August is finally here and with it comes the welcome sound of pad on pad contact and the banging of logoless gold helmets at 4949 Centennial Boulevard in Santa Clara, California.
After a series of starts and stops led to an ultimately disappointing 8-8 record in 2009, the 2010 San Francisco 49ers enter camp in preparation for their second full season under head coach Mike Singletary with one common goal in mind: return to playoffs. Early reports of status and prospectus had been particularly positive, almost suspiciously so. So I decided to attend a practice session in person and see for myself.
It is difficult to glean too much from a single Saturday afternoon practice, which to my dismay was not in pads, but so far as I could absorb, here were my top impressions:
I know the 49ers sent a fifth round draft pick to Miami to obtain Ted Ginn Jr. with the almost singular assumption that he would be shouldering the majority of the load on kick and punt returns in 2010. Coach Sing had publicly expressed that he wanted Ginn to develop into an offensive weapon as well, but everyone assumes that to be more of a long-term project.
Ginn has some proven experience and undeniable talent in the return specialist role. However, from what I saw, LeRoy Vann is head and shoulders above him.
The undrafted free agent out of Florida A&M University, whose career resume consists of a highlight reel of record-setting returns which terrorized the NCAA's Division I-AA, was somewhat of a surprise acquisition on draft weekend after Ginn's trade the week before.
He might look like Muggsy Bogues on an NBA court circa the mid-1990s, but Vann's hands, acceleration, explosiveness, and instincts are off the charts. While Ginn misjudged several attempts to field the ball on the fly, Vann scooped up kick after kick and proceeded to leap into top gear in two steps and follow his blockers like a seasoned NFL veteran.
Vann even stuck around after practice and put on a clinic of his impressive hands, hauling in catch after catch while holding onto each successive ball, until at one point he fielded a punt with five footballs already in his arms.
Vann's stature might make him a defensive liability in coverage situations, but his return potential makes him worthy of a roster spot all on its own. If he fails to make the 53-man roster, I will be deeply surprised.
Ted Ginn Jr. might have even more competition, both in the return game and at slot receiver. With one of their sixth-round draft picks this past April, the 49ers took small but speedy Arizona State wide receiver Kyle Williams.
Williams already looks like he could step in and make major contributions on a playoff caliber team if play started tomorrow.
He began practice by cycling in with LeRoy Vann, Ted Ginn Jr., and Dominique Zeigler on kickoff return drills, a role where he looked perfectly adept. His form was fantastic with hands to match, and while he lacks the blazing and explosive speed of Vann and Ginn, he put himself in position to always catch the ball moving forward, maximizing his momentum from the start.
He may also have the quickest feet and most elusive instincts of the bunch. I expect to see him contribute on special teams this year.
He was equally impressive in the passing drills. His routes were crisp, his eyes were focused and his jump after the catch was something to behold. Except in a few isolated occasions where David Carr vastly misread how far to lead him, he hauled in everything thrown his way, then turned on a dime and burst up field.
Ted Ginn Jr. on the other hand dropped several passes most would classify as routine. Ginn will have his hands full with plenty of teammates to push him at both positions. Hopefully the competition helps him to elevate his game and they are all in top form by the start of the season. Imagine the nightmare for opposing kick coverage and defensive units!
Can you say "hands team?"
After seeing him in person, I finally saw something many others had discussed previously, but I had failed to fully appreciate: Anthony Dixon has some incredibly versatile skill sets.
After watching him cycle through cone drills with the rest of the running backs, it became evident to me that Dixon was more detailed and deliberate in his footwork than any of the rest, including Frank Gore. Of course by itself that means nothing, but given his substantial size and ability to push the pile, that fancy footwork could lead to a rare combination of power, quickness, and agility that could prove deadly to opponents.
The challenge will be to harness that potential in the right way and avoid over-thinking situations and learn to simply follow blocks. Dixon has shown good explosion to the hole, and if he can properly combine that quickness with his power and potential shiftiness in the open field, the sky is the limit.
I think he has the right coach to get him there.
When I learned that Tom Rathman was returning to the 49ers as running backs coach, I was very excited. He had done great things with Garrison Hearst, Fred Beasley, and even Kevan Barlow in his first tenure with the team, and the prospect of what he could do with the likes of Frank Gore and Glen Coffee was tantalizing.
Another thing I gleaned from watching the running backs go through drills was just how effective Rathman is in the coaching role. So many times when superstars try to make to leap to coaching, they are unsuccessful, but the 49ers seem to have three very big exceptions in Mike Signletary, Tom Rathman, and Ray Brown.
Rathman directed the drills like a career-long head coach, demonstarting proper technique in a booming, authoritative voice. It was clear that the running backs recognized Rathman's authority on the matter and they ate up everything he told them.
