San Francisco 49ers: The 6 Most Intriguing Training Camp Battles

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IAugust 10, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: The 6 Most Intriguing Training Camp Battles

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    Like most of their NFL brethren, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves dealing with a compressed period to figure out the best way to address deficiencies. Such is the post-lockout reality.

    Nonetheless, it appears that general manager Trent Baalke has done well to bring in players to address specific weaknesses. Of course, the 49ers weren’t the most aggressive team in the free-agent market, but they appeared to have been careful and effective. As such, there’s a feeling that at least management understands where the team has to improve first and foremost—pass defense, pass defense and more pass defense, followed by the passing game.

    With the team’s first preseason game looming soon in New Orleans, the contest will shed some light on the six most intriguing training camp battles.

Williams vs. Whitner vs. Goldson

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    With the addition of Madieu Williams and Donte Whitner as free agents from the Vikings and the Bills, respectively, and then the surprising return of last year’s starter Dashon Goldson, the Niners appear deep at safety.

    Considering the team’s performance last year when it came to defending the pass (24th in the league), this is a good sign. It has to be determined who fits more of the “strong” safety role (battles tight ends, gives run support) and who is the “free” safety (plays a deep center field on most coverages).

    Reggie Smith, now injured, appeared to have that position locked up. Goldson might have it by default, but an eight-year veteran like Williams has plenty of knowledge of NFC receivers. He has 12 career interceptions; Goldson had four in 2009, only one last year. Goldson has a little size on Williams and Whitner; he’s also capable of big-play tackles, which he demonstrated more frequently in ’09 than last year.

    All three have to learn new schemes under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Whitner has said he feels very comfortable in the multi-scheme defenses of Fangio. We’ll see if that translates to the field. Goldson has to overcome his disappointment in not landing a free-agent contract.

    It’s a battle that comes down to performance.

Aldon Smith vs. Learning Curve

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    The reports on Aldon Smith’s pass-rushing skills are very positive: extremely long arms yet very strong, good inside moves, good football knowledge.

    The difference for the first-round draft pick is that, in Fangio’s plans as the outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, Smith will start the play in a two-point stance. He was in a three-point stance at Missouri. It’s a huge difference; players call it “playing in space.” That means pass coverages and filling lanes rather than all-out hunting of passers and runners. It means learning, learning and learning.

    It has to be said that if Smith develops into a first-rate pass-rush threat, then Fangio gets more options on his pass coverages. While the team has to figure out who is playing where in the secondary, it may not matter much if opposing offenses find they have to limit their passing game due to Smith with shorter drops, quicker throws and perhaps even a tight end to help protect.

    The faster Smith becomes an elite threat off the edge, the better the defense will be.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Fan Expectation

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    Here’s a safe bet: Colin Kaepernick’s first completion against the Saints will bring out the calls for a change at quarterback. Out with Alex Smith, in with the kid from Nevada.

    Jim Harbaugh, rightfully so, has said little in public about Kaepernick’s development. Granted, he got plenty of work early in camp because Smith couldn’t start work until Aug. 4, but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to facing NFL defenses.

    The one thing that stands out in Harbaugh’s comments on Kaepernick is that the kid's "got a hose"—meaning he has a gun for an arm. There have been plenty of examples in the past where a pass from Smith just didn’t get to the target on time. Of course, last year the Niner passing game used a three-step drop only 37 percent of the time. Smith’s skills seem better in a short, fast passing game, which Harbaugh is installing.

    Nonetheless, Kaepernick should get more snaps than Smith vs. the Saints. More chances, yes, and more chances for setbacks, too. Fans cannot overreact. Kaepernick has a long ways to go.

Rogers vs. Spencer vs. Brock

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    Cornerbacks seem to be set. Or are they? Shawntae Spencer, sore leg and all, seems to have one slot nailed down. Newly acquired free agent Carlos Rogers has the other. There’s third-round draft pick Chris Culliver, and there’s last year’s surprise, Tramaine Brock.

    Fangio will have an eye on all of these players; it’s important to see who plays well outside and who can fill in against the “slot” receiver in nickel and dime packages.  

    All four appear capable of keeping a roster spot; it remains to be seen who gets the most playing time. Expect Culliver to get extensive work in preseason games if only to push Spencer. Brock has to prove he’s 100 percent after last year’s injury in the season-ending game against the Rams.

Kendall Hunter vs. Blitz

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    Hunter, at 5’7”, has speed and great moves. But in the NFL, those skills can be negated by having to block blitzing linebackers. Patrick Willis outweighs the 200-pound Hunter by 40 or so. Reports in camp have Willis destroying the rookie running back out of Oklahoma State. But then, Willis destroys All-Pro running backs as well.

    Improving that part of his game will go a long way in getting Hunter more snaps than last year’s backup, the 6’1”, 233-pound Anthony Dixon.

Harbaugh vs. Bill Walsh

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    For all the excitement about Harbaugh taking over the coaching spot, there remains one fact: This team underperformed in 2010. There is talent, but there were glaring weaknesses as well. One of them pertained to coaching: No team made second-half adjustments as poorly as the 49ers (my opinion).

    Harbaugh’s camp so far has been high-energy with lots of contact. Practices have been three hours long. The effect of that will not be seen so much in the preseason, as coaches will be playing plenty of players to see how they hold up.

    Nonetheless, the diehard fan will want lots of scoring—or at least a sign that better times have arrived.