Projecting what any NFL team will do prior to the start of training camp is fool’s work. In July 2010, did anyone really expect Aaron Rodgers to develop into the league’s deadliest passer and in the playoffs go on to scorch Philadelphia’s, Atlanta's, Chicago’s and then Pittsburgh’s secondaries? If so, does it have a time stamp on it?
Each season plays out as its own unscripted theatrical production, one development leading to another, then another, to the point where they build into engines that generate curiosity. Even if it’s not a winning season, we’ll check in just to see what’s going on.
Remember, prior to the 2010 season the Dallas Cowboys were a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Ten weeks into the season they had hit more icebergs than a blind penguin, but we still paid attention. (But then, for us anti-Cowboy fans, most of us tuned in just to see if any cracks would open up on the glacially smooth cheekbones Dallas owner Jerry Jones, but I digress.)
Looking forward to 2011, we have nothing but conjecture about what to expect. The lockout has limited player movement and reduced contact coaches can have with players. We can’t even attempt to read the tea leaves that are the OTAs—organized team activities—that give us, we think anyway, clues as to how a coach views certain players.
Locally, that would be new coach Jim Harbaugh’s up-close-and-personal assessment of Alex Smith. From his footwork to the release to the accuracy, there’s nothing like a coach standing behind the quarterback to see and feel what happens.
All we have are hints—Harbaugh’s backing of Smith, chief among them. His long-distance support for Michael Crabtree is another. In all, Harbaugh has sent two main messages across the lockout barriers that we, as fans, can interpret as key messages to his players.
First, he’s excited and he wants them excited. He believes in the team. Second, it’s open season for everything. The best will play. No favorites.
And perhaps it’s the latter statement that will have the biggest impact. If Chilo Rachal, for example, cannot handle the right guard spot, he’ll be out. (Which many people thought should have happened last year, but CR was an apparent favorite of former coach Mike Singletary. And you wonder why the team clicked off Singletary very early on.)
In this light, here are five players ready for breakout candidates on the 49ers roster in 2011.