San Francisco 49ers: 6 Players off to the Best Start at Training Camp
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Offense, defense (and to a lesser extent) special teams—San Francisco 49ers on all sides of the ball have produced great starts at training camp this offseason.
And this extends from starting players all the way down to roster hopefuls on the bottom end of the depth chart.
From Colin Kaepernick to No. 4 quarterback B.J. Daniels, from No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin to dark-horse receiver Chad Hall, from NaVorro Bowman to unknown inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, both the stars and unheralded backups at numerous positions have made their marks thus far in camp.
That said, this article aims to identify the collection of 49ers that have made the most striking, if not indelible, impressions—as far as offseason practices go—among the coaching staff.
Let’s now highlight the six players off to the best start at the 49ers’ 2013 training camp. Some qualify as guaranteed No. 1s while others are competing for starting roles.
6. Eric Reid, Free Safety
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It may not have amounted to one of the best “starts,” but Eric Reid has distinguished himself in recent days.
Reid has hit the field as the starting free safety for the last three practices (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday). Donte Whitner, fellow starter on the strong side, has commended the rookie for his mistake-free football and aggressive ball skills, according to separate reports by The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows and Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
The former LSU stalwart has also separated himself from the competition.
Said Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Rookie free safety Eric Reid also had a solid showing as he competes for the right to replace Dashon Goldson. Reid worked with the starting defense…[and] appears to be in the lead for the job against Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson.
Indeed, Reid has displayed excellent coverage skills both deep and underneath. It hasn’t always been perfect—as can be expected—but earning numerous “defensive play[s] of the day” by 49ers’ beat writers has overshadowed any defensive lapses.
5. Ian Williams, Nose Tackle
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Again, multiple 49ers on both sides of the ball deserve a spot on this list.
But we highlight Ian Williams because of the way he’s emerged out of the proverbial nowhere since the beginning of camp—at least to those not actually sporting the Red and Gold.
Right guard Alex Boone was one of many 49ers who lauded Williams for his consistently effective play:
He's always been like that—explosive, high motor, going to always move to the ball, is never going to stop. He's the kind of guy you like to play against. He gets you good reps (and) really gives you a good feel for how it's going to be in a game.
Also in that Maiocco report was fellow defensive lineman Ray McDonald deeming Williams as an upgrade over Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois (while still giving due respect to his former teammates).
The former undrafted free agent dropped down to 305 pounds after operating at around 330 pounds during limited reps last season. Such a physical overhaul has enabled him to play with more versatility all across the defensive line, not to mention exceptional quickness for corralling ball-carriers in the backfield.
He has also risen above former first-round pick Glenn Dorsey on the team’s latest depth chart, per The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows.
It’s really his knack for being able to move…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.
And coming from the best the NFL has to offer, such praise is all the more significant for the 49ers’ presumptive starter at nose tackle.
4. Nnamdi Asomugha, Cornerback
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Forget any smokescreens put up by members of the 49ers’ defensive coaching staff—Nnamdi Asomugha has produced tremendous individual performances in camp.
Yet, despite the aforementioned great play by Asomugha, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had this to say after the team’s Friday practice on Aug. 2 (via Eric Branch):
He’s had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it…I think we’re kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully he’ll be able to…go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia. So, I think the jury is still out there.
With all due respect to the highly venerated Fangio, chalk this up to a purposeful misdirection aimed at duping the opposition.
On a day where much attention was devoted to Patrick Willis suffering a slight fracture in his right hand, Asomugha had his most impressive day yet.
He first disrupted a “go-route throw from [Colin] Kaepernick” to quick-footed Marlon Moore and later knocked away a would-be touchdown to Anquan Boldin on a jump ball, according to CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
Maiocco then detailed Asomugha’s solid ball skills and physical coverage against speedster Ricardo Lockette during the 6’2’’ receiver’s best training camp practice on August 6.
And despite his propensity for overly positive remarks about his players, head coach Jim Harbaugh seemed rather objective during an assessment of Asomugha last week. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported Harbaugh’s evaluation:
Yeah, he did have noticeable, eye-popping plays, yesterday especially. He's been good. I think he's got a good grasp of what we're doing defensively. In shape, doing a nice job.
