10 Things We Learned About the San Francisco 49ers During Preseason
While preseason football may not count toward the official win-loss column or be as entertaining as NFL fans would like, it is a learning experience. With guys fighting for their livelihood, trying to make a roster or earn a promotion, the high level of competition breeds results. When players make plays—or fumble plays—it matters.
For the San Francisco 49ers, whose roster was mostly set in stone, the 2013 exhibition was about identifying and configuring depth, seeing who earned positions, as well as weighing where the team could afford to make moves.
This offseason, the backup quarterback, wide receiving corps, outside linebacker depth and cornerback group were all susceptible to change. The open competition over the course of four weeks was very formative for the final roster and how the depth would play out once the regular season began.
Stocks dropped; others soared, which resulted in the promotions, demotions and exiting of several players. The following contains a detailed breakdown of the top 10 takeaways from San Francisco’s 2013 preseason showing.
Statistics provided by NFL.com Game Center, unless specified otherwise. Quotes from coaches and players are courtesy of 49ers.com.
Rookie WR Quinton Patton Means Business
Production incarnate: That’s what wideout Quinton Patton is. It defined his legacy in the NCAA, and it was the trademark of his preseason debut.
Even though the rookie from Louisiana Tech got off to a sluggish start, having missed a majority of his first offseason training camp with a broken finger, including two of four exhibition games, it did not take long for the 7-11 hookup to take shape.
During his time on the injury list, Patton worked on the playbook, route running, catching balls one-handed, as well as getting his timing down with the quarterbacks. Jim Harbaugh called it “muscle memory,” via the team’s official website.
Very proactive, Patton caught up to speed, creating a role for himself in the offense by going under the wing of veteran Anquan Boldin and emphasizing the importance of learning directly from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Asked about transitioning from college to this system, Patton said, via YouTube: “It’s just a receiving position. All you’ve got to do is learn the plays. It’s not so tough.” Confident in his abilities, Patton also relayed that it is his goal to make a direct impact on the 49ers offense.
Once he finally got in the lineup, he delivered on his promise, demonstrating that this game is not too big for him. Two of his only three receptions from Kap resulted in touchdowns—a five-yarder and a 43-yarder. Given his alacrity and chemistry with San Francisco’s starting quarterback, Quinton Patton looks to have a sizable role right away.
After four-plus quarters, #49ers WR Quinton Patton leads team in receiving TDs (2) and ranks second in yards (78) in preseason.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 30, 2013
B.J. Daniels Makes for an Intriguing No. 3 Quarterback
In the last round of the 2013 draft, San Francisco selected its second-ever quarterback under the new regime, continuing to remodel the group in the post-Alex Smith era. With No. 7 moving to the front of the lineup, there was a positionwide shakeup, opening up a competition at the second and third spots.
As it turned out, dual-threat B.J. Daniels—an unheralded playmaker from South Florida—caught the eye of the powers that be, offering the same type of athleticism to the 49ers as their new starter.
Given the investment and Trent Baalke’s batting average in the draft, combined with Jim Harbaugh’s uncanny ability to develop passers, it makes for an interesting storyline going forward. Especially with the vanilla play that the team got from Colt McCoy, who was once at risk of being traded away prior to Week 1.
Daniels is also a multifaceted player who can get on the field in different ways. He competed at running back, wide receiver and on the return team in camp this offseason, showing he can wear many hats akin to the ever-so-versatile Delanie Walker, who is no longer with the team.
Since he can pass and throw, it would not be a surprise to see the 49ers design trick plays that include two quarterbacks on the field.
He also checks in at 5’11”, like that of rival quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. For at least two weeks of preparation this year, he will be the likely Wilson clone in practice, acclimating the defense to that style of passer.
Overall, B.J. Daniels brings a lot of intrigue and upside for a seventh-rounder who only lists as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster.
B.J. Daniels has been blitzed on nine dropbacks this preseason. Sacked twice, one run, otherwise 5-6, 55 yards, TD (144.4 QB rating). #49ers— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) August 29, 2013
The 49ers Are Deep at Outside Linebacker
San Francisco’s pass rush may be on another level in 2013. The fact that the team felt veteran linebacker Parys Haralson was expendable—essentially giving him away for free to the Saints—should make the rest of the NFC West cringe. Unloading his contract was all the team wanted out of the deal, while providing its young guns at the position with a chance to glisten.
The week of the home opener, the 49ers struck again, trading second-year linebacker Cam Johnson to the Indianapolis Colts for another conditional draft pick, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco. Johnson’s preseason line of eight tackles and three sacks gave him more value than the team knew what to do with.
The team already had two starting All-Pros and a rookie pass-rusher whom analyst Mike Mayock deemed a first-round talent, via NFL.com.
