There are going to be a few battles when the San Francisco 49ers open training camp this year. Iron will sharpen iron, and starters will be chiseled from stone. Some of the ore that's left behind will be forged into backups or practice squad members. The rest will blow away with the wind and the waiver wire.
Who could say in June who the victors of these battles will be come September? But, we can name the best battles that await in camp.
The hardest combat should be seen on offense, especially on the line, where the 49ers spent two first—round picks this offseason. Defense will not be seeing any push overs in camp either.
The left tackle spot is essentially owned by Joe Staley, and Eric Heitmann is a lock at center. The shuffles and scuffles will take place at guard and right tackle.
Anthony Davis was taken in the first round of the April draft with a purpose in mind: The 49ers added size and strength to their offensive line for years. Davis may end up at left tackle eventually if something happens to Staley, but for now he's going to compete hard for the starting right tackle position.
In his sixth year, Adam Snyder will also be fighting for the starting right tackle spot as well. The 6'6", 325-pounder has played every position on the line and will certainly see time as a reserve player should he not land a starting role.
Similarly, Barry Simms brings 11 years of NFL experience at a variety of offensive line positions. Sims is expected to play a mentor role to the new guys, but that won't stop him from bringing it in camp. He may be an old piece of iron for sharpening the new stuff, but he's still a solid chunk of metal in the trenches.
Simms stepped in for an injured Staley last year and performed admirably at left tackle. If he doesn't find a starting spot on the line in 2010, he'll play a solid backup whereever the 49ers need him.
Alex Boone is the X—factor at right tackle this offseason. Boone went undrafted in 2009 and spent the season on the 49ers practice squad. Full of potential, the 6'7" Frankenstein's monster has struggled with the stigma of being immature and undisciplined. Many scouts and teams considered him incorrigible after a tumultuous off—the—field history at Ohio State.
The 49ers took a risk on him.
Boone's weight became another issue in the NFL, and he was soon flirting with unemployment. In response, he upped his exercise program and began stricter dieting. A slimmer, quicker, more agile Boone will be coming into camp this season—voraciously hungry for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Mike Iupati was San Francisco's second pick in the draft, and the 330-pounder was the exclamation mark on the message the 49ers sent that day: The 49ers added size and strength to their offensive—line for years!
A lot is expected of Iupati, but like Davis, he'll need to grow into the starting role. Incumbents Chilo Rachel and David Baas aren't the type to forfeit their starting roles without making some noise, but the word has been that the 49ers didn't bring the two first—round offensive linemen in to sit on the bench.
David Baas, for better or worse, has been Alex Smith's main form of interior pass protection since the 49ers took him with the 33rd pick of the 2005 Draft. A block of a man at 6'4", 330 pounds, Baas is a guard by trade who can work on the right or left.
The line has been porous all over since Smith showed up. For this Baas has received much of the blame and very little of the credit. Nevertheless, Baas received the Bobb McKittrick Award after starting 16 games at left guard last season.
Chilo Rachel started all but one game at right guard last year. At 24 years young, time is on his side, and Chilo's improvement has been plain to see; his advancement in knowledge of blocking techniques and schemes has soared since he began starting midway through his rookie season. Still, like everyone else, Rachel will face brutal competition for the spot in training camp.
It won't take too long to figure out who wants to really pound the rock—once the pads come on.
No player recorded more sacks than Manny Lawson (6.5) last year, but Ahmad Brooks came in a close second (six). Parys Haralson recorded almost as many (five), and Travis LaBoy has had a similar average (4.7) over his career when healthy.
It's hard to say who—if anyone—will step up and lead the team this year. Lawson is heading into a career year, and LaBoy signed a one—year contract just before the draft.
Speaking of the draft, rookie linebacker Navarro Bowman should see a play or two outside of his projected special teams role. If the new kid performs well in camp and through the exhibition season, he'll see even more action in the regular season. Bowman played outside linebacker in college and could be effective using his speed off the edge.
Expect an all—out smash—mouth clash of warriors in this competition.
Backup Running Back
There's no secret that Frank Gore is going to be the starting running back; he continually puts the team on his shoulders and bulldozes defenses. Every year, however, Frank gets a little banged and a little busted for a game or two. As a result, the role of backup running back has become increasingly important.
The battle to be the 49ers second-string running back is a bit more clear-cut. Second-year back Glenn Coffee is taking on rookie Anthony Dixon.
