Bold Predictions for San Francisco 49ers Training Camp
- Each one of the following slides will explore something that, in theory, could happen in training camp.
- The bold predictions must go against the norm, superseding logic for argument’s sake.
- In a lot of ways, this will be like exploring an alternate universe, examining the “what ifs” at 49ers base camp in 2013.
San Francisco 49ers training camp is underway in Santa Clara, Calif., and it's never too early to speculate as to what changes may be happening this season. The 49ers have plenty of competition brewing to several different degrees—whether it is for a starting position, a featured backup role or just a spot on the roster.
No matter how close this team is to their ultimate goal, the 49ers are not afraid to explore roster modifications.
Oftentimes, the reason for change is to elicit results that otherwise would not occur had the team continued with their same old routine. The beauty of training camp is that it is a wide-open contest that welcomes evolution, as long as it is warranted by solid play on the football field.
If San Francisco is to see growth, they must be willing to be bold and make sacrifices for the betterment of the team. For instance, gambling on players like Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman have paid immense dividends, so the Niners must feel encouraged to roll the dice. This high-risk/high-reward philosophy has aided in the overall evolution of this ballclub.
Risky endeavors like that must be explored for the sake of forward progress.
With drastic changes potentially on the horizon, the following entails what is in a bold prediction:
Corey Lemonier Surpasses Parys Haralson at OLB
The 49ers are primed to debut a timeless training camp battle between a savvy veteran and a rookie with tantalizing upside. SF’s eight-year pro, Parys Haralson, and draftee, Corey Lemonier, will take center stage in this year’s showdown for the No. 3 outside linebacker position.
Right off the bat, the 49ers are enamored by Lemonier’s flair as a pass-rusher, which is the seminal factor in this battle. If the upside translates quickly, like it tends to do with natural pass-rushers, then he will be a bona fide threat to overtake Haralson for reps behind the starters.
It may not officially show on the depth chart, but the snaps on game day will be the telltale sign.
With these two players, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will have to weigh the benefits of being able to get after the quarterback versus having dependability in coverage and against the run. Haralson is a trusty starter-worthy outside backer, although he does not bring anything remarkable to the table.
There are no real extraordinary attributes to work with.
Meanwhile, the 49ers want to become more dynamic defensively by adding firepower to their front seven. When the unit did generate pressure, it was pretty isolated to No. 99 and which side he was coming from. In fact, Aldon Smith accounted for 51 percent of the team’s sacks in 2012 (19.5 of 38).
For as good as the Niners defense ranked, they were still outside of the top 10 in total sacks last season, so there is room for improvement. The team, as a whole, actually had more in the 2011 campaign, when Smith operated as a situational rusher (the role Lemonier expects to assume). That is a defensive component the team would like to install again.
More often than not, San Francisco will put Lemonier in a position to play downhill, tempering his reps in coverage. Overall, his knack for arriving in the opponent’s backfield projects to make him disruptive against the pass, as well as valuable against the run. He played both fairly well at Auburn.
Lemonier has the tools to put Haralson to the test right now.
Reality: Parys Haralson maintains the No. 3 job throughout the season, but Corey Lemonier sees the majority of third-down snaps, including a featured role as an end in the nickel package.
Rookie WR Quinton Patton Earns the No. 2 Job
Since his arrival, wideout Anquan Boldin has made no bones about it; he is going to be the top dog in San Francisco’s receiving corps, at least for the time being. In the wake of Michael Crabtree’s Achilles tendon injury, the 49ers had to have a polished veteran step up, and Boldin is it.
The consensus from Santa Clara is that the 11-year pro has looked stellar, in both OTAs and since the opening of training camp. The on-field rapport between Boldin and quarterback Colin Kaepernick has already begun to glimmer, too, which is uplifting, given the current circumstances.
But outside of that connection—which folks are hoping is automatic—the position is as wide-open as it gets.
What we do know is that there will be several young, high-profile players who will be competing for time behind Boldin. We also know that the plan of action is to restore that production by means of a committee, rather than a traditional No. 2. Either way, one receiver will have to finish second in reps taken.
