San Francisco 49ers Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

Peter PanacyFeatured Columnist IVJuly 21, 2014

San Francisco 49ers Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

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    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick prepares to lead a new-look offense in 2014.
    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick prepares to lead a new-look offense in 2014.USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco 49ers will enter the complete phase of their 2014 training camp on Thursday, July 24.

    Rookies have already reported—their attendance required on July 16.

    Like every other team concluding their offseason, the 49ers have their own plethora of storylines that deserve attention. Almost all of these were conceived in the wake of what happened a season ago and how San Francisco's brass went about addressing such issues.

    There are some clear examples on the surface. 

    The 49ers offense, so reliant on the running game in recent years, may look to be more pass happy in 2014, following a number of additions at wide receiver.

    We can speculate how San Francisco's new cast of rookies will impact the team this season, as well as projecting the influence of second-year players. 

    There is the ongoing development of quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the wake of his lofty contract extension and, of course, there are questions about holdouts.

    These storylines and more will be at the heart of the 49ers' approach to training camp. This is the point when pads are donned for the first time, contact is permissible and San Francisco looks to make the final adjustments before entering the preseason.

    In this slideshow, we break down the top five storylines that mandate our attention in the coming days.

    Let's take a look.

Holdouts

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    It would be impossible to dive into San Francisco's training camp without at least mentioning the holdouts of tight end Vernon Davis and offensive guard Alex Boone.

    But in a way, these holdouts have become a pre-eminent story during much of San Francisco's offseason workout programs.

    We know the basic tale already: Both Boone and Davis held out of voluntary and mandatory minicamps earlier this offseason with the hopes of securing a new deal. Both have stuck to their guns in spite of missing out on workout bonuses and being fined for not attending the mandatory portion of camp.

    Holdouts are nothing new and in a way, the 49ers have already set a precedent when it comes to handling such incidents with well-established veterans.

    Remember how they did so with running back Frank Gore before the 2011 season?

    From this perspective, San Francisco will require both Boone and Davis to report if either player expects any sort of deal to be made. But the nature of each player's contracts makes this apparently simple solution a little more clouded.

    On one hand, Boone may have a little bit of an argument for a raise. He is making an average salary of just $1.635 million per year—a deal that expires in 2016. This makes him the 43rd highest-paid guard based on a three-year average of players' first three seasons in the NFL, per Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports.

    Given his accolades and comparatively low salary, it is easy to understand why he feels a new deal is warranted.

    Getlin states that Boone will continue to hold out into training camp until a new deal is reached. Given how they handled Gore's situation a few years ago, the 49ers would obviously want him to attend before broaching the topic. 

    Davis has already cashed in on a lofty contract. His 2010 deal—five years at $36.75 million—was the largest ever given to an NFL tight end at the time. Now, the 30-year-old two-time Pro Bowler wants even more.

    Holdouts can be tricky to assess. Should either player, or both, finally attend, perhaps we expect San Francisco to address the situation quickly. They have already sent a message to both players when they extended the contract of tackle Joe Staley, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

    The 49ers are clearly taking a stand with TE Vernon Davis and RG Alex Boone to show up (like Joe Staley) if they want new contracts.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) July 17, 2014

    But will that be enough to convince both sides to the negotiating table?

    Kevin Lynch of SF Gate offers his own conclusion regarding the issue. Lynch concludes that a plausible solution is to present both Boone and Davis with contracts that include a multitude of incentives and bonuses—popular among front offices, but not necessarily for players who want guaranteed money.

    A way to end the expected holdouts for #49ers Alex Boone and Vernon Davis. http://t.co/XxroKPG48f

    — Kevin Lynch (@klynch49) July 21, 2014

    We can go on for hours about which player—Boone or Davis—is more deserving. But the fact is that both are tremendous assets to this franchise. But the 49ers can feel comfortable sticking to their guns as well. The "49er way" employs a team-first mentality, and overcoming potential absences is just a part of the overall objective.

    San Francisco would obviously like to see something done and in quick fashion.

    Whether that takes place in training camp remains to be seen.

Impact of the Rookies and Second-Year Redshirts

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    Enough of the dirty business of football. Contracts negotiations are headaches unto themselves.

    2014 will be an important season for the 49ers due to a number of reasons. Yet one of the chief things to watch is just how San Francisco's 2014 draft class—along with 2013 draftees who were redshirted a year ago—impact the team following their debuts.

    Let's start with two players from last season's draft class who fit this bill: running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Tank Carradine.

    Both players missed all of the 2013 season as they recovered from collegiate injuries. Both are expected to finally contribute this year.

    In Lattimore, San Francisco hopes to have some added bulk behind incumbent No. 1 back Frank Gore. As we know, Gore is 31 years old, and his career is coming to a close sooner rather than later. 