But exhibition clearly showed us that the Niners were equipped to withstand the loss of such a prestigious player and another promising up-and-comer. Their performance into the fourth quarter characterized a team that was deep up front. At the end of the day, it was the arrival Corey Lemonier who provided the 49ers staff with enough confidence to move forward.
Frankly, Lemonier’s output of five tackles and two sacks—combined with countless hurries—was too difficult to ignore. Even when he wasn’t connecting with the ball-carrier, Lemonier was redirecting traffic, disrupting passing lanes and putting constant pressure on the quarterback.
He impacted plays, and that’ll lead to him getting reps with the defense this season.
Then there was free-agent acquisition Dan Skuta, the veteran special teams ace from Cincinnati. He was all over the field, performing well week in and week out, even coming away with three sacks of his own. Overall, this will be a position of strength for San Francisco this season.
Re: Haralson trade, Corey Lemonier leads all 3-4 OLB in our Pass Rush Productivity Rating in preseason. Sack and 8 hurries in 35 rushes.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) August 27, 2013
San Francisco Is Serious About Upgrading the Special Teams
One of the primary focuses of the offseason was upgrading a special teams unit that dropped from No. 2 to No. 20 in the span of an offseason, per Football Outsiders efficiency ratings (2011-2012). Trent Baalke made several acquisitions, both in free agency and the draft, that were reflective of the need to address the unit—but how many would stick around after cuts was anyone’s guess.
San Francisco signed and retained safety Craig Dahl, safety Ray Ventrone and outside linebacker Dan Skuta. The 49ers also brought in Florida State ace Nick Moody via the NFL draft. Added in that same class, first-round pick Eric Reid will also be able to contribute on the coverage team.
Then there was RB Anthony Dixon, who managed to stay on for another year despite depth and incoming competition at the tailback position. This goes to show how much San Francisco valued his contributions in that phase of the game, particularly the continuity he brings to a unit that is in the midst of a makeover.
There were a lot of decisions made based on the betterment of Brad Seely’s special teams group, so it’d be a surprise to see the bunch struggle again in 2013.
Michael Wilhoite Is a Top Backup at Inside Linebacker
A lot of people were reluctant to say the 49ers adequately replaced the depth at inside linebacker in the wake of Larry Grant’s departure. After three years with St. Louis, Grant spent his last two years backing up NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, even starting three games during that time.
Having racked up double-digit tackles in two of those games, as the 49ers went on to finish 2-1, there was a comfort level with Grant. They knew he could be trusted to step into the lineup and play well alongside either Bowman or Willis. He played hard, knew the defense and even contributed on special teams.
However, the 49ers rarely make a personnel decision without knowing full well what they’re getting into. For instance, the questionable choice to let their defensive tackles walk in free agency was silenced by the rise of Ian Williams. At the inside ‘backer position, the 49ers have a like situation.
Judging by his exceptional training camp and preseason performance, it looks like S.F. traded up by going with Michael Wilhoite.
After cooking in the 49ers oven for two years, learning behind a pair of All-Pros and linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, it appears as if Wilhoite is finally ready to get involved during game day. Having been in the system for two years, he was able to play faster than ever and use his athleticism as a former college safety to track down running backs and receivers in space.
A broad, body-rocking hitter, Michael Wilhoite will fit right in.
Cornerback Depth Is Surprisingly Strong
At first, Chris Culliver’s season-ending injury appeared crippling for the secondary, seeing as how he quickly emerged as San Francisco’s top cover corner. Heading into a schedule featuring Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, the 49ers looked to be heavily dependent on Cully to take away the primary receivers.
Only a couple years into the league, he managed to become a very significant cog in the weekly game plan, affording defensive play-caller Vic Fangio with quite a luxury. A physical 6’0” corner with 4.3 speed, per NFLDraftScout.com, Cully proved he could run stride-for-stride with the elite prototypes in the league.
However, Culliver being out for the year modified the approach.
Instead of relying on the abundant talent of two or three men at the position, the 49ers have been forced to trust the depth of the cornerback unit as a whole, all the way down to the fifth guy. This was a group the coaches really needed to see results from this offseason, and they did.
While the unit was comfortable with Nos. 1 and 2 corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, the third, fourth and fifth spots were wide open to change. Nnamdi Asomugha, Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock all competed for Culliver’s spot, and there was a bit of a logjam as to who would play behind the starters.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the competition was Asomugha, who had flashes of his old self. He was fluid turning with the receivers, aggressively defending the field both vertically and laterally. The eye-popping part was how physical he looked in press man (his specialty) and tackling.
Being in this defense has him turned up a notch.
Then there was Cox, who excelled both inside and on the perimeter, demonstrating his versatility while playing quality football. And Brock, who has been a fairly underrated player given how the 49ers have been able to depend on him. All in all, the physical talent might not be booming at cornerback, but San Francisco has pretty incredible volume.