After recently being activated from the PUP list with an ACL tear, it was reported that Kyle Williams was featured with the first-team offense as the “Z” receiver, via Taylor Price of 49ers.com. Mind you, it is early, and it is a competition—Williams is just a four-year pro who is entitled to the spot until proven otherwise.
This is where rookie Quinton Patton enters the conversation.
Having gone from no school, to junior college, to exploding for two straight years in the NCAA, Patton is a remarkable success story—and a rising star to boot. It has gotten to the point where pundits have stopped doubting him, and, instead, are wondering what he is going to do next.
With that said, it would be one thing for Patton to challenge Williams—who he is comparable to stylistically—but he also has to distinguish himself from two interesting players who are built to be outside receivers. The rookie would first have to unseat A.J. Jenkins and Ricardo Lockette, who are heavy favorites.
Running in the mid-to-low 4.3s, Jenkins and Lockette each have a top gear that the Louisiana Tech rookie does not possess. Jenkins was also seen getting his share of reps with the first team already, which was a reminder of his first-round status and the fact that the Niners always envisioned a featured role for him.
Not to mention, Lockette is a third-year pro who fits in as a natural X or Z receiver and has been working directly with Kaepernick for the better part of a year. He is separate from the rest of the pack in that he is the only height/weight/speed specimen competing in camp this season.
But despite the obstacles in front of him, Patton is a player who could sneak up on all three of the aforementioned receivers. The thing about him—regardless of his rookie status—is that Patton has a natural feel for the position. Whether it was JUCO, the WAC, the SEC or the Senior Bowl, he was always a big-time player on the field.
After having a sitdown with NFL draft analyst Scott Bischoff of New Era Scouting, he was able to comprehensively explain to me how the receiver’s “natural wiggle” enables Patton to beat just about anybody.
“He’s ready to go now. Everything he does is full speed. It seems effortless. There are some Reggie Wayne comparisons. Just the fluent effortless efficiency of everything he does, which, mainly for him, is his route running; his ability to separate. We loved what we saw,” said Bischoff on Niner Talk Central.
Elaborating on why the receiver is NFL-ready, Bischoff shared his scouting notes on Patton from the Senior Bowl:
He played with savvy, almost on every snap. There were head fakes, there were shoulder fakes. He sold everything and it looked like he was beating everybody. He did a really good job in every aspect—catching the ball away from his frame. Just a savvy route-runner, very highly polished.
He does not have great long speed but he has enough quickness where he is going to be very difficult to cover. He has the ability to put himself on the field and be productive right away.
Reality: In all likelihood, Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins begin the season as the two primaries opposite Anquan Boldin, with Quinton Patton predominantly featured in the slot. When he is 100 percent, Mario Manningham will also have seniority over Patton.
Lawrence Okoye Makes the Final Roster
It would be a real shocker if an individual who had never played a down of organized football in his life were suddenly ready for NFL-level competition after only three months of training. However, it is worth noting that undrafted free agent Lawrence Okoye is no ordinary individual, which explains why he sets such lofty goals for himself.
Hailing from the UK, the 21-year-old Okoye is England’s undisputed record holder for discus. At the same time, this is someone who was granted—and deferred—acceptance to Oxford University’s prestigious law program (in order to join the 49ers). Clearly there is a meticulous track record with Okoye that has led the San Francisco front-office brass to believe in him as an investment.
And since the 49ers have committed to the idea of developing him, they are likely going to keep him nearby, considering he has the most to learn. Having said that, and to make this a bolder prediction, we’ll say that not only does Okoye make the final 53-man roster, but he contributes on the field as well.
Here is how…
The mere fact that he is starting from scratch, it would be very beneficial for Okoye to learn by doing. He has to see live competition in order to experience elements of the game that can’t be taught in a classroom or on the practice turf. Now, the 49ers do not necessarily need to rush this, but he is an above-average specimen who may take to this sort of aggressive educative method.
Remember, this is a man who first picked up a discus at 18 years old and became an Olympian in less than three years, via ESPN.
If he is more of a provocative option than, say, Tony Jerod-Eddie or Demarcus Dobbs, then, perhaps, the 49ers might create a spot for him on the final 53. This is also contingent on Okoye’s ability to progress in training camp, where D-line coach Jim Tomsula is both teaching and simplifying things for the undrafted free agent.
