Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
As with most things in this world, we must take the good with the bad—such is life for the San Francisco 49ers in the early goings of their 2013 training camp.
The 49ers began their latest version of offseason workouts with four straight practices before an off day on Monday. Stellar play on both sides of the ball notwithstanding, the 24-hour hiatus couldn’t have come at a better time.
Injuries from the minor-tweak variety to season-ending tears have plagued the men sporting the Red and Gold. Wide receivers and linebackers have been especially hampered.
But these unfortunate developments are emblematic of what teams across the NFL have experienced since the offseason began. In other words, one cannot dwell in a cynical abyss when there are still plenty of positives to be had.
Rookie tight end Vance McDonald, second-year linebacker Cam Johnson, the unheralded Michael Wilhoite and the rejuvenated “Smith Brothers” are a few of the 49ers who have showcased themselves in fine form thus far in camp. And the list certainly doesn’t stop there.
Let’s run down five notable early observations from the 49ers’ Santa Clara-based training camp.
5. Ian Williams Reestablishes Positional Importance
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Remember when the 3-4 nose tackle became an obsolete position in the 49ers base defense—let alone for most squads in a pass-happy NFL?
Well, it appears that Ian Williams didn’t get the memo.
The proliferation of nickel and dime packages that replace front-seven personnel in favor of extra defensive backs has had little effect on Williams’ development. The 2011 undrafted free agent has been one of the undisputed stars in 49ers camp.
Williams has outperformed former No. 5 overall pick Glenn Dorsey, the once presumed starter in the middle of the 49ers' front. He received the starting nod in Thursday’s opening practice and has provided both a run-stuffing presence and backfield disruption ever since.
Said All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis via Eric Branch of SFGate.com:
Sometimes people think nose guards are guys that are just big and hold a point. But he’s a guy that if you single him, he can beat you one-on-one. If you double-team him, he can hold the point. As a middle linebacker, that’s what you love to see.
At 25 pounds lighter than his former 6’1’’, 305-pound frame, Williams fits perfectly with the versatile identity of 49ers defensive linemen. The same goes for his hardworking blue-collar mentality that is so representative of the team’s ethos.
“I love to coming to work,” Williams said via Eric Branch. “…the other day when one of the guys was like ‘Hey, man we just got our checks.’ I was like ‘I forgot we even get paid.'"
A young man who has played limited snaps in his first two NFL campaigns—yet has outperformed a former first-round pick—certainly deserves a spot on this list. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would agree, especially because he can’t fathom why such a talented player didn’t get drafted in the first place.
"I don't have a good answer for you there. Trust me, he should've been drafted," Fangio said, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
4. Eric Reid Is as Good as Advertised
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Don’t let the likes of Craig Dahl or C.J. Spillman running with the first-team defense fool you—Eric Reid will start Week 1 at free safety when Green Bay comes to town.
Both Dahl and Spillman have shared first-string duties throughout training camp. Despite coming on with the second team, it is the rookie who has shined more often than not after some early scuffles.
Reid put it all together on Day 4 en route to a thoroughly impressive performance. He showed why the 49ers should have full confidence in his coverage abilities.
On the interception, Reid read the eyes of quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was scrambling out of the pocket. Reid had an excellent break on the ball, caught it well in front of the would-be receiver and would have been gone for a touchdown in a game situation. On the pass break up, he came from behind Boldin and used his long arm to swat away a Colin Kaepernick pass.
The former LSU Tiger is well-known for his football intelligence, crushing hits and ferocity in the box. While it’s only training camp, Reid can add ball skill proficiency to his repertoire.
Though the 49ers have underrated depth at the safety position, don’t expect anyone but Reid patrolling deep center come the regular season.
3. Injuries Aplenty
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As inherent as injuries are to the game of football, it’s still never easy seeing players go down.
It’s even more problematic when they occur on three of the first five days of training camp, with some coming on non-contact drills.
The 49ers’ injury-free fortunes ended soon after they hit the field on Saturday. Emerging wideout Kyle Williams was explosive throughout the first two-plus practices, but he strained a hamstring late on Day 3 after hauling in a downfield touchdown from Colin Kaepernick.
CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco further reports that receivers Ricardo Lockette (hip) and Marlon Moore (ankle) are playing at less than 100 percent after getting roughed up by the gridiron during Sunday’s practice.
Also registering for the sideline-spectator party were second-year wideout A.J. Jenkins (hamstring) and free-agent pickup Kassim Osgood (hip) after sustaining injuries of their own on Tuesday.
But most devastating of all was the heartbreaking fate assigned to linebacker Darius Fleming.
The 49ers’ fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2011 tore his left ACL during a non-contact kickoff drill Sunday for the second consecutive offseason. He had just been cleared at the start of camp, only to suffer yet another season-ending injury before ever having an opportunity at playing in a mere preseason game.
Eric Branch of SFGate.com reports that San Francisco waved Fleming early Tuesday. He’ll rejoin the team and spend the season on injured reserve if he clears waivers.
On a less severe note, All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman and center Jonathan Goodwin missed Tuesday’s practice as well.
While not expected to miss extensive time, these minor setbacks merely serve as insult to, well, injury—or something like that.
2. Healthy Wide Receivers Not so Aplenty
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Not to beat the proverbial dead horse on multiple fronts, but wide receivers just aren’t something the 49ers have a surplus of at this point in training camp.
Here were the (mostly) healthy wideouts not named Anquan Boldin available to Colin Kaepernick during Day 5 of camp: Marlon Moore, Chad Hall, Charly Martin and Chuck Jacobs.
With all due credit to these aspiring pros, they simply do not have the requisite NFL experience. Moore, Hall and Martin have a total of 31 catches for 427 yards and four touchdowns amongst them. Jacobs joined the team as an undrafted rookie out of Utah State.
We do respect Matt Maiocco’s report detailing Hall’s impressive outing on Tuesday as well as Moore’s speed and tireless effort throughout camp. We also understand that it’s still July.
Yet, one cannot deny the fragile state of the 49ers’ receiving corps.
Kyle Williams (hamstring), A.J. Jenkins (hamstring), Ricardo Lockette (hip), Quinton Patton (finger), Kassim Osgood (hip) and even Moore (ankle) have either been sidelined or have been playing injured at some point in training camp.
That doesn’t even take into account Michael Crabtree (Achilles) likely missing 12 games and Mario Manningham potentially sitting for the first six while recovering from multiple torn knee ligaments.
When former South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels—his dynamic versatility notwithstanding—receives extensive snaps at receiver, things just aren’t going his way.
Fortunately, light does exist at the end of this football tunnel. Here’s to ending with a positive observation.
1. Boldin, Davis, Kaepernick—These Guys Are Pretty Good, Folks
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There’s really no sense in putting it any other way: Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Colin Kaepernick have been nothing short of spectacular in training camp.
Boldin has filled the role of catch-everything-thrown-my-way, go-to target, while Davis has been torching his defensive brethren deep on a daily basis. Kaepernick, for his part, has not only thrown accurately down the field, but has also displayed pinpoint touch underneath.
And No. 7’s top receiver and tight end have facilitated those prolific performances every step of the way.
So as not to be overly effusive, we’ll provide a recap of the noteworthy highlights.
Day 1: Kaepernick hit both Boldin and Davis with several laser-like downfield throws, including a perfect 25-yard strike to Boldin that beat the coverage of Tramaine Brock and Michael Thomas, as noted by 49ers insider Matt Maiocco.
Day 3: Davis hauled in a touch pass deep down the left sideline over C.J. Spillman on a breathtaking throw by Kaepernick. Matt Barrows reported that it was one of many incredible passes of the day. Boldin and Davis combined for seven catches on eight targets.
Day 5: Matt Maiocco highlighted Kaepernick’s 35-yard strike to Boldin that traveled the full distance through the air. Fellow 49ers scribe Matt Barrows brought attention to the “best pass of 49ers’ training camp thus far:” A Patrick Willis-authenticated, perfect 50-yard touchdown that was the product of Davis’ speed and Kaepernick’s arm strength.
It appears that Kaepernick, Boldin and Davis have formed a veritable 49ers triumvirate.
Now we’ll just have to wait and see how that tri-part power structure materializes once September rolls around.
It’s sure to be a real doozy.
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