San Francisco needs to find answers to a few questions over the next six weeks or so. 

    Here, we focus on four areas that head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. will be looking to shore up during the latter part of the summer months. 

    At the very least, these are areas that remain unsettled at this early point in the evaluation process. 

     

    All contract information provided by Spotrac.com.

     

     

Eric Reid and Donte Whitner at Safety

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    San Francisco was smart not to overpay for the services of safety Dashon Goldson, who signed a large five-year, $41.2 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. 

    It was also smart to target multiple veteran free agents as cheaper alternatives to Goldson. 

    That being said, the addition of Craig Dahl was nothing more than a front for what general manager Trent Baalke and Co. had planned for the draft. 

    San Francisco went out and traded up with the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the draft to bring on former Louisiana State standout Eric Reid as a replacement for Goldson. 

    The idea there was to find a cheaper, younger alternative to the Pro Bowl safety. 

    It wasn't without a drawback, however. While extremely talented and athletic, Reid leaves a lot to be desired in coverage at free safety, as an NFL.com report noted prior to the April draft: 

    Gets overaggressive at times; will jump on short crossers, opening up the back half of the field, and overrun stretch plays to allow cutback lanes. Not a consistently powerful tackler, and will lunge and miss in the open field as he often fails to break down quickly. Recovery speed will be questioned, might be tough for him to catch NFL receivers if he takes a false step or in the aid of a teammate. 

    That has to be disconcerting considering that starting strong safety Donte Whitner is a liability in coverage. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Whitner ranked 68th among all safeties in pass coverage last season. 

    The combination of a rookie in Reid and a lackluster cover guy in Whitner can't be too appealing for the defending conference champions. 

    Like most teams who utilize a 3-4 defensive scheme, San Francisco relies heavily on pressure from its front seven. If the Smith "brothers" and others along that area of the defense can get consistent pressure; those coverage deficiencies can be masked. 

    This has to be what the brass in San Francisco is banking on. 

     

     

Depth at Wide Receiver

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    When San Francisco acquired Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens shortly prior to the start of free agency, it was concluded that he would team up with Michael Crabtree to form the best starting receiver group the franchise has had since the 1990s. 

    A few short weeks later, Crabtree went down with an Achilles injury. 

    At that point, it seemed San Francisco would be without its breakout star for the 2013 season. While things might have changed since, Crabtree is out of the equation for at least the first half of the regular season, according to CBSSports. 

    In addition, it seems that veteran slot guy Mario Manningham hasn't fully recovered from his own knee injury and may not return in time for the start of the season. 

    That leaves the injury-plagued Kyle Williams and a bunch of unknown commodities as primary competitors to earn the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Boldin.  

    Can 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins step into a prominent role? Will under-the-radar 2013 fourth-round pick Quinton Patton step up? What about the talented Ricardo Lockette? 

    One of these players will have to show he can produce at a high level in order for San Francisco's pass offense to pick up where it left off last season under young phenom Colin Kaepernick. 

    It is, however, important to note that San Francisco runs the least amount of three-wide receiver sets in the entire league. This makes the necessity of finding a consistent third receiver much less important than conventional wisdom would seem to indicate. 

    If need be, rookie tight end Vance McDonald could be utilized in a slot role. The primary need here is to find a No. 2 opposite Boldin. 

    There is some encouraging news as it relates to San Francisco's wide receiver situation. 

    According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, head coach Jim Harbaugh is feeling good about the progression of San Francisco's young receivers: 

    I feel like they're making a lot of progress... I feel good about where that stands right now. Continued competition will continue to be good for our team and those youngsters.

    Maiocco went on to say exactly who is in competition for the starting gig opposite Boldin: 

    A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette will line up at split end to compete for Crabtree's starting job. 

    For his part, Jenkins has been mighty impressive this offseason, having bulked up a great deal from his rookie campaign. 

    Patton was one of my favorite receiving prospects leading up to the 2013 NFL draft. 

    Despite receiving high praises from the scouting community, Patton is still a relative unknown as a rookie. His learning curve might also be extensive coming from a small school such as Louisiana Tech. 

    Short of acquiring a veteran to fill in for Crabtree, one of these youngsters will have to step up and produce on a consistent basis in order for San Francisco's offense to take off. 

     

Vance McDonald at Tight End

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    Say what you want about Delanie Walker's case of the drops last season, he was a jack-of-all-trades for San Francisco during a solid seven-year career with the club. 

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Walker ranked second among all tight ends in run-blocking this past season. 

    It can't be a coincidence that San Francisco possessed the fourth-best rush offense in the NFL in 2012, via NFL.com. 

    Much like what San Francisco did at other key positions, the Niners looked at the draft as a tool to replace Walker; who signed a four-year, $17.3 million contract with Tennessee.

    Vance McDonald might have flown under the radar during the draft season, but his talent is pretty evident. 

    The Rice product put up nearly 1,000 receiving yards in his final two collegiate seasons. That's one of the primary reasons San Francisco targeted him in the second round, as the  49ers were looking for a better-receiving tight end option than Walker. 

    While the 49ers might gain an extra weapon in the passing game, they're likely going to lose a key element of their rushing attack. 

    Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes said that McDonald has his shortcomings in the lead-up to the 2013 NFL draft: 

    He (McDonald) has very limited experience as an in-line blocker, however. With the jump in competition, notably the size and strength of his opponents, it could take some time for McDonald to be brought up to speed.

    As Lownes indicated, McDonald is a solid downfield blocker against defensive backs, but his struggles against larger defenders at the line might impact San Francisco's ability to run with a two-tight end formation—something it did a great deal during Walker's tenure with the team. 

Backup Situation at Running Back

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    No one in their right minds would argue that San Francisco's deep crop of running back represents a weakness.

    The issue that might pop up, however, is that those youngsters behind Frank Gore might not be able to shoulder the load should the veteran regress or get injured. 

    The 30-year-old Pro Bowl performer is hitting that point in his career where most running backs tend to slow down. 

    San Francisco has acknowledged this inevitability by exhausting a draft pick at running back in each of their last five drafts, most recently picking up Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round in April. 

    Lattimore will likely be Gore's long-term replacement in the backfield, but he won't make much of an impact as a rookie due to the devastating injury he suffered last year in which he damaged his ACL, MCL and PCL in his right knee

    Speaking of injuries, third-year running back Kendall Hunter missed the final five games of the 2012 season after suffering a torn Achilles against the New Orleans Saints in November. 

    Questions previously arose about Hunter's ability to shoulder the load should something happen to Gore. At 5'7" and 199 pounds, the Oklahoma State product isn't necessarily the biggest running back in the NFL. 

    However, we shouldn't be too concerned over that. Hunter is nearly the same size as Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and possesses the same running style. If healthy, Hunter will do just fine. 

    On the other hand, LaMichael James is pretty much your typical change-of-pace running back. He will be a major tool for the 49ers, especially in their read-option attack. However, James can't be relied on to touch the ball 25 times per game throughout the course of a 16-game schedule.  

    San Francisco's rushing attack could be a cause for alarm if Gore isn't as productive as we have seen in previous season. 

    Looking at it with a positive perspective, if one of San Francisco's four question marks is at running back, it's in a darn good situation to have right now. 

     

    Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report .

    Vincent is the  head sports editor at eDraft , co-host of Draft Sports Radio which airs on Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p .m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.