6 Players Turning Heads at San Francisco 49ers Training Camp
Training camp is well underway, and for the San Francisco 49ers, there have already been a number of players that have shown signs of good form ahead of the new season.
It is widely accepted that San Francisco has one of the deepest and best rosters in the league.
And if the early signs from training camp count for anything, then this is a team that looks set to get even better in 2014.
Of course, you can read only so much into camp performances. But it will at least be encouraging for head coach Jim Harbaugh to see many of his team already displaying promise as he bids to guide them to a Super Bowl title after coming agonizingly close in each of the last three seasons.
Both rookies and experienced players have caught the eye in the first week of camp, which serves as a perfect illustration of the depth of talent that is present on a team that has been bolstered by the addition of 12 draft picks in the offseason.
But who of the early camp standouts has demonstrated the most potential to make a significant difference in the 2014 campaign?
Here, I look at the prospective candidates by examining six players who have turned heads so far in practices.
One 49ers player that will be desperate for a career year is wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree is a free agent in 2015 and will be looking for either a lucrative extension with San Francisco or a move to pastures new.
Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, general manager Trent Baalke recently revealed that the 49ers are "going to try" to extend Crabtree's contract, although the two sides are not thought to be anywhere close to an agreement.
It is not at all surprising that the Niners are keen to keep Crabtree around, especially given his performances in big games in recent years.
After missing much of last season due to an Achilles injury, Crabtree, per Pro Football Reference, made 15 grabs in the playoffs and, while he was unable to match his performance of the previous postseason—when he had two 100-yard games on the 49ers' run to the Super Bowl—his play was yet another indicator of his ability to come through in the clutch.
The former Texas Tech wideout appears to have carried his play from the playoffs into training camp, leading offensive coordinator Greg Roman, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, to lavish praise on the former first-round pick:
I think this training camp, as look at it, I'm saying that he's better than the old Michael Crabtree. Why? His physical conditioning, his understanding of the game. I think he played the games last year under less-than-ideal circumstances and had to adjust his game a little bit to account for that.
It is not difficult to see why Roman has been quick to laud the efforts of the 49ers' top receiver, which have been met with approval from a number of observers.
Crabtree's best performance of camp so far probably came last Tuesday when he caught two touchdown passes, demonstrating the rapport with quarterback Colin Kaepernick that was so evident during the playoffs.
However, Crabtree's progress has been dealt a minor setback as, per Barrows, coach Harbaugh revealed last Friday that the wideout would miss between one to two weeks through injury, although the problem is not thought to be serious or related to last year's Achilles issue.
But, in spite of that slight hitch, Roman's testimony hints at a player primed to return the kind of form that saw him rack up 1,100 yards receiving and score nine touchdowns in 2012.
If that is the case, then the payday Crabtree seeks may not be far away.
In a significantly remodeled 49ers secondary, first-round pick Jimmie Ward figures to be a key player.
After an excellent spell at Northern Illinois as a safety, Ward was drafted with a view to becoming San Francisco's nickel cornerback following the departures of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
A playmaker in his time with the Huskies, Ward recorded 30 passes defensed and 11 interceptions in his collegiate career.
The nickel role should be ideal for Ward given his 5'11" and 192-pound frame, which is perhaps more suited to that of a corner than a safety.
And Ward has already begun to show his prowess around the ball in training camp, demonstrating why the Niners opted to take him with pick No. 30.
Indeed, Ward made a diving interception after Chris Cook had deflected a Colin Kaepernick pass in the opening session of camp and went on to record another pick during Sunday's practice.
Ward's play in training camp has seen him receive plaudits from coaches and teammates alike, including Antoine Bethea, who Ward may one day replace at the strong safety spot next to Eric Reid.
Per Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle, Bethea has been impressed with how active Ward has been around the ball.
According to Branch, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has also been pleased with what he has seen from the Niners' top pick so far, hailing Ward's attitude since recovering from a foot injury that saw him sit out the offseason programs prior to camp:
I like him mentally. I think he's confident without being cocky or arrogant. I think he knows he's got a daunting task ahead of him, that he's been put behind the eight ball with no offseason work.
