San Francisco 49ers: Best and Worst of Team's Preseason
Preseason or not, summertime football for the San Francisco 49ers featured its fair share of the proverbial best and worst when it came to on- and off-the-field action.
The 49ers opened their schedule against the AFC Super Bowl-favorite Denver Broncos. It was quite the short-lived affair for the first-team units. The Colin Kaepernick-led offense, however, did operate efficiently on the opening drive.
They then traveled to Kansas City for a matchup with the Chiefs—a game made somewhat special with their former starting quarterback Alex Smith now sporting a new uniform. Smith made acquaintance with the gridiron dirt on more than one occasion.
This portion of the offseason essentially concluded in Week 3 with a 34-14 romp over the Minnesota Vikings. Kaepernick, rookie wideout Quinton Patton and resident lumberjack Justin Smith stole the show with an assortment of noteworthy plays (see: touchdown pass and Smith’s tackle for loss).
In other words, we—along with the 2013 starters—can now put the preseason in the books and delve into the compelling details.
Without further adieu, let’s highlight the eight best and worst developments from the 49ers’ preseason.
Game 1 Best: Michael Wilhoite Is A Top LB3
Let’s face it—the conversation qualifier of “broken record” just doesn’t apply to the 49ers’ starting inside linebackers.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form a dominant Pro Bowl, All-Pro duo. Teammates, coaches and members of the opposition all consider them preeminent at their position. Talking about their greatness just doesn’t get old.
The mere thought of losing either one for any period of time, however, strikes fear in the hearts of all those connected to the red and gold.
But that collective fright need not apply—Michael Wilhoite is a legitimate backup, if not, capable starting inside backer on many NFL teams.
Wilhoite led San Francisco with 10 tackles against the Broncos. He registered seven solo takedowns, as well as notching a quarterback hit and half quarterback sack.
He made short order of Denver ball-carriers from sideline to sideline, recording six defensive stops in the process according to Pro Football Focus (membership required). Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee noted how he took command of the huddle from start to finish.
Most importantly, Wilhoite proved that even without team-leader Willis patrolling the field, the 49ers have a player capable of serving in both the leadership and on-field playing capacities.
That’s some positive reassurance in an otherwise negative situation.
Game 1 Worst: A.J. Jenkins Literally Fumbles Away Opportunity
The 49ers afforded A.J. Jenkins every conceivable opportunity to win the wide-open No. 2 receiver job.
Problem is, he wasted every conceivable opportunity afforded to him.
Jenkins led 49ers’ receivers with 39 offensive snaps in the first preseason game according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Unfortunately, he continually failed to generate separation from defensive backs, helping lead to an interception and just one catch on three targets.
The former first-round pick negated anything positive on his lone catch as a 49er. He coughed up the ball soon after the reception and retreated to the sideline with his head held low.
This quick turnover sequence encapsulated Jenkins’ failed efforts in San Francisco: Lacking effort, poor attitude and non-NFL readiness.
Team brass traded Jenkins to the Chiefs less than 24 hours after he suited up and played 39 disappointing snaps opposite his new team.
Sad, ironic and inevitable all wrapped in one.
Game 2 Best: B.J. Daniels Is More Than Just a Utility Player
Possessing a wide-range of football talents is never a bad thing.
Unless coaches believe that playing quarterback is the least impressive of said abilities.
B.J. Daniels was a dual-threat quarterback while playing for the University of South Florida. He amassed 8,433 passing yards, 2,068 rushing yard and 77 touchdowns from scrimmage in four-plus collegiate seasons.
San Francisco’s coaching staff utilized his big-arm, speed-laden skill set in a variety of ways during the offseason. Jim Harbaugh and co. put him at wide receiver, running back and kick returner in addition to his work at quarterback.
Daniels, though, made sure his coaches understood his ability as a quarterback—first and foremost.
He orchestrated a go-ahead fourth quarter drive in Week 2 preseason action against Kansas City. He executed a quick two-step drop and lobbed a perfect touchdown pass to Chuck Jacobs in the corner of the end zone.
Daniels was 6-of-9 for 72 yards and a 128.0 efficiency rating for the game, not to mention showcasing his mobility with several quarterback scrambles. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest marks among all QBs graded.
It might have come against the Chiefs’ third-string backups, but Daniels proved that his time will come soon enough at the most important position on the field.
The 49ers are content using his vast talents any way they can for the time being.
