San Francisco 49ers Training Camp to-Do List
With rookies having already reported (July 16) and veterans coming in this week (July 23), the start of training camp is finally approaching. We're inching closer and closer to actual football, folks!
In all honesty, real football doesn't start till September, but who says training camp can't be fun? Outside of the few lame-duck stories about marginal players becoming stars, this is a great time to reflect on your team’s strengths.
No one really has weaknesses until preseason action starts, so hope is in abundance during this time of the year. Luckily for the San Francisco 49ers, perception and reality are one and the same here. With a top-heavy roster and a dynamic quarterback, the 49ers are one of a few teams with a real shot at the elusive Lombardi trophy.
Of course, like every contending team, there are a few things that need to be addressed. Like any other team, the 49ers aren't perfect.
Let's examine San Francisco's training camp to-do list!
Adjust to New Weapons
The 49ers' receiver group last season left a lot to be desired. To be fair, injuries did play a role in the lackluster production, but that doesn't ignore the obvious depth issues at the position.
Many fans expected general manager Trent Baalke to upgrade the position in the offseason, and boy did the position improve. Outside of maybe the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers have the most talented receiver group in the entire NFC West.
Of course, the NFC West doesn't pride itself in blitzing opponents through the air, but that's the beauty of the situation. The 49ers still fit the mold of the division with a strong running game led by Frank Gore and Co. and a hard-hitting defense. However, they can also win games through the air with newly added playmakers such as Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington.
Now, offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have to put together an effective game plan that can efficiently utilize all these weapons. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin will get their touches, but its high time we see some specialists make a difference.
Johnson can be a very dangerous playmaker in the slot. Ellington has the speed and shiftiness to serve as an excellent vertical threat. And Lloyd is someone, though size deficient, who can help Colin Kaepernick in red-zone situations.
Roman has an excellent offensive mind, but the pressure is on for a 49ers offense brimming with talent.
Patrick Willis and Who?
I call Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman the "Bash Brothers"—reference to popular childhood movie The Mighty Ducks. Their versatility and hard-hitting style make them two of the finest inside linebackers in the NFL.
As we all know, Bowman will likely miss some time this season after tearing his ACL against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. While I don't have any doubts about whether Bowman will return in tiptop shape, I wonder who defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will peg as the replacement starter alongside Willis?
While my favorite is Michael Wilhoite, I wonder if Chris Borland or Nick Moody can seriously challenge for the spot. I love all three linebackers, but Wilhoite has experience on his side.
Remember, it was Wilhoite who temporarily filled in for Willis last season, while the All-Pro linebacker was dealing with some injury woes. Wilhoite played admirably in Willis' absence and should have no trouble if pressed in the starting lineup once again.
However, I somehow want to see what Borland can bring to the table. As a rookie, Borland is still learning the position, but if there was one player whom I would peg for instant success, it's this guy.
Borland has rare instincts for the game that allow him to overcome his limited physical and athletic ability. He's a fantastic run-stuffer, and while not agile in coverage, he seems to always be at the right spot.
Again, I still believe Wilhoite will win the job but watch out for Borland. I'm sure he'll give Wilhoite a run for his money during training camp.
Earlier in the offseason, we asked if Alex Boone and Vernon Davis would show up to OTAs? We then wondered if they would arrive in minicamps. Now, with training camp just ahead, will either Boone or Davis make an appearance?
My answer? Depends on the player.
With Boone, I highly doubt he shows up to training camp without a new deal. At the very least, the 49ers will have to make some sort of concession on the last two years of his deal. Maybe they'll give him a bit of a pay raise in the last two years of the contract and revisit a new long-term deal in the offseason.
According to Rand Getlin's Yahoo Sports report, it seems Boone will indeed not attend camp until a deal is made with the 49ers. The good new is that I think a new deal will get done before training camp starts. It might not be the long-term pact Boone is looking for, but a nice little pay raise could serve as an incentive for the All-Pro guard.
On the other hand, expect the Davis situation to play out for a while. Both players are key components on offense, but of the two, Davis' absence would hurt the most. I like backup tight end Vance McDonald, but he needs another year before being handed the reins at the position.
With Davis, he'll eventually report to camp, but don't expect an early resolution to this issue. Unlike Boone, Davis is already one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league. I can't envision Baalke giving Davis a new deal, so don't expect No. 85 in camp anytime soon.
Stabilizing the Secondary
One of the biggest question marks in training camp is this 49ers secondary. It's become a topic that is tiring out quickly, but until Fangio names a starter or even a favorite, this will remain a hot-button issue for the remainder of the offseason.
Outside of Tramaine Brock and the two starting safeties in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, we don't know the structure of this secondary. The 49ers haven't named their starter opposite Brock or who leads on the depth chart, and the slot position has not been verified.
In my opinion, I envision Chris Culliver starting opposite Brock and Darryl Morris receiving heavy playing time in the slot. Wait, what about Chris Cook and first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward?
Well, Cook has a real shot at making the roster but not as a starter. Injuries could change that stance, but for right now, I imagine Cook will be a rotation player.
The same can be said for Ward. Now, I've said this before, but Ward may not get the nod early in the season. We may see Ward end up with significant playing time toward the end of the season, but I just can't see the rookie catching up with such little time.
Remember, Ward has not physically worked out with the 49ers due to injury. His first real practice with the 49ers won't begin until training camp. I could be wrong, but rookie defensive backs aren't usually that impressive in camp.
Glut at Running Back
The 49ers are blessed with talent and depth at the running back position. Considering the identity of this offense, this isn't a big surprise. However, isn't too much of a good thing bad for you?
Wait, maybe that only applies to candy. Nonetheless, you get my point.
The 49ers are stacked at the position, and it might be time to clear some room. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are locks. 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde is practically a lock, as well.
It comes down to Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James. In the last few weeks, I've been adamant that James will likely be traded before the start of camp or at least prior to preseason action. Now, that might be on hold with the news that Lattimore was placed on the 49ers NFI (non-football injury) list.
This is a bit of a setback with Lattimore, but after the gruesome injury he suffered in college, are you surprised? I still have my doubts if Lattimore could ever suit up in the NFL, but we'll have to wait and see on that end.
Another surprise name on the 49ers' NFI list is Bruce Ellington. How does a rookie receiver impact the running back position? Well, let's put the pieces of the puzzle together. If Ellington were to take over for James as the 49ers' designated returner, wouldn't that make James less expendable?
Again, I still think James will be traded, but if injuries continue to linger heading into preseason action, all bets are off.