Also, one has to consider that San Francisco now has an offense that can put up points and a defense that can put games away. It would not hurt for Okoye to get garbage-time reps on the line late in the fourth quarter. This hands-on approach will only help with his adjustment.
Aside from what he can do in the trenches, most new players build their chops up by partaking in special teams duties. Given how big and fast Okoye is, he would bring a ton of horsepower to the kickoff coverage unit. After all, it was originally his size/speed combo that piqued the interest of scouts.
Prior to the NFL draft, the 6’6”, 304-pounder posted a 4.78 40-yard dash at the NFL Super Regional Combine.
If Okoye can show his value to special teams coach Brad Seely, the Niners may add a real bruiser to their coverage team. And being able to participate in that phase of the game will help with Okoye’s pursuit, open-field awareness and contact courage. Overall, it will expedite the process of him becoming a football player.
Reality: Lawrence Okoye remains on the practice squad with several other athletically intriguing prospects in need of a little more development. He will be able to attend games in a sweat suit to watch, listen and ask questions.
Carlos Rogers Gets Released
It is somewhat difficult to see this happening prior to the start of the 2013 regular season. However, given his current salary, coupled with the team’s perceived value of him, it is a very real possibility, so let’s play devil’s advocate.
To start, cornerback Carlos Rogers is in his 30s and did not look like the Pro Bowler the 49ers re-signed after a six-interception season in 2011. This regression was neither anticipated nor forgotten. Over 16 games last year, opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 86.7 when targeting Rogers in the slot, and 115.6 when he was outside, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
The stats say that if the 49ers want to be efficient, they have to recognize that Rogers’ functionality on defense is limited. Truth be told, it appears as if he is almost unusable anywhere but inside in the nickel formation, which the Niners deploy roughly 60 percent of the time.
And as a business, this has promptly led San Fran’s decision-makers to immediately examine their books, calling into question whether or not they are overpaying a so-called marquee player who has such great restrictions. Be forewarned, the answers are mildly disconcerting.
According to contract info at Spotrac, Rogers has the second-highest average salary on the 49ers, only behind All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, so there’s that. If that fact triggered you to think of five or six other guys who should have a higher take home, you’re not alone.
Honestly, Rogers may be the only overpaid player on the roster. The 49ers are usually careful about this sort of thing, too, which is presumably the reason they have been looking for a resolution this offseason.
Here is what now matters: $1.25 million of Rogers’ salary became guaranteed in April, but cutting him would still create $4.99 million in extra cap relief for this year, via ex-agent and National Football Post writer Joel Corry.
If that is the case, and he is released, the contingency plan is to replace him with Perrish Cox. A natural cover corner, he is another low-cost option who is better on the field than most care to notice. Also, do not be surprised if former Tampa Bay Bucs CB Eric Wright signs with San Fran, following the botched trade.
Shortly after the transactional turmoil, Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed that general manager Trent Baalke did not rule out a deal. The 49ers need the depth, and if the team can get Wright for less money than the Tampa Bay contract—and without forfeiting a conditional pick—it is another home run for this esteemed front office.
If Wright is willing to play for less than a quarter of what is against Rogers’ contract and can perform better than No. 22 did last season, then this is considered another upgrade for San Francisco. It fits their modus operandi, however cold it seems to be toward Carlos Rogers.
Reality: Rogers likely plays this season out, but he is a cap casualty in the offseason. San Francisco is already behind the eight ball when it comes to defending these new slot weapons in the NFC West, so cutting Rogers would come off as counterproductive.
However, it should not be ruled out, especially considering the team’s focus in the offseason.
Nnamdi Asomugha Wins a Featured Role
Best-case scenario, the 49ers discover what everyone assumed to be true, which was former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was tragically misused for two straight years in Philadelphia. Prior to his cataclysmic drop-off, his career was largely defined by his elite ability to take away receivers, operating as one of the best man cover corners in the National Football League.
For nearly a decade in Oakland, Asomugha revealed himself to be the kind of player whom a team could shape its defense around. From 2003 on, the Oakland Raiders never had much, but at least they had No. 21 on the back-end. Through the years, when defensive coordinators sat down to draw up a game plan, the staff started with Asomugha and worked their way out.