Whether he or Tramaine Brock officially get the No. 3 job, Asomugha has done everything in his power to earn it.
3. Vernon Davis, Tight End
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The next two players on this list certainly qualify as “2a,” “2b” installments.
Vernon Davis has served as the prolific force we all know he can be throughout training camp. He was particularly explosive through the first three practices.
Reputable 49ers scribe Matt Barrows encapsulated Davis’ opening performances in this selection:
Davis has been by far the offense's top big-play threat…Davis [has] caught several deep passes from [Colin] Kaepernick, including one on a rope in front of safety Craig Dahl. The prettiest pass—and a very good sign for Kaepernick—came on a deep touch pass down the left sideline that dropped in over safety C.J. Spillman and into Davis' hands.
Davis’ dynamic work on downfield patterns is indeed particularly noteworthy. The 49ers’ No. 1 tight end is perhaps the league’s most prolific creator of mismatches in coverage. He has shown that ability so far over the offseason.
(Yes, we will take any on-field performance occurring in July or August with a grain of salt.)
Davis earned one of his many Matt Maiocco-coined “offensive play[s] of the day” during last Friday’s (Aug. 2) session. He executed a crisp seam route before hauling in a deep Kaepernick pass against good coverage.
It seems that Davis can now add route-running ability to his sure-handedness and sheer game-breaking talent.
2. Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
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Oh, did the oft-cited sports cliché of next man up ever find a better application?
Lower depth-chart concerns notwithstanding, Anquan Boldin has done nothing but totally fill the void left by injured No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree.
The 49ers’ marquee offseason addition has hauled in seemingly everything thrown his way. He has offered Kaepernick a reliable target both underneath and downfield.
In his usual security blanket-like fashion, Boldin out-muscled Tramaine Brock and Michael Thomas for a 25-yard catch on the very first day of training camp, as reported by CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco. He’s simply one of the best at shielding defenders.
Both Maiocco and Barrows continually reported on Boldin’s “prolific outing[s],” including a July 30th practice, in which he logged seven receptions out of eight targets.
Yet, Boldin’s importance to the 49ers extends far beyond his physical skill set.
He has provided a guiding presence not only for the multitude of younger receivers, but also to San Francisco’s defensive backs, who constantly pick his brain for tips on coverage techniques.
Kaepernick conveyed in Maiocco’s latest piece how Boldin helps both the offense and defense through his vast football intelligence:
I think it's going great…He makes it very easy on quarterbacks. He's a savvy guy…He knows what the defense is doing…[and] where the weak spots in the defense are, and where he wants to get to. He helps me see things more from his perspective. As a receiver, what they're looking at and what they need from a quarterback to help them be successful.
And successful is exactly what he and Kaepernick have been every step of the way this offseason.
1. Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
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Surprise, surprise—Colin Kaepernick finds himself yet again at No. 1.
Kap picked up right where he left off in 2012 as a quarterback nearly leading his team to a Super Bowl victory.
The slightly lower stakes of offseason practices aside, No. 7 has continued to progress in a career that contains an unlimited ceiling.
Kaepernick shined during the 49ers’ first full-padded training camp session on July 27. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area noted numerous deep connections with Vernon Davis, including a “beautiful throw 30 yards angled toward the right side of the field.”
He then executed accurate throws in the short passing game, an area in which detractors point to him struggling time and again.
[H]e also exhibited deft touch with back-to-back screen passes to LaMichael James to the right side and Frank Gore to the left. On the pass to James, he floated it just over the outstretched hand of outside linebacker Cam Johnson.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee commented on Kaepernick’s deep-ball prowess a few practices later:
Kaepernick first hit Anquan Boldin deep down the left sideline...[he] connected with Chad Hall on a slightly shallower pass and saved his best for a long and nicely placed, 50-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis, who beat both Patrick Willis and Spillman.
Those accounts are just a few of Kaepernick’s camp-long performances that have captivated his 49ers’ teammates and coaching staff alike. They will surely continue as the regular season approaches.
Okay—so it’s easy nominating a quarterback as the player who has logged the best start at training camp.
But in a quarterback-driven league with one who represents the continuing evolution of the NFL, we simply could not have gone in another direction.
September can’t come soon enough.
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