Game 2 Worst: Special Teams Still Resembling Its 2012 Self
San Francisco’s special teams unit went from first to worst in a mere two-season span—relatively so, at least.
The respected pundits at Football Outsiders awarded a No. 2 rating to the 49ers for their performance in 2011. They followed that up one year later with the No. 20 overall grade for a thoroughly lackluster Brad Seely-coached group.
The 49ers acquired a bevy of special teams reinforcements over the offseason through free agency and the draft. Rookie Nick Moody and veterans Dan Skuta and Kassim Osgood represented three such additions.
Unfortunately, they did little to mitigate the failures of old during this particular outing.
Kansas City’s Quintin Demps ran 104 yards effectively untouched for a kickoff return touchdown in the first quarter. Devon Wylie logged a 52-yard punt return later in the game.
Noted stalwarts Skuta and sixth-round pick Moody were among a unit that completely fell short in its coverage responsibilities. Even the usually-reliable Andy Lee shanked a punt.
These gaffes could have very well meant the different between a “W” and “L” on the 49ers’ schedule at season’s end.
Thankfully, one particular member on this side of the ball held his own in spectacular fashion.
Game 2 Best: Phil Dawson Can Boot It With The Best of ‘Em
David Akers set an NFL record with 44 made field goals in 2011. He was often the winning catalyst during the 49ers’ 13-3 regular season campaign.
Akers then earned league honors on the other side of the spectrum just one season later. He missed an NFL-high 13 field goals in 2012 and helped stymie his team’s winning aspirations twice against the St. Louis Rams.
Phil Dawson, for his part, made sure such shortcomings were indeed a thing of the past in San Francisco.
The 14-year veteran nailed 93.5 percent of his kicks last year, not to mention registering an unheard of 14-of-15 from 50 or more yards since 2011. A Pro Bowl invitation came his way for his incredible 2012 production.
The man can simply kick it—and kick it accurately—on any field, in any weather, at any time.
Dawson proved as much against the Chiefs with a 3-of-3 outing. Best of all, two field goals split the uprights from 55 yards away.
They had room to spare.
Look for at least one game-winning kick from Dawson in 2013.
Game 3 Best: Get Comfortable With Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore
Wide receiver is a position rife with uncertainty for the 49ers outside of Anquan Boldin.
Or is it?
Fourth-round draftee Quinton Patton showcased his NFL viability during the 49ers last meaningful preseason game. He executed smooth routes throughout his time on the field, consistently overcoming press coverage and making clean catches when open.
He hauled in a five-yard touchdown pass after deftly finding an opening in the back of the end zone to cap things off.
Patton’s team-leading four receptions for 35 yards were all the more impressive considering his inability to catch balls with two hands in the offseason due to a fractured left index finger.
Said Colin Kaepernick on Patton’s performance, per Eric Branch of SFGate.com: “He’s a great player…He’s someone that just knows football. He knows how to get open. He knows how to make plays. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do for us.”
And from head coach Jim Harbaugh via Eric Branch of SFGate.com: “I think he’s a good physical player,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think that the big stage bothers him and it doesn’t make him nervous.”
Along with Patton, the little-known Marlon Moore produced a great showing this past Sunday.
Moore compiled three receptions for 32 yards, including an eye-catching 15-yarder. He displayed his great hands and speed as the starting No. 2 wideout.
Boldin, Kyle Williams, Moore and Patton will create a formidable top four receiving contingent for the 49ers until Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree return near the end of the 2013 season.
We just must wait and see how long it takes for observers to catch on with these other relative "no-names."
Game 3 Worst: Scott Tolzien, Parys Haralson Are Preseason Casualties
NFL backups, as in most sports, rarely get the respect they deserve.
This appears to be the case with regards to the 49ers’ Scott Tolzien and Parys Haralson.
Per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, Tolzien was one of five players released by the 49ers on Monday. It was a surprising move considering the 49ers were fielding calls for Colt McCoy as recently as Sunday morning, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
A noteworthy aspect of this development was Tolzien being let go despite his intimate knowledge of the playbook. He had been with the 49ers since 2011 and was known as a cerebral, high football-IQ player.
Rookie B.J. Daniels immediately understood this side of the former Wisconsin quarterback, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
“Scott was a technician of the game,” said Daniels. “I admired how Scott took notes and how he transferred that knowledge to the practice field.”
The team ultimately cut Tolzien and named the more athletic and read-option friendly McCoy as the No. 2 quarterback behind Colin Kaepernick.
