San Francisco 49ers: 10 Things We Learned in Training Camp so Far
Football or no football, events occurring between the April draft and Week 1 of NFL training camp can drastically change the outlook for a team, even one as prominent as the San Francisco 49ers. There has been a flurry of activity, not only in the NFC West, but also on the practice turf in Santa Clara, California.
Spontaneous elements have challenged this 49ers team to adjust, which is arduous, considering it was already in a delicate state of change. Given all the moving parts and turnover to date, it helps to take a step back and reflect on which components are truly essential to this team's success in 2013.
For complete analysis of 49ers training camp as we enter the first week of preseason, proceed through the following.
Tarell Brown Is Underpaid, Carlos Rogers Is Overpaid
Injuries notwithstanding, there has been an excess of post-draft activity at the cornerback position, which has shown a lack of conviction on behalf of the coaches, particularly Ed Donatell and Vic Fangio. For all their successes, the 49ers appear fairly disorganized on the back end of their defense.
Here is an up-to-date timeline of the 49ers’ offseason activity involving cornerbacks:
- (7/18/13) There is curiosity over the team’s long-term plans for Tarell Brown, who is in a contract year.
- (7/18/13) 49ers will not convert Chris Culliver to safety.
- (7/19/13) The rumor mill says the 49ers don’t want to keep Carlos Rogers.
- (7/19/13) Free-agent signee Nnamdi Asomugha is officially on the bubble.
- (7/19/13) 49ers trade a conditional late-round pick to the Buccaneers for CB Eric Wright.
- (7/19/13) 49ers waive undrafted rookie CB Lowell Rose.
- (7/22/13) Wright fails the 49ers’ physical, voiding the trade and prompting his release by Tampa Bay.
- (7/23/13) 49ers want Carlos Rogers to take a pay cut.
- (7/23/13) 49ers do not rule out Wright’s return.
- (7/25/13) $2 million escalator voided in Tarell Brown’s contract, eliminating two-thirds of his 2013 salary.
- (7/25/13) Brown fires his agent Brian Overstreet after failing to communicate the workout clauses in his deal.
- (8/1/13) Culliver has a torn ACL and will miss the 2013 season.
- (8/2/13) 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thinks Asomugha is hot and cold.
- (8/2/13) GM Trent Baalke reportedly spent time with Eric Wright again.
While some of it is coincidental, the overall activity at CB is quite irregular.
In all likelihood, the 49ers discovered a fault during their self-scouting process that was bothersome, but nothing they could move on right away. Knowing the 49ers were counting on Brown and Culliver to be the backbone of the secondary as their featured outside corners—and the only player the 49ers would be held check by is Rogers because of his new deal—it leads us to where the problem truly lies.
As the 49ers' biggest name corner, Carlos Rogers is 32 years of age, floundering and due the team’s second-highest cap figure for 2013, via Spotrac. All the while, their most consistent cover guy, Tarell Brown, is an ascending homegrown talent in his prime, earning less than a lot of rookies in the league right now. And he’s in a contract year.
Add in the loss of Culliver and this entire situation is topsy-turvy.
Having kept Eric Wright in their back pocket, the 49ers appear to be exploring low-cost solutions to this problem. By introducing another element to this equation, the ‘Niners can theoretically cut ties with Rogers (if he refuses to restructure), reimburse Brown and count on Wright to rotate in until the organization can draft a long-term solution in 2014.
Doing this would wipe an overpaid player from their books and open up options, like extensions for Tarell Brown and Mike Iupati. And considering Rogers allowed a 115.6 QB rating when targeted anywhere but the nickel, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Wright could prove a more versatile corner that plays better outside.
One thing is for sure: this dilemma has not come to a head yet.
Honestly, it would be wise to expect more activity in the coming weeks, wherein the key transaction will either be the release of Rogers or the restructuring of his contract, proceeded by the potential addition of Wright. The former Browns, Lions and Bucs defender is a Bay Area native and outspoken Faithful who may be willing to take a hometown discount and, again, looks like the better option on the field.
