San Francisco 49ers: Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent IJuly 25, 2013

San Francisco 49ers: Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp

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    The San Francisco 49ers have more household names than your average NFL franchise, which helps keep them in contention, but it also dilutes the intrigue a lot of teams have in training camp.

    Having so little room on this roster limits the emergence of new contributors on an annual basis, which can make it a snooze fest for fans. In Santa Clara, Calif. many of the camp battles will prove to be nothing more than an exercise in futility.

    However, in the third season under the new regime, there are several unknowns in a unique position to create roles for themselves on this team. And since the ‘Niners are experiencing a minute degree of changeover, this has created windows of opportunity for new and returning players.

    Not only will these challengers have shot to make the team, but they may have a profound affect on the finished product in 2013.

    Here is the criteria outlining the following players as high-ranking sleepers:

    1. First and foremost, the physical/mental readiness and overall potential to contribute during the regular season in 2013 is key.
    2. We will also factor in the lack of hype, attention or negative perception that may be keeping them under the radar at the moment.
    3. All players are eligible for this list; including all drafted rookies, veterans and UDFAs.
    4. Proceed through the following slides for a countdown to No. 1, and feel free to provide your own list in the comment section below. 

    All stats provided by Pro Football and Sports Reference, unless specified otherwise. NFL contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.

5. Ricardo Lockette, WR

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    Having a big, fast receiver like Ricardo Lockette in camp, while almost everyone else on the roster is 6’0” or shorter, has made it so fans don’t want to see him go. One of his fans happens to be head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is fervently anticipating the receiver’s training camp exhibition, following extensive one-on-one training with star quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    “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,” said Harbaugh, per Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. While the head coach is a known advocate of positive reinforcement, his words on this particular third-year UDFA are not, by any means, out of left field.

    The 49ers need players to step up at WR, and Harbaugh is eager because he understands the upside if Lockette pans out. 

    A 200-meter champion from Fort Valley State, Lockette can fly, having clocked a low 4.26 prior to the draft, via NFL Draft Scout. He went on to prove in a very short period of time that he is a threat to get behind the defense and kill teams deep—an element that San Francisco’s offense lacks at the moment.

    In two NFL games played with the Seattle Seahawks (no starts), Lockette recorded two career catches: One for 44 yards versus the 49ers and one for 61 yards and a score versus the Cardinals (52.5 YPC). If you were to skim through his college highlights, you'd notice all he did for the Wildcats is take teams deep.

    If San Francisco’s tallest, fastest wideout can evolve this offseason, not only will he make this team, but it might be raining nine-routes in the Bay Area. The 49ers have no other outside receivers like him, which will give Lockette a legitimate opportunity to stake his claim on offense.

    Moreover, it is hard to argue that Kaepernick’s booming arm and penchant for looking down the field does not make this a provocative pairing. Building in the post-Alex Smith era, Coach Harbaugh and his staff may realize that there is now room for a deep threat on this team.

    As he readies himself to fight for a spot in 2013, the blazing speed, towering height and overall complementary nature of his game will be Lockette’s ace in the hole. Dare we suggest that the new-look 49ers add yet another wrinkle to their offense this season? We shall see.

4. Corey Lemonier, OLB

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    The 49ers traded up three times in the 2013 draft to select targeted players—guys they typically refer to as “gold helmet” prospects. Of the two defenders they chose, one was first-round safety Eric Reid of LSU, and the other was defensive end Corey Lemonier of Auburn. 

    Once San Fran handed in the draft card, NFL analyst Mike Mayock offered his two cents, saying, “It fits what they do. Kind of somewhat of a conflicted pick in the sense that his talent would be a late-first to late-second round.”

    In Round 3, GM Trent Baalke unearthed a potential gem, adding another mercurial component to this terrorizing defensive front. At 6’3”, 255 pounds, Lemonier is a lengthy pass-rush extraordinaire with a strong build and a very good motor. And for as long and quick as he is, this is a player that still destroys blocks and consistently hustles to the football.

    Despite the Tigers’ dwindling record and his lack of a noteworthy final season, the tape shows a guy that is almost always in the opponents' backfield. While he is broad enough to set the edge, he has no problem beating congestion and getting up field. In 32 games over three seasons, Lemonier accrued 24 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and seven forced fumbles.

    At the college level, he was a player that could twist inside and crash gaps with intensity, walloping quarterbacks and unsuspecting running backs. With his hand in the turf, Lemonier shows great explosion off the snap, flashing an inside spin move like the Tasmanian Devil.

    With all his intrinsic pass-rush ability, he has a very good shot to get on the field early in his rookie campaign. However, at best, Lemonier is currently written in as the fourth outside linebacker on the depth chart, behind the two entrenched starters and veteran Parys Haralson.