Though, with all of his God-given talent, Asomugha has never had an opportunity to be in a winning situation—not once in 10 years of pro football. In Oakland, the system was a fit, but they didn’t have the talent. In Philadelphia, they had the talent, but the defensive system was out of whack.
Between the system, personnel and overall atmosphere of this ballclub, Asomugha has a chance to see a level of success this year that he has only dreamed of. “I think the fact that they’re building off a Super Bowl definitely changes the whole landscape of how this season is going mentally for me,” said Asomugha, per the team’s official website. “It’s a fresh start, but it’s building off success.”
Asomugha has never been on a playoff team, so this is new territory for him, as well as motivation to stick around. And looking at it from a systematic perspective, this is a unit that plays a lot of two-man coverage, pressures the quarterback and lets their corners win their matchups, which plays to his particular skill set.
It has all been positive for the All-Pro CB looking to make a comeback.
Reality: If Nnamdi Asomugha makes the final 53-man roster, he will be a rotational corner on the boundary, primarily spelling Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown. It will be a long shot for him to unseat one of them as a starter. Though, 49ers beat writer Cam Inman reports it has been, so far, so good for Asomugha.
49ers Install Three New Dimensions to Their Offense
Speculating on the evolution of a team’s system and philosophy is pretty bold, if I may say so myself. However, if you believe in trends and the overall evolution of this offense, there are certainly pieces in place that would suggest such a thing. Every move by this front office is deliberate.
More than any 49ers regime in the 2000s decade before them, this is a bunch that schemes around its players and optimizes its resources. They are also convinced that the total volume of their offense, and what they’re capable of, is essential to success on the field.
By adding layers upon layers to this offense, the Niners put themselves in a position to win the game before it is even played.
Given the limited time during the week, an opponent cannot adequately prepare for all of these varying dimensions that, on their own, can carry an offense. Forget the read-option, too—the complexity of their basic run package alone is enough to keep linebackers and defensive ends up at night.
San Francisco wants to be able to hurt teams in every conceivable way.
Then, on game day, the 49ers can identify what the rival defense has not prepared for and then proceed to work the body. After learning their tendencies, the offense switches from rabbit punches to haymakers, closing games out with big explosive plays that clearly exposed an opponent's weakness.
Adding even more dimensions this year will provide them with the systematic versatility to be a more efficient attacking offense.
Continue to next slide...
Dimension I: Two-Tight End Set
This is not a brand-new element, seeing as how San Francisco has already shown their proclivity for using multiple tight ends, but it is an upgraded one. In two seasons in Greg Roman’s offense, the tight end (TE) position has been heavily utilized in the rushing and passing game.
However, the addition of rookie tight end Vance McDonald opens a whole new world of possibilities.
Prior to the draft, the Rice product was one of the highly touted players at his position, bringing an intriguing combination of size and speed. His 6’4”, 267-pound frame and renowned strength are also what made him appear to be a starting-capable NFL tight end right away.
Coming in, he exhibited all the tools to be a No. 1 option, although his fate sent him to an organization that already had Pro Bowl phenom Vernon Davis. Now, the rookie is not going to challenge Davis for the top spot, but that does not make him any less of a player.
Instead, the 49ers are going to implement more plays that take advantage of their resources.
This will mean more 12, 13 and 22 personnel being written into the game plan, which will generate favorable matchups since both Davis and McDonald can line up anywhere before the snap. Aside from their traditional tight end duties, each is equipped to help as an in-line or sidecar blocker, work out of the slot and even challenge defenders vertically outside the numbers.
The mystery of their assignment alone—which San Francisco can tweak by integrating options and releases—is problematic for your average defenseman. By season’s end, Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald may be the heartbeat of this offense, playing integral roles on the ground and in the air.
Dimension II: Dynamic Receiving Outlets
It is common knowledge that Frank Gore is the undisputed bell cow in San Francisco’s thunderous run-first offense, at least for a couple more seasons. The franchise’s all-time rushing leader recently hit age 30, which has led some to believe that his workload will taper off, favoring more of an attack-by-committee.