Colt McCoy Is a Shaky Backup
Heading into Week 3 of the 2013 preseason, there was only one other player who had a lower QB rating than McCoy, and that was Tim Tebow, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. After that start, the 49ers quarterback finished 19-of-30 with one touchdown and one interception in his last two games, which was better but not good.
He struggled mightily to move the ball through the air, having to scramble for yards on numerous occasions. Whether it was with the starting O-line or not, McCoy failed to find the open receiver and lacked confidence. The 49ers knew he was not starting caliber, but frankly, he should’ve played better than he did.
Teams like Washington, Detroit, Miami and New England all have solid depth behind the starters. Even the Giants upgraded this offseason by drafting Syracuse signal-caller Ryan Nassib, who supplanted longtime backup David Carr.
As the 49ers enter the 2013 season, Colt McCoy does not inspire any confidence that he could step into the lineup if need be.
Yesterday, I visited my mom and she tossed out this nugget: "I think B.J. Daniels is better than Colt McCoy." She must be getting antsy.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 30, 2013
The Kyle Williams Project Has Been Kept Under Wraps
Niners wideout Kyle Williams returned from an ACL injury on July 25, per the team’s official website. He hit the ground running, too. All reports indicated that Williams had an ironclad training camp, flying around the field as one of San Francisco’s most consistent players at a position group in flux.
Apart from a minor hamstring tweak along the way, Williams had as good an outing as anyone could have hoped for. From his consistency on the practice field, fortitude in front of the media, relationship with Kaepernick and tutelage of the incoming players, he fully grew into a veteran receiver this offseason.
Oddly enough, even though he was back to full strength, Williams was held out of the entirety of the exhibition. “We feel we know what Kyle can do, so we’ve been a little cautious there,” said coach Jim Harbaugh in regard to holding No. 10 out of the 2013 preseason, via 49ers.com.
Translation: We’re hiding him.
Coming into the league, Kyle Williams had loads of physical ability, but between injuries and a quarterback carousel that lacked talent, combined with the national scrutiny following a major playoff blunder, he never had a legitimate opportunity to see his potential.
Now, it looks like Williams will be the No. 2 wide receiver opposite Anquan Boldin to start Week 1 and may sneak up on teams. This makes him one of the biggest sleeper candidates to blow up the NFL scene this year. Not only is he shifty, but he also has the top speed to get open downfield for Colin Kaepernick.
He will be a player to watch this season with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham sidelined by injury.
This is telling: The 49ers voted Kyle Williams as their Ed Block Courage Award winner. Shows how well-liked/respected he is in the locker rm— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) March 18, 2013
Two New Defensive Wrinkles in the Works
Cornerback Perrish Cox (6’0”, 198 lbs) did a fair amount of blitzing in the preseason, even finishing with two sacks against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. Talking about his versatility in the prior slide, this is the type of stuff we’ve seen—he gets into a little bit of everything.
Vic Fangio played him close to the line of scrimmage, sending him from the slot and letting him play off his fellow defensemen in the box.
The 49ers have not sent a ton of corner blitzes, not even really playing their defensive backs near the line outside the safeties. They’ve largely depended on the edge rush from the outside ‘backers to generate pressure. But with Cox looking like the honey badger in preseason, Fangio may be inclined to add this to his script on game day.
In the defensive front, San Francisco will also deploy a rotation of outside linebackers and defensive linemen. Conceptually, this is to keep the pass rush fresh while sending in different players that offensive lines have to adjust to. This will potentially prevent a quarterback or offensive tackle from getting in a groove.
It will also take away the focus from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, providing balance.
With their new personnel, it would not surprising to see the 49ers perhaps launch their own version of the NASCAR package, akin to the Giants, utilizing Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Justin Smith as a four-man line. This collection of speed and power will be terrorizing up front.
Tight End Vance McDonald Is NFL-Ready
Like Quinton Patton and Eric Reid, rookie tight end Vance McDonald looks ready to go right now.
In three exhibition matchups, the second-rounder from Rice University averaged 13.7 yards per catch. If you eliminate his single-catch game versus the Chargers, he would have finished with an average of 15.0 yards per carry on six grabs. At 6’4”, 267 pounds, he was a big sure-handed target that gained chunks of yards at a time with his momentum after the catch.
Typically, when rookie tight ends come in, there is an inadequacy, either because of an inability to pick up the totality of the system right away, trouble with in-line blocking or catching the football. While McDonald has room to improve in all those facets, he is pretty up to speed and looks to be a capable contributor from the first offensive snap in Week 1.
Harbaugh has seen improvement in @Kaepernick7's throwing anticipation, pointed out deep ball to Vance McDonald. "That one got me fired up."— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) July 28, 2013