It really was an unfortunate set of circumstances for Tolzien—an injury, of all things, prevented him from fighting for his job one final time.
Haralson’s release, meanwhile, was by far the most shocking roster move.
The longest-tenured 49er—outside of Frank Gore, Andy Lee and Brian Jennings—had served with the team since 2006. He returned to prime form this preseason following a lost 2012 campaign to a torn triceps.
Haralson was especially dominant in the first two games. He logged five tackles (four solo), one sack, two tackles for loss and one QB hit against Denver, followed by a two-tackle and one sack, tackle-for-loss and QB-hit performance at the Vikings’ expense one week later.
Equally notable was the leadership, passion and overall positive vibes he imparted on the rest of the team. Haralson had no qualms about manning a backup role at outside linebacker behind Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, and simply did his job.
Compounding this roster cut was Haralson’s standing as one of the most respected players on the team.
Eric Branch of SFGate.com described his far-reaching popularity, including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s thoughts on No. 98.
“He’s a great teammate, as we all know…Coaches like him. There isn’t anybody in the building that doesn’t like him because that’s just who he is as a person.”
Seeing Haralson move on to the New Orleans Saints is a regrettable loss for the 49ers.
Now it’s up to impressive rookie Corey Lemonier, veteran Dan Skuta and 2012 seventh-round pick Cam Johnson to pick up the pieces.
Game 3 Best: Colin Kaepernick as a Passer, Justin Smith as an Absolute Beast
Colin Kaepernick was often a run-first quarterback during last year’s preseason.
In 2013, he was a calculated, pass-first gunslinger.
Following limited playing time during the first two weeks, Kaepernick overcame a slow start and showcased his passing prowess against the Vikings’ first-team defense.
He connected on his final six passes (after a 1-of-7 start), hitting three different receivers in stride on an 84-yard drive. He capped it off with a five-yard touchdown strike to Quinton Patton.
What made Kaepernick’s performance the most eye-opening was his penchant for moving the chains with his arm. He utilized his mobility to find open passing lanes and go through all of his progressions—from the first to the third and even fourth receiving option.
Kaepernick is surely looking to be the best quarterback he can be in 2013.
Also primed for regular-season action is All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith.
While the box score would only reveal a three-tackle performance, the naked-eye witnessed something else entirely.
Smith made absolute mince meat of the Vikings’ 6’0’’, 234-pound Toby Gerhart on an early third down play. Needing mere inches for a first down, Smith foiled the attempt by reducing the bruising back to a rag doll for a four-yard loss.
Said head coach Jim Harbaugh via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area: "Justin Smith had a burr in his saddle or something tonight. He was Justin Smith. It was great."
This defensive stuff was purely emblematic of the bear-like strength Smith displays on the gridiron week in and week out. The ensuing reaction from teammates and coaches was equally apropos.
Would-be ball carriers for opposing teams will dread the week whenever Smith and the San Francisco 49ers appear on their 2013 schedule.
Both the immediate and long-term future of the red and gold looks rather bright from the perspective of the franchise’s 2013 draft class.
Tight end Vance McDonald set off the 49ers’ preseason with a bang with a team-leading four catches for 66 yards and a 16.5-yard average. He’ll fulfill a vital role this year as the team’s No. 2 TE behind Vernon Davis.
Eric Reid followed suit in the opening preseason matchup. He ranked second on the 49ers with six tackles (five solo) and made a couple bone-crushing hits. He then showed his proficiency in coverage over the next two games with a deflected pass and good awareness in deep center field.
Reid will make up for the loss of Dashon Goldson sooner rather than later.
Furthermore, sixth-round linebacker Nick Moody proved why he went drafted with his performance against Kansas City.
He led San Francisco with 10 tackles and made some positive contributions on special teams. The 49ers will count on consistent work in that latter role from Moody this season.
The aforementioned production from wideout Quinton Patton and quarterback-receiver-running back-kick returner extraordinaire B.J. Daniels is dully noted as well.
The same goes for outside linebacker Corey Lemonier.
Lemonier filled the team’s Week 2 box score with four tackles (four solo), one sack, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit. He added two more tackles and a dynamic pass rush the following week.
Pro Football Focus compiled Lemonier’s statistical output as a pass-rusher in ways not made available through other media outlets. The third-round selection accumulated eight quarterback hurries in addition to his one sack and four defensive stuffs, earning a very good 2.3 rating in the process.
Said grade is a positive indicator of what’s to come from every 49ers’ 2013 draftee—both now and in seasons not yet materialized.
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