    But Lattimore's future is anything but guaranteed. In spite of his collegiate accolades, Lattimore faces some stiff competition behind Gore. Returning veterans Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James have NFL experience. Additionally, Lattimore has to contend with 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde.

    More on Hyde shortly.

    On top of all that, the greatest obstacle to Lattimore continues to be his rehabilitation—an aspect made even more difficult now that Lattimore has landed on the non-football injury (NFI) list per Field Yates of ESPN:

    49ers RB Marcus Lattimore to begin training camp on the non-football injury list. Procedural move as RB continues rehab process.

    — Field Yates (@FieldYates) July 17, 2014

    The move is precautionary as Yates indicates, but it is a further hindrance to Lattimore's return, especially when considering that it will be the first time Lattimore has faced contact in a 49ers uniform.

    On the other hand, Carradine's 2014 projected role appears clearer.

    Per David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Carradine finished the previous offseason programs fully healthy and is expected to take his role along San Francisco's defensive line this season.

    The 6-foot-4, 276-pound defensive end, who racked up 16.5 sacks in two seasons at Florida State, figures to be the primary backup to veteran ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald in 2014. We can recall the amount of time both Smith and McDonald saw last season, and Carradine will keep both fresh.

    He should even add his own prowess to the defense's fortitude:

    VIDEO: 'After a year, I feel like I'm ahead of the game' — #49ers DT Tank Carradine http://t.co/PSSAbZzKJB #49ersTalk #NFL

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) June 19, 2014

    Unlike Carradine and Lattimore, the large cast of 49ers rookies will look to make their own impact on San Francisco's offense this season.

    Chief among them are Jimmie Ward and Carlos Hyde. 

    Ward—San Francisco's first-round pick in this year's draft class—looks to secure the team's primary nickel cornerback position his rookie year. 

    This is going to be easier said than done, however. Ward had foot surgery back in March and missed a sizable portion of the 49ers' offseason programs.

    “He’s going to be behind,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said, via Eric Branch of SF Gate. “And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early.

    Still, Ward will get plenty of opportunities, and the 49ers have him projected as the No. 3 cornerback according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News with returning veterans Perrish Cox, Darryl Morris and Chris Cook being the primary competition:

    #49ers Vic Fangio likes Jimmie Ward's versatility as slot corner, but must learn a lot first http://t.co/lnEEy66brV

    — Cam Inman (@CamInman) May 9, 2014

    Like Ward, Hyde will have to face a lot of stiff competition at his respective position. 

    As indicated, Hyde will be going up against backup running backs like Hunter, James and Lattimore when it comes to determining San Francisco's depth chart at running back.

    But Hyde appears to be the favorite to eventually take over Gore's job, at least according to Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He writes:

    The 49ers need more from their top running back—this is a run-first team. That’s why this year the 49ers spent their second-round pick on Hyde, a running back. Hyde is much bigger than Gore. Faster than Gore, too. Hyde has power. He punches through the hole and pushes the pile and picks up yards after contact. At least that’s what he did in the Big Ten. If he can do that in the NFL his rookie season, he will push the 49ers over the top.

    Unquestionably, this is what the 49ers are hoping for: a transition from Gore to the younger, highly touted Hyde without losing much. Perhaps there will even be a gain at some point soon.

    We cannot overlook the contributions of other rookies such as center Marcus Martin, linebackers Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch, wide receiver Bruce Ellington and cornerback Dontae Johnson.

    We'll get into Ellington and Johnson in a bit, but we should at least be mindful of the competition that Martin, Borland and Lynch bring to the table.

    Martin will be competing directly for the starting center job with Daniel Kilgore this preseason. Additionally, Martin could see time as a No. 1 backup at guard alongside returning veterans Joe Looney and Adam Snyder.

    While Lynch will likely be placed behind Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta on San Francisco's depth chart, Borland has a good shot to become a starting inside linebacker, filling in for the injured All-Pro NaVorro Bowman.

    Borland will compete with Michael Wilhoite for this accolade. But Borland's talents do not go unnoticed, and he was ranked as the key defensive acquisition per FOX News, so at least that is worth considering.

    Like the remaining cast of rookies and second-year projects, Borland will have a chance to test his mettle during training camp—the results of which should be exciting to project.

Formulation of the Cornerback Position

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    San Francisco essentially has one proven cornerback on its roster heading into the 2014 season: Tramaine Brock.

    But even Brock doesn't boast the accolades and experience that would cement the 49ers secondary as one of the league's best. Brock has logged only seven regular-season starts over his four-year career. Thankfully, his excellent play last season is reason to hope for the best in 2014.

    Brock should be San Francisco's No. 1 corner in 2014. There shouldn't be much concern over that. But after Brock, the look and feel of this position gets much more difficult to ascertain.

    Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat sums this up by writing:

    Behind [Brock], the 49ers have zero proven cornerbacks. Chris Culliver and Chris Cook will compete for the No. 2 job. Culliver and Cook are big and athletic, but neither guy has developed the ability to turn and find the ball when it’s in the air. What good is a cornerback who can’t turn and find the ball?

    A worthy assumption would be that Culliver earns the No. 2 cornerback job after training camp. But there are two significant concerns that follow this projection.

    Nobody doubts that Culliver is physically gifted. At 6'0" and 199 pounds, Culliver does combine athleticism with size. But one cannot overlook that he missed all of 2013 with an injury. On top of that, which Culliver will 49ers fans see? Recollections of what happened to him in the 2012 playoffs still linger.

    #49ers Key camp question: Can Culliver rebound?: Since January 2013, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver has A) ca... http://t.co/ayQci6u0Nn

    — Football Field (@FootballField) July 21, 2014

    Similar to Culliver, the 49ers are also entertaining the possibility of offseason trade acquisition Cook to bring his size and athleticism to the forefront. Cook's four-year career has yet to develop into the type of production hoped for when the Minnesota Vikings drafted him 34th overall back in 2010.

    Granted, a change in scenery and the tutelage of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell may help here.

    We have already discussed the storyline surrounding the development of first-rounder Jimmie Ward and his projection as San Francisco's future slot corner. But as indicated, Ward will be behind as he recovers from foot surgery.

    As long as Ward needs to catch up, the 49ers will likely turn to other defensive backs like Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris. Both Cox and Morris could potentially earn starting nickel slots in Week 1, especially if San Francisco's coaching staff feels as if Ward is not quite ready.

    But it is hard to fathom both Cox and Morris making the 53-man roster.

    On one hand, the slot corner position typically demands practical NFL experience—something that Cox has and second-year veteran Morris does not. 

    The 49ers are excited about Morris, however. He brings a number of attributes to the table, including speed and good football instincts, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. This competition will be an interesting one to watch during training camp.

    Rounding out the cornerback depth chart are rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker.

    Acker, a sixth-round pick of the 49ers, has a long way to go to make the final 53-man roster and will probably end up being a practice-squad addition.

    But the 49ers have higher hopes for Johnson—a 6-foot-2, 195-pound, physically gifted defensive back out of North Carolina State.

    A fourth-round pick, Johnson has nothing guaranteed for him, especially considering some of the more experienced corners on San Francisco's roster.

    Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area sums up what Johnson brings to the table:

    He has good size and speed, but is very raw. He does not figure to offer strong competition to Chris Culliver or Tramaine Brock for a starting job as a rookie. But the 49ers see a lot of physical talent and it will be the responsibility of defensive backs coach Ed Donatell to mold Johnson into a player who can become a factor in future seasons. He’ll have to show enough during his first training camp to earn a spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster.

    #49ers Meet the Rookies focuses on Dontae Johnson (@2Johnson5)… http://t.co/knCocgPJr8

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) July 21, 2014

    What this essentially means is that Johnson will have to prove himself during training camp to earn any consideration for the roster. His physicality should be enough to warrant a spot, but his development will be key in determining just how much playing time he gets.

    Of course, any struggles from the other cast of corners could mean added consideration during, or after, training camp.

Maturation of Colin Kaepernick

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    All eyes will continue to be on quarterback Colin Kaepernick as he begins his second full season under center.

    In the wake of his six-year, $126 million contract extension, the pressure on the 26-year-old will become even greater as he looks to improve upon the numbers he put up a season ago.

    We can summarize Kaepernick's abilities and shortcomings fairly easily. He has tremendous athleticism and a rocket arm. Anyone who has watched the 49ers knows this. But we also know that he struggles with his progressions and perhaps relies too much on his rushing abilities.

    Let us focus on the passing game primarily for a moment.

    Last season, Kaepernick posted 3,197 passing yards on 416 attempts—good for 20th in the NFL. Granted, much of the lowly passing numbers was due to the lack of bonafide receivers on the 49ers roster for much of the season. We can also place some blame upon elements of the play-calling as well.

    We'll dive into the offense in a bit, but those excuses won't work in 2014. The 49ers have a new cast of receivers along with returning veterans like Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton.

    So what does Kaepernick need to do in order to bring his game to the next level?

    The best advice might come from Hall of Famer Steve Young, who offered up some advice for San Francisco's franchise quarterback. Here is what Young said in reference to becoming a prolific passer, via NFL Live (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports):

    That’s going to be a very difficult thing for Colin to master. He’s going to have to tie his legs in training camp. Literally, he should tie his legs, physically, so he can’t do anything but throw from the pocket.