With Rathman at the helm, I expect big things in short order from Gore, Coffee, Dixon, and whomever else lines up in 49er backfield. And in time, it would not surprise me in the least to see Tom Rathman land a head coaching job in the NFL.
While I have been more optimistic than most, I have been as wary as anyone about the validity of early reports that Alex Smith was making huge strides in organized team activities and the first week of training camp.
After seeing him in person, I am ready to believe these reports.
Smith is showing a poise and leadership unseen to this point in his career. Perhaps it is the confidence of being the designated starter. Perhaps it is the comfort and familiarity with the offense. Perhaps it is the fact that basically for the first time in his career, he enters a season totally healthy. Whatever the reason, Smith is showing that poise and presence that is necessary for a quarter back to take that next step.
He carries himself with better confidence, on and off the field. He commands the huddle and calls out signals from under center with more authority than ever before. Sitting clear across the field, I listened in pleasant surprise as Smith's strong voice carried easily across the field and into the bleachers as he drove the offense in scrimmage drills.
It is all certainly encouraging, but Smith needs to keep advancing his game. While his reads were solid and his throws were largely on target, on several occasions, he misjudged a throw and grossly overthrew or underthrew a receiver. The encouraging sign was that he seemed to get the ball out quickly and often to a second or third read option.
Except for a lone interception to Dashon Goldson, where the receiver may have run the wrong route, he kept himself out of trouble and moved the offense effectively, which should be all the 49ers really need him to do.
Though he had some great catches and looked very adept in his route-running, Michael Crabtree also dropped a few easy catches.
For the most part, these seemed to be situations where Crabtree simply out-thought himself and wound up getting crossed up. To his credit, he came back with a catch on the following rep every time, but it stood as a definite reminder of just how young he still is, and just how impressive his performance last season was.
Ultimately, with the benefit of his first full training camp and preseason, I expect the drops to quickly tail off and that Crabtree will soon prove to be a dynamic offensive force in the league. After all, a guy named Jerry Rice dropped a few balls his first couple years in the league too.
Going into camp, I had my doubts about the 49ers' secondary, but after seeing them in person, I feel a lot better. It is difficult to glean much from a padless practice in terms of the true strength of the defense, but for the most part, what I saw I liked.
The defense sequestered themselves to an isolated corner of the field for most of the practice, before the team came together for seven on seven and 11 on 11 scrimmage drills. During individual drills, the secondary looked to be the most consistent unit in terms of depth up and down the roster. Pairs of players cycled through back pedaling, coverage, and catching drills almost interchangeably.
Results of scrimmage drills were more of a mixed bag. While Dashon Goldson and Nate Clements came away with interceptions, Will James was flagged for defensive interference and there were several other borderline bits of contact on receivers. But for the most part, the defensive backs were much more solid in their coverages than I expected them to be.
Aubrayo Franklin continues his holdout on the defensive line, and Scott McKillop, Ahmad Brooks, and Travis LaBoy have already succumbed to injuries at linebacker, but if others can step in and elevate their play, the 49ers defense might be ready to make the jump from good to great.
Despite reports that first round draft picks Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis figured to start the season in a backup role, they took the vast majority of the snaps with the first-team offensive in this practice.
This may have had something to do with Chilo Rachal's bout with dehydration earlier in the week, or could be an attempt to get the two some face time during a weekend public practice, but I certainly took notice of how prevalent a fixture they were on the first team offensive line.
It is difficult to assess their performance due to the lack of pads and the fact that the defensive line was not rushing at full tilt, but their mere presence may be an indication of their progress thus far in camp. In my opinion, the sooner they are ready to start, the better off the 49ers will be.
Prior to the start of formal drills, rookie linebacker NaVorro Bowman was out on the field practicing kickoff returns as the trainers tried to dial in the ball-launching machine to the proper distance.
I have no idea if this is something he volunteered to do, if it is part of rookie duties, or if he was just out there having some fun, but it was an interesting spectacle.
I do not expect Bowman to be fighting with LeRoy Vann, Ted Ginn Jr., or Kyle Williams for return reps, but it was an interesting novelty to be sure.
After hearing so much positivity surrounding the 49ers this offseason, fans are justified in being excited for the coming campaign, but should also remain cautious in their optimism.
Going from missing the playoffs in seven straight years to being the near consensus favorite to win the division in just a few short months is quite a swing. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but things are looking good so far.
Coach Sing is sure to keep his team uniquely focused and grounded in the face of any distraction. With him at the helm, fans should be confident the team can reach its full potential. They are still young and they still have a long way to go, but from seeing them practice in person, I can say that all the positive buzz around them is much more than just wishful thinking.
Something special is brewing by the Bay. Just how soon it comes to fruition will be the critical question. We should all get at least a hint of where the team is in its development a week from now when they open the preseason against the defending AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts. Until then, we must simply sit, wait, and dream.
Keep the Faith!