San Francisco 49ers: Recapping the Latest Buzz Heading into Training Camp
Camp starts on July 24. A week before that, the 49ers coaching staff will take a close look at various position battles along with notes on each key player on the roster, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
There have already been plenty of storylines surrounding the 49ers this past offseason.
Contractual disputes, off-field issues, competition for key positions and many other factors have worked their way into San Francisco's headlines in recent weeks and months.
With training camp just on the horizon, the 49ers now shift their entire focus towards improving a franchise that already stands at the upper echelon of NFL teams.
So what will be the biggest stories to pay attention to as camp draws near?
In this slideshow we recap and break down the top five storylines that warrant attention as the 49ers gear up for their 2014 campaign.
There are position battles to be won, contract issues to be settled and much more.
Let's dive further into detail regarding some of the noteworthy buzz surrounding San Francisco with two weeks remaining before training camp.
Will the Defense Continue to Be a Dominant Force?
San Francisco's defense has long been one of the preeminent strengths of the franchise—a unit that has catapulted this team from irrelevance into one of the featured elites of the NFL.
Last season, the 49ers ranked fifth in the league in yards allowed (5,071) and gave up the third fewest points (272) during the season.
But a lot has changed from a year ago.
We can start with the front seven—the vital element that has generated so much pressure on opposing offenses in recent seasons.
San Francisco may be without two of its featured Pro Bowl caliber defenders for a lengthy span to start the regular season.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is still recovering from the gruesome knee injury he suffered during the NFC Championship last season and is expected to miss roughly half the 2014 season, per Will Brinson of CBS Sports.
Replacing him will be a tough task. Michael Wilhoite should be expected as the favorite to fill in Bowman's stead. He did so admirably for Patrick Willis last year when Willis missed time due to a minor injury, but can Wilhoite replicate the same sort of production?
Time will be the ultimate judge, and training camp should give us a better indication.
Then there are the ongoing developments in the Aldon Smith case.
Per Kevin Lynch of SF Gate, Smith will face sentencing for convictions on DUI and weapons charges on July 22—the legal ramifications of which may include jail time and a likely suspension handed down from the NFL.
This means Smith should be expected to miss a sizable chunk of the 2014 season. How much of an impact will this have on the 49ers defense?
Granted, the 49ers have enviable depth backing up these key spots. As with Wilhoite spelling Bowman, we should expect a combination of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta to hold any void if and when Smith serves his suspension. Rookie Aaron Lynch may also factor into the equation.
Expect San Francisco's brass to give each of these players a good look during camp.
Kevin Lynch also goes into detail about one of the linchpins of San Francisco's defensive front: defensive end Justin Smith. The 34-year-old Smith has logged plenty of hours over his NFL career and tallied 32 solo tackles a season ago.
Lynch questions what many of us have long been asking: How much gas is left in the tank, and will the elder Smith be nearly as effective as he was last season?
Smith, along with fellow end Ray McDonald, should see plenty of relief from second-year lineman Tank Carradine this season. We will focus more on Carradine's impact shortly.
These three players—Bowman, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith—are extremely vital cogs in San Francisco's front seven. Whether or not the 49ers can make the necessary adjustments to overcome the various factors affecting each player remains to be seen.
It remains a situation worth monitoring.
Then there are the questions surrounding San Francisco's new-look secondary. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has plenty of new faces with which to work this season.
But that aspect is worthy of a slide in of itself.
The New-Look Secondary
We could spend half a day breaking down all the changes that have transpired in the 49ers' backfield this offseason but that would become redundant in short order.
So here is a brief summary instead.
Gone are the likes of Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright.
Stepping in are new faces like safeties Antoine Bethea and rookie Jimmie Ward. Added cornerbacks include Chris Cook and rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. Chris Culliver returns after missing all of 2013 due to injury.
San Francisco is also looking for an increased role out of second-year pro Darryl Morris.
A year ago, the 49ers ranked No. 7 in pass-yards allowed (3,536). Granted, much of this was due to San Francisco's effectiveness up front—thwarting the passing game by putting solid pressure on opponents' quarterbacks.
With plenty of new faces in place, what will this unit bring to the table in 2014?
We should expect the 49ers' crop of safeties to be above par this upcoming season. Pro Bowler Eric Reid enters his second NFL season a year removed from an impressive rookie campaign. Alongside him will be the veteran presence of Bethea.
Ward may have some influence in this portion of the defense as well, but we'll save his evaluation for the cornerback position as he is expected to compete for the nickel job.
What of the cornerbacks then?
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee lists this particular unit as being the "diciest" element on the team. He points out that both Brown and Rogers are now with the Oakland Raiders and the projected men replacing them—Culliver and Tramaine Brock—have a combined 13 starts between them.
Will that show in 2014?
With Brock and Culliver expected to take over the Nos. 1 and 2 positions on the depth chart, we shift our focus to the slot corner role.