I think he's ready to work. I think he's very coachable. He's ready to fight through the growing pains. I think everything about him emotionally and mentally will end up being on the plus side of his ledger.
That mental fortitude should see Ward fit in well in a defense that possesses stacks of character and is widely regarded as one of the toughest in the NFL.
There will obviously be some growing pains, however. Early indications suggest that Ward will have a good chance of successfully making the transition to the pros and become a key component of the San Francisco defense.
After playing his way into the starting cornerback role, Tramaine Brock will be aiming to prove that his five-interception 2013 season was no fluke.
An undrafted free agent picked up by the 49ers in 2010, Brock's rise has been nothing short of startling and has resulted in him earning a four-year extension last November.
The 25-year-old has been hampered in camp by a minor leg injury but, aside from that small setback, Brock has already shown signs of continuing his upward rise with his play in training camp.
Williamson is not the only observer to take note of Brock's fine performances during camp, with Harbaugh—per Maiocco—labelling both Brock and Chris Culliver, the 49ers' prospective starting corner on the opposite side, as being on a "different level" to the other players at the position.
That is quite a compliment considering that this time last year Brock was nothing more than a special teams contributor.
Now he stands as the key player in arguably the weakest area of the 49ers' exceptional defense.
Barring any serious injury, Brock will be the guy at corner alongside Culliver and, if he is able to maintain the form he displayed in 2013 and has already demonstrated in training camp, could soon establish himself as the leader of the back end of the defense.
San Francisco's defensive line may be in need in a little bit of youthful rejuvenation, and Cornellius "Tank" Carradine appears to be just the man to provide it.
There has been much hype surrounding defensive end Carradine, who effectively redshirted his first year in the NFL after being drafted in the second round in 2013, as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered in his final season at Florida State.
The buzz surrounding Carradine is understandable considering his collegiate statistics, which saw him earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2012 after recording 11 sacks and a forced fumble.
And, if his training camp performances count for anything, Carradine looks capable of justifying his reputation as an exciting and explosive pass-rusher.
In order to make the transition from a 4-3 to San Francisco's 3-4 defense, Carradine has added some bulk to his frame, reportedly reaching 295 pounds in March.
That extra size appears to have made a difference, with Carradine coming close to pancaking Mike Iupati on Day 6 of camp, according to Barrows.
Carradine has earned the plaudits of his head coach for his "strong start," but that is not to say it has been all positives for the former Seminole.
To the contrary, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been somewhat critical of Carradine's inability to stick to assignments, according to Branch:
He was never healthy last year and now he's getting a chance to learn and show what he can do mentally. He's got a ways to go there yet. Like I've said, sitting in those meetings doesn't mean you've learned it and he's living proof of that. So he's got to do better from an assignment standpoint for us to feel comfortable to play him. Right now he's missing too many things mentally.
Carradine will need to heed Fangio's words in order to be the success many expect him to be.
Yet, while there are clearly issues with Carradine's ability to handle the mental side of the game, training camp has proven to be a glowing exhibition of his physical skills.
Those athletic attributes will take him only so far. However, with veteran Justin Smith now 34 and Ray McDonald soon to turn 30, Carradine's arrival on the scene will likely be a huge boost for the 49ers, who will hope that he is able to continue to develop both physically and mentally to form part of a formidable rotation on the defensive line in 2014.
In the space of a few short weeks, Carlos Hyde has gone from promising rookie to a player firmly under the microscope.
Second-round pick Hyde was expected to form part of a potentially enthralling four-way battle to become Frank Gore's deputy at the running back position.
However, a season-ending knee injury to incumbent Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James' elbow injury have left Hyde in the prime position to take the role as Gore's No. 2 and place the former Ohio State star's performances under severe scrutiny.
The backup tailback spot is likely to be an important one for a run-first offense that uses a feature back in Gore, who has an increasing amount of tread on the tires at 31.
Viewed as arguably the best running back in the 2014 class, Hyde has all the attributes to be a more than capable reserve and eat into some of Gore's workload.