Moreover, if CB Nnamdi Asomugha can find his groove two years removed from All-Pro honors, this becomes an even more viable course of action.
San Francisco can have Brown and Asomugha on the boundary, with Wright rotating in with the starters and featured in the nickel. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock are more than reliable for as far down the depth chart as they are. Altogether, this is a new-look secondary that has the potential to be an upgrade over Rogers, while allowing the 49ers to get better elsewhere.
Carlos Rogers is 32 and one of the most expensive players on the team. Easy to see him being the odd man out. #49ers— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 19, 2013
Injuries Can Derail Super Bowl Run
Following the 2013 NFL draft, the 49ers were locked in as Las Vegas’ favorite to appear in and win Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium this year, via CSN Bay Area. Behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a plethora of offensive firepower, a star-studded defense and the best O-line in pro football, San Francisco appeared to be on a fast track to its sixth Lombardi Trophy.
The 49ers have been bruised and battered since, losing Michael Crabtree (Achilles), Chris Culliver (ACL) and Darius Fleming (ACL) to severe injuries. Of those three, Crabtree is expected to return late in the season, which could provide the team with a much-needed boost leading up to a potential playoff run.
But Culliver and Fleming, on the other hand, are out for the season.
The grim part of a contender suffering injuries is that it’s the one aspect a team really cannot prepare for. They can do everything under the sun to field the best team in the league, but if their players are not healthy enough to perform, there is nothing they can really do about it.
Bye, bye, Super Bowl.
The best teams—and the mark of a true champion—are the ones that overcome serious injuries. Take a look at the Baltimore Ravens, a team that withstood the losses of marquee players Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Ray Lewis (triceps), only to get them back late in the season and win the Super Bowl in Cinderella fashion.
The problem facing the 49ers is that they’ve been dinged up and no one has positively stepped up as of yet. While it’s early, it is disconcerting for a team with aspirations as high as theirs. Especially given the rate of the injuries at all different levels of severity.
Outside the headlining injuries, LB Patrick Willis, LB Aldon Smith and C Jonathan Goodwin have been sidelined with injuries. A good percentage of the wide receivers were also held out with hamstring injuries, which included notables A.J. Jenkins and Kyle Williams.
While they’ll return, the low level of participation has cost the 49ers valuable days of training camp.
But this is the cost of having one of the biggest, most physical teams in football, and one that practices as hard as they do. It is also part of the annual transition of getting back into the swing of the NFL season. Players aren’t always going to be healthy, but the team has to keep chugging along.
This season, San Francisco’s true test will be replacing the production of Crabtree and Culliver by means of a committee. If the team can achieve that, the 49ers can walk a very similar path as the resilient 2012 champion Ravens.
Eric Reid Is Steadily Progressing
Given what we have witnessed with first-round picks, it is probably a good thing that safety Eric Reid is not plastered all over the headlines. For better or worse, he has been cruising under the radar in training camp, which is startling since he was the No. 18 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
But in any case, Reid seems to be on the right track.
The heir apparent to departed All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson has been sharing first-team reps opposite Donte Whitner, rotating in with vets Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman. The ‘Niners have not handed him the starting job but there is no doubt that Reid locks up the No. 1 spot by Week 1.
Eric Reid is lining up at first-team free safety during team drills. #Camp49— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 4, 2013
A Lot of Sleeper Candidates
The public perception is that the 49ers are hurting all over and do not have the depth to endure. With the nature of injuries in the NFL, there comes the common phrase of “the next man up,” which has led to several success stories from Tom Brady, to Victor Cruz, to San Francisco’s own Colin Kaepernick.
Despite popular opinion, the 49ers have depth at various positions, because as most know, they have a top-notch personnel department. Team general manager Trent Baalke and his staff have done an brilliant job acquiring players via the NFL draft and free agency, layering this roster talent beyond their No. 1s.