Ward could be the player to eventually take over this job, but an offseason injury has hampered his development and Fangio has pointed out that the rookie is "behind" per Eric Branch of SF Gate.
He’s going to be behind. And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
In the meantime, the 49ers are looking at second-year special teamer Morris as a possible early-season slot corner as well as four-year veteran Perrish Cox.
Training camp will give us a better indication as to how this development is shaping up. Should Ward impress enough, he could be the 49ers' No. 3 corner in Week 1. If not, San Francisco will have to count upon its depth.
This depth creates perhaps the most interesting competition heading towards the regular season. This is the argument made by 49ers.com writer Taylor Price.
Expect Fangio and San Francisco's coaching staff to utilize this competition to the best of the team's advantage in coming weeks.
Impact of Second-Year Players
We've already touched on two of the 49ers' second-year players already—Eric Reid and Darryl Morris—on the previous slide, as well as Corey Lemonier the slide prior. Lawrence Okoye may even be working his way into the 53-man equation.
But what of the remaining cast of San Francisco's impact 2013 draft picks?
Let's focus on two specific players who could have major influence upon the 49ers' chances this season: defensive end Tank Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore.
Both players were redshirted a year ago—each recovering from collegiate injuries that thwarted their respective draft stocks to a level where San Francisco was comfortable drafting them.
Carradine may be the "player to watch" on defense this year.
While we should expect incumbent ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald to see the majority of snaps at the start (and perhaps through the majority) of the 2014 season, Carradine's debut will be highly anticipated.
Carradine's pass-rushing prowess cannot be overlooked. He posted 16.5 sacks in a two-year span at Florida State, along with 21 tackles for a loss.
Now he serves as the direct understudy of—and possibly the eventual replacement for—Smith, a player he greatly admires.
Carradine will essentially do two things for San Francisco's defensive front. First, he will offer needed relief for both Smith and McDonald, keeping both players fresh for the duration of the 16-week season and hopefully into the playoffs.
More importantly, Carradine will provide a different look on defense and force opposing teams to make even more adjustments to the 49ers' pass rush.
If Carradine can be a beast on defense, which many, like 49ers.com writer Taylor Price and Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows, think he will be, the 49ers won't have to worry too much about the age issue surrounding Smith as we discussed previously.
Perhaps this unit even improves upon the achievements garnered last season.
Jumping over to the other side of the ball, we can also take a close look at second-year running back Lattimore.
In a vacuum, we would have viewed Lattimore as the likeliest of candidates to take over the duties once the 49ers move on from the Frank Gore era.
Things never occur in a vacuum, however.
We know how crowded San Francisco's backfield is entering training camp. Behind Gore, the 49ers are looking at Lattimore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and 2014 draft pick Carlos Hyde.
Hyde figures to be the biggest competition for Lattimore in securing the eventual featured-back role for the 49ers in the long run.
While we should continue to expect Gore to start the season as the No. 1 back, the biggest question will be who spells him directly over the course of the 2014 season.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, there are plenty of aspects factoring into the equation. He writes:
It all depends on how well [Hyde] does in pass protection. The 49ers have not seen Hyde or Lattimore in pads. If they are slow to pick up the nuances of the 49ers’ blitz pickup packages—or are not physically able to carry out their assignments—then, there’s no way either is going to get onto the field for significant playing time this season. Hunter, the 49ers’ backup running back in each of his three seasons with the club, is very underrated in all aspects. But the 49ers rate him highly. And that's all that matters. Until Hyde or Lattimore prove themselves, the 49ers’ coaching staff is going to stick with Hunter because they know he can be trusted.
From Maiocco's standpoint, Lattimore essentially has three things to overcome: the injury, competition with Hyde and his ability to develop in pass protection.
More of this will be determined when the 49ers don pads in full-contact drills during training camp.
#49ers OTA ends with a Marcus Lattimore run. He looks good, albeit in a no-full pads, no- hitting context.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) May 28, 2014
Lattimore's role seems much less certain than Carradine's. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Carradine should be the primary backup behind Smith and McDonald. Lattimore's projections could be as high as the No. 2 back or, in a worst-case scenario, as low as not making the 53-man roster altogether.
Training camp will provide further information as to what the future holds for both of these players, and all the 49ers' second-year veterans in general.
Development of the Passing Game
The 49ers' passing game was pretty bad in 2013.
In fact, San Francisco ranked 30th in the league in total pass yards (2,979).
There were obviously a number of different factors that played into those lowly numbers. There was the ongoing maturation process of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The lack of effective wide receivers played a role. Many questioned offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play-calling.
San Francisco hopes to have solved each of these issues heading into the 2014 season.
Kaepernick's lucrative six-year, $126 million contract extension was indication that the 49ers are putting faith in the 26-year-old's abilities under center.