    Prior to the start of training camp, CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco explained to me on Niner Talk Central that it is less of Lemonier versus Haralson, but rather that the rookie defender would be featured in San Francisco’s nickel packages:

    I think what Lemonier is going to do, is that his chance would be to get in there in the nickel situations to rush the passer. I think in the base scheme where the outside linebacker is standing up, that would favor Haralson. But certainly, Lemonier has an opportunity to work himself into the mix. It’s all about how he shows up once the pads go on.

    The one thing we know about him, and it’s interesting, I think when you look at what translates from college football to pro football: if you can rush the passer, you can rush the passer. And Corey Lemonier can rush the passer. And it doesn’t take long to find out if a guy in the NFL can get after the quarterback. Rarely do you see a guy who struggles for a few years coming out and then explodes onto the scene. Usually those pass-rushers show up from Day 1.

    He’s a guy that the 49ers like. They know he is a natural pass rusher and he’ll get an opportunity to get on the field and work into that rotation.

    Very similar to All-Pro LB Aldon Smith, who also converted from end, Lemonier will be able to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback in a situational role while learning the nuances of the standup linebacker position.

    With that said, it will be fierce having two natural defensive ends in Aldon Smith and Corey Lemonier on the edges, with Justin Smith and either Tank Carradine, Ian Williams or Glenn Dorsey inside this 49ers four-man front, which is designed to get after the passer.

    Between the players, the coaching staff and the environment, Lemonier can show the first-round potential Mayock talked about. Considering the starters in place, he won’t have an overwhelming amount of responsibility early on and can pull rank as the garbage man on defense.

    He will be a rested player, cleaning up and finishing plays. Oftentimes, it should be expected that other talented veteran players on defense will be funneling the play to his side. This will put Lemonier—who is more than physically capable—in an advantageous situation to make a play on the ball-carrier.

    In turn, this slow-moving, developmental approach will give him the contact courage and experience he needs going forward.

3. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB

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    Considering that in two years with the Philadelphia Eagles, opposing quarterbacks had a 107.3 rating when targeting cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a lot of the pundits have sort of swept this former All-Pro under the rug.

    Unfortunately, many chalked the regression up to the CB being in his 30s, insinuating that he lost a step. Others have said the Asomugha was overrated to begin with. However, if you ever had an opportunity to watch him in Oakland, you might find it hard to buy into either of these myopic theories.

    Yes, players do tend to slow up once they’ve crossed the 30-year mark (depending on position). But in Asomugha’s case, his fall from grace in Philadelphia was so steep that it had to be related to the defensive system and environment. Moreover, if that is indeed what happened, there is a very real possibility he returns to form as quickly as he fell off.

    Remember, for a while, he and star cornerback Darrelle Revis were “the guys” in the NFL. Viewed as a premier player, Asomugha was one of the few true lockdown defenders in the league, which is what made him such a highly sought-after free agent in 2011, warranting a five-year, $60 million deal.

    The catch is, it was Asomugha’s ability to match up with a receiver and take him away that gave him such great value. Man-to-man coverage is his bread and butter, whereas complex zone schemes seem to elude him. For all intents and purposes, he does not have a feel for playing that type of defense.

    The Eagles crammed him into a leaky system, and that was that.

    After averaging over $11 million with Philly, Asomugha agreed to a base salary with the 49ers that is nearly one-10th of that ($1.35 million, including 425k in incentives). In a scenario where he must prove himself in San Francisco, he now has a chance to return to form in this man-heavy scheme.

    Upon the signing, Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson said the 49ers are as good a fit as Asomugha would have found, given the defensive system, which features a lot of 2-man coverage. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller agreed, reinforcing Monson’s point on the type of coverage, along with a pressuring front-seven, via Twitter.

    Finally, NFL players have intense training regimens, and there is little to no physical difference in Asomugha since he was a perennial Pro Bowler. He appears to be in tip-top shape entering camp, which gives the ‘Niners even more of an opportunity to gain a prototypical press coverage corner this season.

    If he takes to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system and makes the final 53-man roster, the 49ers can count on Asomugha to stick big receivers, run with them and remove them from the play. As a result of eliminating the outside receiver, he will upgrade the pass rush by allowing the D even more time to get after the passer.

    It works both ways, too. In all his years, Asomugha has never played on a team of this caliber—not one that possesses a pass-rush like the one San Francisco has. Led by All-Pros Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, quarterbacks under duress will be throwing up ducks that the corner will be in a position to make a play on.

    A front seven like this will make his comeback a whole lot easier.

2. LaMichael James, RB

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    The football gods had something special in mind when they decided LaMichael James would be a 49er in this resurgent new era. The “oohing” and “aahing” echoing through Autzen Stadium in Oregon must have been loud enough to reach the heavens, wherein the spirits of Bill Walsh and Bo Schembechler spoke to coach Jim Harbaugh in a dream, saying, “You have to get this guy.”