A lot of the faces in camp will have an opportunity to emerge as San Francisco seeks out starters, as well as featured role players. Here is an up-to-date list of names to watch in 49ers training camp in 2013:
- At cornerback, Perrish Cox and Nnamdi Asomugha are two of the favorites to work into the rotation and strengthen the back end. Between the loss of Chris Culliver and the hot water Carlos Rogers is in, the 49ers need players to cover inside and on the boundary. As skilled ex-starters hitting the reset button in SF, Cox and Asomugha are flying under the radar but fully capable of strong play this year.
- At wide receiver, Ricardo Lockette, Quinton Patton, Austin Collie and Kyle Williams are all capable weapons in their own right. Whether they are raw, inexperienced, injury-prone or maligned, most have questioned whether any of these players can contribute right away. However, there is a ton of upside from this group, individually as well as collectively. Not to mention, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the X-factor in all of this in that he can bring the greatness out of all of them.
- San Francisco’s special teams rating dropped from No. 2 in 2011 to No. 20 in 2012, per Football Outsiders. Outside of the plunge by place-kicker David Akers, the coverage unit was particularly foul at times, having lost core teamers Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones to Chicago and Carolina. In the offseason, the 49ers invested a fifth-round pick on a potential captain for the S/T unit going forward. LB Nick Moody has the chance to become the new front man for the Tony Montana squad, while also providing solid depth behind starting inside backers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
- While 49ers veteran OLB Parys Haralson restructured to a new team-friendly contract as a backup, Corey Lemonier and Cam Johnson are pass-rush mavens who may work their way onto the field this year. Backed by their attacking styles and long physiques, both linebackers have the potential to make the 49ers defense more threatening. Even though Haralson likely stays locked into the three-spot, Lemonier and/or Johnson may steal reps on game day.
- Every day at training camp, it is looking more and more like South Florida’s B.J. Daniels is the new Swiss Army Knife for the 49ers. Now that Delanie Walker is in Tennessee—and Scott Tolzien and Anthony Dixon are on the bubble again—the rookie may have a real window of opportunity. On any given day, Daniels rotates with groups all over the field, taking reps at quarterback, receiver and running back, as well as at returner. His do-it-all ability will make him well worth a spot, and a danger to returning 49ers teetering on the edge of the 53-man roster.
- Honorable Mentions: Lawrence Okoye (DT), Quinton Dial (DT), Tramaine Brock (CB), Chad Hall (WR), Garrett Celek (TE)
New-Look Ground Attack Flying Under the Radar
On the offensive side of the football, pessimism concerning the impasse at wide receiver has caused the 49ers’ cutting-edge rushing attack to go undetected. It is hard to believe the NFL community is so quick to turn the page on this group, too, given the three high-profile backs functioning within it—all of which are capable of carrying the load according to the weekly game plan.
Alongside Gore, roadrunners Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James will introduce complementary styles that will keep defenses off-balance. They operate very low to the ground, and their shiftiness and ability in space will ultimately add wrinkles to this once-primitive power run game.
Hunter and James also have top gears and upside as receivers that No. 21 never had, even in his prime. With their youth and speed, this duo will influence the offense for the better by bringing dynamite playmaking ability. The 49ers can now count on their running backs to hit the home run play.
Moreover, the holes created by this colossal O-line, rated No. 1 by Pro Football Focus, will finally be taken advantage of. Hunter and James are dangerous because once they get to the second level, they can shimmy, make guys miss and take it the distance. Hunter runs in the low 4.4s, while James runs in the 4.3s and has Madden-like stop-and-start ability, via NFL Draft Scout.
Throw in rising star FB Bruce Miller and you’ve got an awe-inspiring ground game that could single-handedly carry an offense. It has all the elements: speed, creativity, flow, veteran savvy and brute force. San Francisco will be able to lean on this trio of backs for mind-blowing production in 2013.
Too bad nobody knows about it yet.