More importantly, San Francisco addressed its need for additional wide receiver help. First, they brought back Anquan Boldin on a two-year deal. Then they added veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd via free agency.
The team traded for six-year veteran Stevie Johnson and drafted South Carolina wideout Bruce Ellington to solve their need for speed.
These players, combined with returning veterans Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton, give the 49ers a much deeper pool of talent from which to utilize entering the season.
San Francisco now has six bonafide receivers all vying to make the 53-man roster entering the season. This was not a luxury a year ago.
"Trimming down that group" will be a tough challenge for the 49ers' coaching staff per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. But Price points out that this is a welcomed challenge given the situation the team faced last season.
Exactly which players make the cut is yet to be seen. Perhaps we won't know exactly until the conclusion of the preseason. Yet the 49ers have competition here and that competition is never a bad thing.
So how exactly does Roman plan on utilizing these added weapons?
Roman recently hinted via Eric Branch of SF Gate (h/t Josh Alper of NBC Sports) that the 49ers are planning to pass more in 2014. Branch does indicate, however, that it would be hard to pass any less in the run-heavy offense featured during the Jim Harbaugh era.
We know how much San Francisco runs the ball. Even with the added changes at wide receiver, we should not expect the 49ers to suddenly become a pass-happy team.
This is the argument made by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. He writes:
The guess here is that the 49ers will throw more and use more three-receiver formations than they have in the past. But considering how sparingly they’ve used that formation until now, an increase won’t necessarily mean they’ll be putting the ball in the air as much as even the average NFL team.
What eventually transpires will be the culmination of these three aforementioned issues coming together—Kaepernick's development, the reinforced wide receiver crop and Roman's utilization of the offense.
While we shouldn't quite expect the 49ers to totally reveal their intentions during training camp and into the preseason, we can at least take away the notion that the offense is better equipped to be a much more dynamic unit in the upcoming season.
It is impossible to check out any 49ers news this offseason without tripping over a story about the respective holdouts of tight end Vernon Davis and offensive guard Alex Boone.
Given his playmaking status, Davis has garnered much more of the attention from this vantage point.
A number of NFL personnel have weighed in on the matter. Former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary—whom Davis attributed as being critical in his development—stated that communication between Davis and the 49ers was key, per NFL Network’s NFL Total Access (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
Even 49er fan-favorite villain Richard Sherman commented on the issue via USA Today’s TheHuddle.com (h/t Maiocco) stating, "If he believes in what he’s doing, you got to stick to it. You can’t be wishy-washy in this situation."
Davis' contract disputes have certainly created a rift. On the one hand, Davis is the third-highest paid tight end in the league at five years, $36.75 million—a contract that was the highest given to a player at his position in NFL history at the time.
But Davis has stated that he has outplayed his contract, which leads to the argument whether players should honor their deals.
Davis posted 850 yards on 52 receptions, good for 13 touchdowns last season. There is no questioning his value to the offense. But at 30 years old, the likelihood of Davis slowing down becomes a greater possibility with each subsequent year.
With this in mind, do the 49ers give in?
From all practical standpoints, it would make more sense to give into Boone's contractual demands ahead of Davis.
First, Boone is 27 years old and has yet to cash in on a big payday. Boone ranks 38th on the list of NFL contracts for offensive guards at an average yearly salary of $1.635 million.
Few would question that Boone has outperformed his contract. He has turned into one of the better offensive linemen in the league, and his beef with the lowly contract seems much more justified.
But again, the question remains: Should players honor their contracts?
If the answer is yes, then we should be fair and assume teams should honor them as well. NFL franchises do not exactly honor their end of the bargain either and often cut/renegotiate deals long before the terms are up.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but perhaps the best argument is made by @SoCaliSteph at Niners Nation, who stresses that the system is to blame and not the players involved.
So where do the 49ers go from here?
Perhaps the precedent has been set by the 2011 holdout of running back Frank Gore, as described by Maiocco (h/t Mike Florio of NBC Sports). The 49ers executed good-faith contract discussions with Gore only after Gore reported to training camp.
This is likely going to be the same route taken by San Francisco in regards to both Boone and Davis.
49ers likely won't negotiate with Vernon Davis or Alex Boone until they show up http://t.co/i84KkLziqs— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 19, 2014
It would make sense that the 49ers would approach negotiations with Boone before Davis given Boone's age, small contract and the importance of the O-line for San Francisco's offense.
But holdouts can be tricky and dangerous for both sides. Both Boone and Davis have already forfeited workout bonuses and have been fined for missing mandatory minicamp. Ongoing holdouts can be distractions for both the players involved and the team as a whole.
We probably won't know more until training camp picks up, but this issue will certainly be one of the primary focal points of the 49ers' preseason regimen leading up to Week 1.
What hot topics do you feel are relevant to the 49ers heading into training camp? Chime in on the comments section and speak your mind!
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive for 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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