There hasn't been too much buzz about Hyde making big plays during camp, but, according to Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, general manager Trent Baalke has already been glowing in his praise of Hyde:
You have to like his pad level, his vision, his feet. He is a 235-pound back that has small-man movements. He gets his feet in the dirt quick. He gets in and out of things. He sees things. He's a natural runner and you can see that. Now there are things he’s going to have to work on and he certainly will, but you have to like what you see early on.
In addition to his physical attributes, Hyde has been lauded for his mental aptitude by both his head coach and his offensive coordinator.
Per Barrows, Harbaugh likened Hyde's understanding of the game to that of Gore, while Roman described the rookie's ability to quickly adapt his game as similar to a "7-year-old playing the piano."
Hyde's apparent maturity and ease in adjusting his game should come as a huge positive for a player entering his first year in the NFL.
He will have to use that mental agility to improve his pass-protection skills. However, the reports from camp suggest 49ers fans have good reason to be excited by the addition of Hyde to the offense.
Backup tight end is not exactly a high-pressure role in the NFL, but there figures to be a great degree of focus on the performances of Vance McDonald this preseason.
After being taken in the second round of last year's draft, McDonald struggled to make an impact as a pass-catcher, recording a mere eight receptions for 119 yards in his rookie year in the league.
The only area where McDonald was able to excel was in run blocking, however. In his second year, the 49ers will be looking for more of a contribution from the former Rice Owl to give them another less-heralded option in the passing game.
McDonald was given an opportunity to practice as the No. 1 tight end earlier in the offseason, as Vernon Davis held out during OTAs and minicamp.
Per Williamson, McDonald stated that he was enjoying the extra reps in Davis' absence and, if Roman's assessment is to be believed, the experience of taking snaps as the starter appears to have aided the 24-year-old's development, with McDonald impressing his offensive coordinator in camp:
Vance has done a very good job. He's certainly, a year under his belt, he's a lot better player than he was when he got here a year ago. He's certainly better off for being exposed to everything that he's been exposed to last year in terms of offseason, training camp, preseason, regular season, playoffs. He's got a lot of experience under his belt. Played a lot of snaps as a first-year player.
I think a lot of his game is coming along. It's just like anybody else, like the sign says outside, 'You're either getting better or you're getting worse'. I really think he's making strides and getting better.
Roman's appraisal of McDonald is evidenced by the fact that he has already made some impressive plays in practices, the highlight perhaps being a fingertip catch from Colin Kaepernick on a 20-yard seam route last Thursday.
McDonald turned his head late on that particular play and Roman conceded that the 49ers would like to get him "a little bit quicker" in that regard.
There are still improvements to be made, yet the second-year tight end could be a significant factor in the offense if he can build a rapport with his quarterback.
The six players highlighted so far have the ability to make a substantial difference with the 49ers in 2014.
However, there are plenty of others who have caught the eye during training camp and are worthy of honorable mentions for their performances.
Glenn Dorsey's torn bicep, which—according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com—could keep him out for the entire season, has hurt the 49ers' depth at nose tackle.
However, Quinton Dial—one of the candidates to fill in for Dorsey in the nose tackle rotation—has already looked capable of stepping into the breach.
Per Maiocco, Dial has excelled in the opening weeks of practices, with the former Alabama man reportedly showing great strength to overpower offensive linemen and break into the backfield.
Dial, who played just three games in his rookie year, is not the only defensive lineman to have attracted attention.
The addition of British Olympian Lawrence Okoye raised a few eyebrows prior to last season. However, the former discus thrower and rugby player has certainly caused a stir with his development this offseason.
According to Branch, Okoye caught the eye earlier in the offseason by running down cornerback Daryl Morris—who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at his pro day in 2013—in a special teams drill and has further increased his reputation in camp.
Harbaugh, per David Fucillo of SB Nation, praised Okoye's improved pad level and highlighted his bull rush as a specific strength.
It is still perhaps a stretch to see Okoye making the 53-man roster, but his progress continues to be a fascinating story to follow.
On the offensive side of the trenches, guard Joe Looney has been credited by Harbaugh with delivering some "wow moments" while prospective backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert appears to be adjusting to the San Francisco offense, giving fans hope that he can be a viable alternative should Kaepernick suffer a serious enough injury.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.