The San Francisco 49ers’ mandatory minicamp wrapped up on Thursday, with the defense clearly ahead of the offense.
This isn’t stunning, considering the 49ers are missing Vernon Davis and Alex Boone from holdouts, and that most of the starting receivers have missed some time or another throughout OTAs, be it from injury or just rest for some of the veterans. It’s tempting to be disappointed by the offense’s showing, considering Colin Kaepernick’s new contract and the revamping of the receiving corps, but it is only June; there’s plenty of time for the offense to come together.
There were plenty of highlights and things to get excited about during the minicamp, especially on the defensive side.
The cornerback position experienced a bit of a shakeup as Eric Wright opted to retire. Wright played 120 snaps for San Francisco last season, and his absence cuts into the depth at the position.
What this means, however, is that there have been other players stepping up to fill that void. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has raved about Chris Cook, saying that “he's definitely made progress” during his extensive practice time with the first-string defense. Second-year player Darryl Morris has been working with the starting lineup in nickel formations, and by all accounts has shown some excellent results there. He might be in position to steal some playing time in 2014, albeit probably in dime packages.
The theme of the second day of minicamp was turnovers, as Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson all found themselves victimized by turnovers:
- Ahmad Brooks read a Kaepernick screen pass and came down with the ball with no one between him and the end zone; in a game situation, it would have been a sure touchdown.
- Perrish Cox found an off-target pass by Johnson in a 7-on-7 drill in the red zone, stepping in front of it with room down the sideline.
- Eric Reid saw Bethel-Thompson looking for Quinton Patton on a crossing route and made a perfectly timed break on the ball, again with no one between him and the end zone.
Is that positive defensive play or disappointing ball security from the quarterbacks? In the case of Brooks and Reid, it looked like strong reads from defensive players, while Cox’s interception was more grabbing an off-target throw. I’ll be optimistic and say it was a talented defense making plays, but your mileage may vary.
On offense, the absence of Alex Boone, via holdout, and Anthony Davis, recovering from shoulder surgery, has led to clues as to the status of the 49ers’ depth chart on the offensive line so far.
The majority of snaps at right tackle have gone to Jonathan Martin, the ex-Miami Dolphin who was acquired via trade after the bullying scandal in Miami. Standing in next to him at right guard has mostly been Joe Looney—not Adam Snyder, who you might expect.
Looney’s so anonymous that a local TV station mistakenly interviewed him as a 49ers fan reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s contract, but the 49ers are happy with his development so far. He was the one to come off the bench last season when Joe Staley was hurt against St. Louis, playing right guard so Boone could move over to left tackle.
Snyder’s a more versatile player than Looney, having played every position on the line in the NFL, but he has a $1.3 million cap hit, compared to sub-million values for Martin and Looney. It’s not inconceivable he finds himself a cap casualty if the 49ers are looking for more money to give to Boone or one of the upcoming free agents.
As for the starting center battle, Daniel Kilgore has been coming along well, with no notable miscues on the quarterback-center exchange. Rookie Marcus Martin did botch a shotgun snap to McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but has otherwise been receiving rave reviews from offensive coordinator Greg Roman:
I think Marcus has done a really good job coming in as a rookie. The center position, guys and gals, there’s so much that a center has to do in this league week-to-week. There’s just so many different adjustments and whatnot. He’s done a really good job so far against our defense, not only physically, but mentally as well.
The starting center is probably the closest thing the 49ers have to a wide-open position battle, so seeing Martin get so much praise is a promising development, be it for 2014 or the future.
The rookies getting the most praise, however, have been second-round running back Carlos Hyde and fourth-round receiver Bruce Ellington.
Roman’s practically been gushing about Hyde:
Since he got here from the draft, really impressed me as a guy that football just makes sense to him. If you could just tell him what to do, and you don’t have to tell him too much. And that’s a beautiful thing in a running back because they have a lot of adjustments to make and protection, et cetera."
Hyde hasn’t been able to show off his forte, the bruising goal-line running he excels at, because these practices have been primarily non-contact. He has been showing good hands out of the backfield, however, and if he picks up his blocking assignments fast for a rookie, he could see a lot of action in 2014.
Bruce Ellington, on the other hand, has been able to show off what he can do in the non-contact drills, and he’s been pretty much wowing everyone up to this point. Matt Maiocco reports Ellington blazing down the sideline, beating Dontae Johnson for a long pass, while Cam Inman reports that Ellington has made a “widespread positive impression,” looking “smooth on kickoff return duties."
“He’s faster than he looks and can separate,” Kaepernick said about Ellington.
All in all, it was a positive minicamp. The team now breaks until the start of training camp in mid-July, with no other scheduled team events between now and then. Here’s hoping everyone stays healthy and out of trouble over the next month, so the momentum from these positive practices can continue on through training camp and the preseason.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.
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