A month ago, you had to wonder what Arnaz Battle, Dominique Zeigler, and Micheal Spurlock were thinking.
The three wide receivers were all technically part of the San Francisco 49ers' 80-man roster, but as the sixth, seventh, and eighth men on the depth chart, at a position where most teams typically keep five or at most six guys, the situation looked bleak for them.
Not only had the 49ers drafted Michael Crabtree, the premiere receiver in college football last year, with their first-round pick, but they also acquired Brandon Jones in free agency from the Tennessee Titans and veteran Isaac Bruce committed to return for another campaign in early April.
Add to that trifecta promising youngsters Josh Morgan and Jason Hill, who both showed potential in limited opportunities last season, and it sure looked as though there weren't going to be enough footballs in camp to go around for anyone else.
Fast-forward past 12 days of sweltering practices, however, and lo and behold, what has happened to this team at the receiver spot?
Not only have Zeigler, Battle, and Spurlock all gotten more practice reps than they could've possibly imagined coming into camp, but they haven't wasted a single play among them.
They wouldn't have gotten the opportunity without breaks along the way, some unfortunate, some not.
Crabtree's absence is well documented: The former Red Raider is locked in a bitter contract stalemate with the 49ers and doesn't appear close to signing. According to numerous reports his agent is demanding top-five money for his client despite the fact that Crabtree was picked 10th by San Francisco.
Not only are the 49ers philosophically opposed to caving in on this issue with Crabtree, but they'd have 31 other front offices seething at them if they did, wary of the dangerous precedent it would set.
Jones' situation on the other hand was bad luck not bad business. He dove for a ball during a seven-on-seven drill last week, landed on his shoulder awkwardly and suffered a fracture to his right AC joint.
He'll be out a minimum of eight weeks.
Despite coming over from a different offense, Jones had impressed coaches and teammates with his quick absorption of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's playbook.
Then there's the mysterious disappearance of Jason Hill. It's hard to think of another 49er in camp who's been a bigger non-factor. Day after day, Hill goes through the motions with his routes, passes seldom coming his way.
It's hard to tell what's wrong with him but it's even more difficult to recall his last catch during an 11-on-11 drill. On a good day, he might catch two passes.
Hill's reps have shrunk considerably and he's gone from a pre-camp lock to someone who will have to impress during the preseason games to hold on to a job. Maybe he's just not a practice player.
He certainly is not good enough to think he can just throw his cleats out there on the field and make the team, not with 31 career receptions and two touchdowns to his name.
To me the most glaring thing about Spurlock, Zeigler, and Battle (sounds more like a law firm than a receiving corps) is that it's obvious they all really want to be here.
Maybe they think this could be their last shot to stick in the league. Maybe head coach Mike Singletary was honest with them about the daunting odds they faced to make the team before camp even started.
Whatever the reason, the three receivers are busting their tails every play, really getting after it, and not letting up in the afternoon practices or on special teams drills.
In fact, versatility is a quality all three share. Not only can they all return kicks—aside from primary returner Allen Rossum all the other reps fall to these three gentlemen—but Battle and Spurlock even bring a passing "Wildcat" dimension to the offense, as we discovered today (see below).
The exhibition games will ultimately decide who makes it and who doesn't, but regardless of how it plays out the 49ers will be pretty deep at receiver.
And the Bears and Jets will have a phone call or two to make.
Tase Me, Bro
The Almaden Mustangs, a title-winning youth football team who got to watch this morning, were treated even further when the Niners used today of all days to break out their version of the "Wildcat" formation, calling their package the "Taser."
Spurlock, who was Eli Manning's successor at quarterback at Ole Miss, took the majority of the snaps in this alignment, mostly handing it off to one of the backs or keeping it on the option rollout, but he did attempt—and complete—a pass to Bruce.
Battle, himself an ex-quarterback at Notre Dame, mixed in a few snaps as well, though he didn't get a chance to throw the ball.
Raye told reporters afterward that running back Michael Robinson (a quarterback at Penn State) would also be getting a chance in the Taser as well once he's healthy and that he had some success as a coach with the gimmick with ex-Missouri quarterback Brad Smith when he was with the Jets.
Of the three candidates, it is Spurlock who would likely be Raye's top choice for the Taser job, with the coach praising the ex-Rebel's shiftiness and saying that Spurlock's "initial quickness" as a punt and kick returner were assets for quarterbacks in that formation.
For his part, Spurlock said he was excited for the opportunity to be the triggerman simply because it will be a guarantee that on specific play the ball will be in his hands, saying "as a receiver you're going 110 miles per hour every play and maybe never getting one ball thrown your way, but as a quarterback, you touch it every play."
Injury List Shrinks By Two
The five mainstays of the camp injury list—linebacker Patrick Wills (strained ankle), left guard David Baas (strained foot), cornerback Tarell Brown (sprained left toe), tight end Delanie Walker (concussion) and Robinson (strained groin)—have had no changes to their statuses.
Baas was spotted on the sidelines in a walking boot while the others were in their jerseys and sweatpants and working out with trainers at a side field.
The positive news was that Bruce, who was poked in the eye Monday morning and unavailable for the past three practices, returned to action today. Joining him was fullback Moran Norris, who missed the past two days to deal with a personal matter.
Jones remains the team's most serious injury so far, while defensive end Ray McDonald is still on the PUP list while he recovers from offseason knee surgery.
Right tackle Marvel Smith, who was signed away from the Steelers as a free agent with the intention of being the starter here, has been practicing sporadically and hasn't been given full medical clearance to participate daily.
Adam Snyder has used Smith's absence as a platform to solidify his bid for the job, but still hasn't won the confidence of coaches, with Raye going only so far as to say that Snyder is on the first team "right now."