This might not be such a bad thing, considering the 49ers have the reps to share (See: Michael Crabtree, Achilles). It would also add a unique change-of-pace to their offense and help with Gore’s career longevity. The players hand-selected to work into the rotation are Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
As a complete trio of runners, 2013 will be Gore, Hunter and James’ debut season being active together. Originally, the idea was to bring in two complementary backs behind Gore who could add a dimension to the offense. GM Trent Baalke believes that different-style runners can be difficult for defenses to adjust to, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Hunter and James differ in the sense that they have the capability to rip a defense for 60 or 70 yards if they get the slightest crease. Even in his prime, this was not a facet of Gore’s game, which is what makes these two players behind him so intriguing. They will be able to emerge as very real factors, not only in the run game, but in the passing attack as well.
With that kind of game-breaking ability, San Francisco can trust that high-percentage passes underneath have potential as huge gainers. If the staff can devise ways to get these two players the ball in space, with just a bit of open field, it may bring this offense to a whole new rate of efficiency.
Most notably, if the play is not there downfield, either Hunter or James can chew up big yards underneath.
Also, two-back sets—particularly the split back—will give San Francisco two extra receivers on any given down. This is just one instance of how their personnel will become very confusing to opposing defenses, mainly because these backs have such broad functionality.
While both are very quick, dependable receivers, James may emerge as the more explosive of the two.
Dimension III: A Deep Threat
It is hard to argue that anyone other than Ricardo Lockette leads this conversation. At 6’2” and some change and having once posted a low 4.26 40 time, per NFL Draft Scout, he is the prototypical height/weight/speed receiver. Lockette brings a unique element to the offense that the 49ers do not have otherwise.
Given Michael Crabtree’s injury, the 49ers seem likely to hang on to an extra receiver, especially one with such upside. This is a player who is going to take the top off the defense and create more scoring opportunities on game day. Ultimately, this is the sort of weapon San Fran wants to add to their evolving passing attack.
Even if Lockette does not make the final roster, folks also must consider that A.J. Jenkins and Kyle Williams are also 4.3 guys.
These two receivers can get downfield in a hurry, which may finally reveal itself in 2013 with strong-armed quarterback Colin Kaepernick behind center. The Niners passer has a tendency to look downfield for the big play, and he can hit it, too. Now, the speedsters on this roster finally have a chance to see their ceiling.
Whether it’s practice or a game, Kaepernick’s ability to throw strikes deep down the field will make sure a player shines through in training camp.
Reality: You better hope this happens.
Mike Iupati Gets an Extension
Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems there is a lack of understanding of how good Mike Iupati really is. After being one of the highest-drafted interior linemen in the past 30 years, Iupati plugged in at left guard, roaring onto the scene as a top-five player at his position as a rookie, via Pro Football Focus’ rating system.
If you’re curious as to how the 49ers O-line suddenly became so fierce, look no further than Iupati, who was the catalyst. His tenacious demeanor and sound fundamental approach to the game rippled outward, impacting the rest of his linemates. And while tenured left tackle Joe Staley is the unheralded leader of the unit, this line, undeniably, has Iupati’s temperament.
In 2012, the fourth-year pro from Idaho was finally named a Pro Bowler (perceivably his first of many). Frankly, the recognition for Iupati is long overdue, considering the dominant level he had been performing at in years past. It may now be time for the 49ers to recognize his value with a new contract extension.
While offensive line is an unglamorous position to pay, this is a can't-miss investment by the 49ers and one the franchise is obligated to make.
It seems the 49ers had a pretty good idea about Iupati's pro potential. And with that being the case, they must have been prepared to extend him when the time came. Sooner rather than later, the heartbeat of this offensive line will receive his much-deserved deal, which sees him in the Bay Area for quite some time.
Bonus: In some form or another, the 49ers will compensate cornerback Tarell Brown, who recently lost out on $2 million due to escalators that were not communicated to him by his agent.
Reality: Mike Iupati will get paid; however, it would be a curious time to extend another player, seeing as how Tarell Brown’s $2 million is now in the salary cap pot. The Niners want to get Iupati’s deal wrapped up, but how Brown’s situation is handled may play a factor.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and safety Donte Whitner also loosely discussed the possibility of a new deal, per Janie McCauley of the Associated Press.