    Given the depth at the position, San Francisco’s pick was a bit of a bombshell, having selected James as early as No. 61 overall in 2012. On the other hand, not only was it a safe choice, but the 49ers might have added a franchise-caliber player with real potential to be a premier scoring threat in this league.

    Prior to declaring for the NFL draft, James rushed for over 1,500 yards in three straight seasons at Oregon, which included 58 career touchdowns and nearly 6,000 all-purpose yards. Twice a Heisman candidate, his yardage from 2009-2011 was good enough for 14th all-time in NCAA history (second in the Pac-12).

    This man is production incarnated.

    Now donning scarlet and gold, the second-year pro is entering his first full 16-game schedule in the NFL, where he projects to be a change-of-pace back and return specialist. In San Francisco’s innovative West Coast attack, James can evolve into a dominant offensive weapon, both rushing and receiving.

    Many have equated his ability to New Orleans Saints dynamo, Darren Sproles, who makes his living as a matchup nightmare. He can do it all in coach Sean Payton’s wide-open offense, which is conceivably the element the ‘Niners envisioned when they drafted James last year.

    The desire for that same offensive wrinkle led Harbaugh to James.

    Outside of the compact physique, the features they share that make them dangerous are speed, ankle-breaking change of direction and open-field instincts. For this reason, it is beneficial to mobilize them pre-snap, identify mismatches and find different ways to get them the ball in space. In 2013, the 49ers may upgrade their current offensive model by implementing that dynamic.

    In the WCO, which utilizes backs as outlets with potential to turn plays up field, James may stake his claim as a pass-catcher. With his ability to line up anywhere, this staff can design cunning ways to get him the ball with room to run, whether it is a form of a screen or a clearout by the receivers and tight ends.

    Also, with his top speed and acceleration, James will show his true value as a primary threat in the read-option.

    The rare explosiveness he has will shine through sooner rather than later, which may allow him to leapfrog third-year pro Kendall Hunter on the depth chart at some point. And even though Hunter will be the No. 2 on paper this season, there is a chance James winds up with more overall touches by season’s end.

    As an all-purpose weapon performing for an adoring fan base, it wont be long before the faithful crown him as King James.

1. Vance McDonald, TE

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    As a big hybrid player, rookie tight end Vance McDonald tops the list, bringing all sorts of intrigue to this new-look offense.

    From a physical standpoint, McDonald is perhaps the most impressive specimen to have emerged from the 2013 tight end class, looking like the total package right now. Outside of first-round lock Tyler Eifert, each tight end had their apparent flaws, which may have been an issue if the ‘Niners drafted one of them into their system.

    Fortunately, besides Eifert, McDonald looks like the most pro-ready rookie TE.

    Here are the facts:

    The 23-year-old receiving tight end is 6’4”, 267 pounds with a monstrous 34 3/8” wingspan. This gives him an exorbitant catch radius, and he already has a proclivity for making contested grabs. McDonald also has big mitts (10 1/8”), which helps him as a hands catcher, rather than relying on his body to secure the ball.

    On top of that, he can get airborne, having posted a 33 1/2” vertical, finishing just outside the top five at the combine.

    In that colossal frame, the versatile Rice product still ran a 4.69 40-time for scouts prior to the draft, according to Not only does this illustrate the development of the TE position, but also the evolution of man and the freakish athleticism that is ready-made for pro-level competition.

    Moreover, McDonald’s claim to fame entering the draft was the he measured as the single strongest tight end at the combine, throwing up 31 reps of 225 pounds. Stanford’s Zach Ertz finished second with 24, and there was a three-way tie for third with 22 reps, which was only two-thirds of what McDonald accomplished.

    He has a powerful upper body, and if he perfects his technique as a blocker from Vernon Davis and the coaching staff, he may develop into a top-10 caliber tight end. He is going to get involved right away, and the potential is there for him to make plays and be a difference-maker in this growing offense in San Francisco.

    Built like a boulder with limbs, McDonald is comparable to Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings or a shorter version of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. With his broad shoulders and ability to get vertical, he is a large target that will become problematic for defenses when it comes to matching up.

    Similar to LaMichael James, the 49ers rookie tight end is the type of player that a team could build an offense around, except he will be operating in an ancillary role. McDonald would have been projected as a starter had he been drafted to a team that did not have a veteran Pro Bowler already.

    In San Fran, McDonald will get favorable matchups against lesser competition, which should create opportunities for the offense this season. All things considered, he will change the way this offense looks, starting in 2013.

    Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' Lead Columnist for Bleacher Report. He also co-hosts the Niner Talk Central podcast for PFC. To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.