A.J. Jenkins Is a Work in Progress
A flat debut for the first-rounder brought the critics out of the shadows, vilifying the 49ers' head coach and general manager for the potential draft misfire. Consistent with recent reports from Santa Clara, California, second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins has picked up where he left off in 2012.
A little over a week into training camp, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area said the top draft choice from a year ago “has not distinguished himself in practices.” Even though health and number of reps have not been obstacles, Jenkins has failed to exhibit growth from Year 1 to Year 2, which is fairly unsettling.
Both the 49ers and local media seem to have been expecting fireworks from Jenkins early on in camp.
Seeing limited results from the entire group led the organization to work out and sign two street free-agent wide receivers in ex-Colt Austin Collie and ex-Titan Lavelle Hawkins. Desperate additions to the roster do not reflect well on Jenkins, who, as a first-rounder, should be showing enough to keep the staff at ease.
Unfortunately, it has been a bit of a slow start for Jenkins, who is still adjusting to the speed and competition of the game. In an interview with the receiver this offseason, Jenkins pinpointed what is holding him back, via Niner Talk Central:
I was in the Big 10 and was able to play against corners like from Purdue, Penn State and Indiana. Now I’m in the league, in practice I’m playing against Nnamdi Asomugha, I’m playing against Carlos Rogers; I’m playing against proven veterans. It’s like the knowledge of the game for those guys is so much better. Not necessarily athletically better, just as far as mentally better. That’s what young guys, as far as myself, don’t really get to understand.
You come into the league and you look good in the shorts on Pro Day, and all that, and then you go out there on the field, and it’s mental now. Because everybody’s fast, everybody’s good. So, that’s one part of my game that I had to work on last year, was just the mental aspect. It’s not the fact that I can’t do it, it’s just you go out there and you got guys that have been doing this thing for 10 years.
Don't count him out yet. He is, after all, a work in progress...
AJ Jenkins 70-yard TD grab to end practice.— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) August 4, 2013
Nnamdi Asomugha Is a Mystery
It seems like 100 years ago that Nnamdi Asomugha was an All-Pro.
His degrading stretch with the Eagles from 2011-2012 sent him through the ringer, leading many to question whether he was done in this league. On the field, the fidelity had vanished, he looked lost at times, and more unnerving than anything, Asomugha appeared to be genuinely uninspired.
After deliberating the signing, the 49ers inked the 6’2,” 210-pound cornerback to a minimal one-year contract, hoping to bring him into a man-friendly system and, at the very least, have a serviceable corner. The potentially rewarding aspect of the deal is that Asomugha was once elite.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio even acknowledged the 49ers are hoping for Part II of his glory days in the Bay Area, via the team’s official website. “He’s had some good days out here and some days where we weren’t sure if he’d still have it,” said Fangio. “I think we’re kind of in-between with him right now.”
“Hopefully he’ll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to him going to Philadelphia,” he added.
So far, the coaches have been real hush on Asomugha’s progress to date, seeming very noncommittal, but it could be a ruse. If he looked dynamite in practice, would they say anything to alert the rest of the NFL? Probably not. Truth be told, the outside world won’t really be able to gauge the 2013 version of Nnamdi Asomugha until they see him play.
Colin Kaepernick Is a Prospective MVP Candidate
Offensive changeover defined the 2012 NFL season for the 49ers, but irrefutably for the better. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the catalyst of it all, guiding San Francisco’s evolution from a primitive chip-shot offense into an innovative big-play machine. Seeing as how he was thrown into the fire and limited on reps, there is a good chance we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Now, the league’s Most Valuable Player award is a big deal, and it’s only won by the elites, but Kaepernick has an edge. In a day and age when fantasy football reigns supreme and big plays and ball security are under the microscope like never before, Kap may be the most prolific offensive weapon in the National Football League.
The fact is, touchdowns and yards are the name of the game, and by season’s end, the 49ers quarterback has a chance to lead the league in both. He is multifaceted in that he can throw and run and do both at a high, high level. And for how much upside he has on any given down, Kap does not turn the ball over.