Although Dixon is the larger player, he plays with more finesse—more shake-and-bake—than Coffee. In an offense where the aim is cut and get up-field ASAP, the coaches are looking for Dixon to do less flinching and dancing.
Glenn Coffee, on the other hand, is a more fundamental back. Coffee has a head start, as he already knows his blocking assignments and has come to terms with the hits he's going to take regularly as a running back in the NFL.
Coffee is said to be coming in bigger and stronger for his sophomore season, and this could help a lot. He will need to find another dimension for his upright running style, however. A good battle is brewing between these two, and if we're lucky, the real loser will be the opposing defenses.
Second and Third Receiver
Michael Crabtree is the man on the 49ers receiving corp. With OTAs, training camp, and a full season, he should be the team's vocal pass catching leader who's not named Vernon. Exactly who he runs his routes next to is still up in the air.
Josh Morgan is the favorite to accompany Crabtree. ESPN's fantasy brains project that Morgan will grab six touchdowns in 2010. Furthering his case, Morgan just about doubled his 2008 yardage last season. The youngster also blocks on running plays—a must on the 49ers. It's fair to say the second receiver position is his to lose.
Jason Hill has seen mild success in limited playing time. Although Hill has shown flashes of potential, he'll need to bring it in camp to keep a spot amongst some of the new acquisitions.
Such acquisitions include former Dolphins return man Ted Ginn Jr and rookie Kyle Williams.
Ginn has impressive speed and value as a big-play special teams threat. On any given play he can take one to the house. Although he has a reputation as a stone-hands pass catcher, Ginn does provide another over-the-top threat.
Kyle Williams, on the other hand, could be a prototypical slot receiver. He's not going to out jump to many defenders, and he's not going to blaze down the sideline and get in back of too many defenses—but his acceleration and ability to change direction have given him a nose for the end zone.
And Williams might have some potential as a return man as well.
Who shines and who fades will determine the passing attack. These guys are going to want to be on the quarterbacks' good sides.
"Alex Smith is our guy." How many times have we heard that now? A million?
Well, they said it so many times it has to be true. Alex Smith has enough NFL experience now and has finally been set up for success in the NFL.
David Carr is an older veteran in Alex Smith's image. Nate Davis is a youngster who has busted his tail to learn an NFL offense in spite of being slowed by dyslexia. Both have tools to succeed, but do either have the tools to excel?
Carr has the experience, even if the experiences are not impressive or enjoyable. Davis has next to zero experience, which can be a blessing in disguise. The lack of knowledge he brings makes room for pure-instinct play making.
The accepted understanding is that Carr will be backup and the slow-to-learn Davis will ride the pine another year, but if Nate excels in camp, it will be an open competition.
Nickel & Dime DBs
The 49ers secondary often played good coverage last season considering the always-a-split-second-late pass rush they had to play behind. Still, they got burned on more than one occasion. Adding speed without sacrificing physicality has been one mission this off-season, and they seem to have done a decent job of that.
Aside from finally parting ways with Dre Bly, their selection of Taylor Mays in the second round might have thus far been the biggest improvement to the 49ers' secondary. If we're talking talent, this guy is steak tartare or fillet mignon—raw and rare.
Mays won't push incumbents like Micheal Lewis and Dashon Goldson immediately, and they should win the starting spots. Nothing, however, is concrete.
The 49ers also brought in situational defensive back Karl Paymah. The fifth-year player saw limited time in Denver and played last year in Minnesota. Paymah is now loving the California weather, and he's been a little starved for playing time.
Reggie Smith, Curtis Taylor, Will James, and even rookie Phillip Adams will join the rumble in attempt to get on the field, and with so many defensive backs clawing to get in the game, the cream of the crop must, and will, rise to the top if they are to get playing time.
The last men standing here are going to be like projects from metal shop class when the dust settles.
The best action this preseason will be at offensive line, outside linebacker, and backup running back, but sparks are going to fly with the new crop of burning receivers pushing their ways onto the team.
The passers are going to go through their motions, but the quietest of quarterback controversies could break out in any given exhibition game—once Smith leaves for the sideline.
While the starters in the secondary seem clear, there's going to be a number of little monsters looking to shake up the depth charts.
In these looming competitions, anything can happen—once the pads come on.