In his first-ever NFL start, he played the Chicago Bears, whose defense led the league in takeaways with 30 heading into Week 10. Kap did not flinch and went on to finish with a 97.5 Total QBR, which is still the highest of his young career.
In his 10 starts, Kaepernick only threw five interceptions out of 272 attempts versus aggressive defensive units like Chicago, Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta and Baltimore, which all have playmakers on the back end. More often than not, the 49ers QB exploited the over-aggressiveness, gutting opponents with his legs or the deep ball. He demonstrated the ability to improvise like no other quarterback because he has the rare tools to do so.
Could he throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in 2013? Perhaps.
All-purpose, it is also possible that Kaepernick surpasses the 50-touchdown season New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had when he won the MVP in 2007, which is an all-time mark for the position, via Pro Football Reference. The system being tailored to the quarterback's all-encompassing ability will help Kap take what the defense gives him, too.
Moreover, Kap has had a highly productive offseason so far, working with Olympic sprinters and jumpers, fine-tuning his short game and building a rapport with key players like tight end Vernon Davis and wideout Anquan Boldin. With this level of talent and work ethic, it is safe to assume he will be the crown jewel of this franchise for the foreseeable future.
The Rams and Cardinals Are Improving, Too
Outside the 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks are the ones showered with praise, while St. Louis and Arizona have been hung out to dry. 2013 may be the season to start giving the black sheep of the NFC West their fair share of the credit. It is because of their recent hands-on approach that the entire division is now revered.
The Cardinals improved by acquiring QB Carson Palmer, who is fully equipped to put the ball in Larry Fitzgerald’s catch radius. The ever so dangerous No. 11 is now in line for a comeback season, which could be problematic for San Francisco, seeing as how the team just lost its top boundary corner.
Pending a complete meltdown, Palmer will restore the Fitzgerald factor in Glendale, Arizona.
Meanwhile, the Cards added DE/LB John Abraham and his 122 career sacks to their rotation up front that already featured Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, via Mike Sando of ESPN. The addition of LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu will also give this team a defensive chess piece with playmaking ability.
St. Louis is in its second year of upgrades under head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead. The most visible change with this team is how philosophically different it will be on offense—a far cry from the sputtering run-first attack of years past. Entering a new era of football, RB Steven Jackson is no longer the driving force for the Rams.
Behind free-agent addition TE Jared Cook and the pair of explosive wideouts from West Virginia, the Rams will fully transition from a dink-and-dunk offense to a full-on fireworks display. Cook, along with Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, will completely reestablish how the 49ers prepare for this football team.
Expect the NFC West to reach new heights in 2013.
Vernon Davis May Be the Focal Point of This Offense
Of the athletic freaks in the NFL, TE Vernon Davis is right in there in the same class as guys like J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson. He was one of the highest-drafted tight ends in the history of the sport, largely due to his elite blend of size, strength and speed. As a hybrid player functioning as a tight end, Davis was built and drafted to be the centerpiece to an offense.
He has had strong seasons since joining the league in 2006—twice nearing 1,000 yards—but has yet to see his full potential as a pro. The capacity is there for him to be a dominant offensive threat, mainly because of his ability to present mismatches on nearly every down.
Now, with Michael Crabtree out, it has pushed Davis to the forefront of this passing offense as its most polished weapon.
No. 85 got to work with quarterback Colin Kaepernick this offseason, building their chemistry, and their results reminded the football world of what Davis was originally built up to be. In a wide-open passing league where guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham become nearly unstoppable on game day, Davis has an opportunity to thrive.
He has the quarterback, the crafty offense and the right of way to become a top receiver in the NFL this season.
What NFL audiences will find out, perhaps by Week 1, is that Kaepernick and Davis are extremely complementary in nature. Kap has the precision deep ball and Davis has the jets to get behind a defense and is punishing with a full head of steam. This connection may be one of the best hookups in the league and the pulse of this new-look passing offense in 2013.