    #49ersTalk: Steve Young says Colin Kaepernick needs to run less, learn progressions http://t.co/sgkr1dS1aQ #49ers #NFL

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) June 3, 2014

    Young also had tremendous rushing prowess in his day, so it is safe to say he knows a thing or two about transforming from a rusher into a passer. 

    The 49ers appear to have understood this need, having addressed it by hiring quarterback guru George Whitfield as an intern coach this offseason.

    Coolest doors I've come into 'work' thru.... #NFL #49ers #Landlords pic.twitter.com/fGMIz4qBdm

    — George Whitfield Jr. (@georgewhitfield) June 11, 2014

    Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat sums up what Whitfield can do for Kaepernick heading into the season:

    Don’t be fooled. Whitfield is a star, not an extra. He has tutored Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel, and now Whitfield will tutor Kaepernick. No quarterback guru is more in demand than Whitfield. If he can’t turn Kaepernick into a polished pocket passer, who can?

    Of course, there is a lot more that goes into developing into a good pocket passer. San Francisco's offensive line obviously has to play its role. The receivers need to create space and get open. The play-calling needs to be efficient.

    Still, we will continue to monitor Kaepernick's development in the wake of what we saw from him a year ago. While Kaepernick is not the entire picture, he certainly plays a big role in it.

    Training camp should provide a good indication on how far along he is coming.

New-Look Offense

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    While Colin Kaepernick will play a significant role in the success—or failure—of the 49ers offense in 2014, we have to make sure to evaluate the entire picture.

    Let us start by looking at the numbers from the 2013 season.

    We know San Francisco is a run-first team. The 49ers ranked No. 3 in the NFL a year ago in total rushing yards (2,201). After the additions of Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, that number should be consistent with what we saw a year ago.

    But in terms of the passing game, San Francisco was less than impressive. The 49ers boasted the 30th-ranked passing attack in the league—totaling a mere 2,979 yards, just above the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.

    Granted, San Francisco's pass offense lacked depth, especially after losing wideouts Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton for much of the regular season.

    Additionally, we can find some fault in the play-calling of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who received plenty of criticism from pundits over the course of the year.

    So what changes in 2014?

    We've covered the maturation and development of Kaepernick already, so let's bank on that happening. In addition, the 49ers have bolstered the receiving corps significantly during the offseason.

    First, San Francisco re-signed Anquan Boldin.  The 49ers then signed veteran wideout Brandon Lloyd to a one-year deal. Also acquired were receivers Stevie Johnson and rookie Bruce Ellington in the hopes of adding a bit more speed to San Francisco's passing attack.

    The remaining question is how this unit will all come together.

    Let's get the obvious information out of the way.

    The 49ers remain a power-run team. There should not be much of a shift away from that philosophy, especially when considering the additions of runners like Hyde. But the added weapons at receiver give San Francisco more options as pointed out by Alex Carson of Niners Nation:

    Smart money seems to be on Jim Harbaugh not getting away from the things that have made him a successful coach, but then he's not had these sort of weapons for a potent aerial attack before ... It's easy to see them sticking with their bread and butter, but there's also reason to think that the stacked backfield will only make the passing attack that much more dangerous and tough to predict and stop.

    Okay, so the running game will help set up the passing game, especially when considering the depth San Francisco has in its receiving corps.

    But that depth creates questions unto itself.

    We should expect to see a lot of Boldin and Crabtree throughout the season. The 49ers love their veterans, and Kaepernick already has an established rapport with both receivers. That secures the Nos. 1 and 2 guys on the depth chart.

    The slot receiver position is a little tougher to evaluate and predict.

    The 49ers have essentially three wideouts who can all contribute at slot: Patton, Ellington and Johnson. Lloyd may also factor into this equation.

    Patton, San Francisco's fourth-rounder a year ago, missed much of 2013. But he and Kaepernick did develop some chemistry during the preseason last season, and he also came up with some key grabs down the stretch. The 49ers obviously have not given up on him.

    Ellington doesn't offer much in terms of size—5'9" and 196 pounds—but he does provide excellent speed, which is an aspect the 49ers lacked from the position a year ago.

    @INDlVlDUAL Ellington does give 49ers a different kind of threat from slot. He's the smaller shifty WR but he's tough.

    — TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_PPI) June 9, 2014

    But Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News suggests that Ellington is exactly what the 49ers need when it comes to adding this element.

    Yet there is always the possibility that a fourth-round, undersized wideout does not translate into a practical threat at the NFL level. Being placed on the NFI list also hinders his development. Here is where the acquisition of Johnson makes some sense.

    WR Bruce Ellington, CB Keith Reaser, G Brandon Thomas, C Marcus Martin, FB Trey Millard & RB M. Lattimore went on non-football injury list

    — Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) July 17, 2014

    The six-year pro netted more than 1,000 receiving yards for the Buffalo Bills between 2010 and 2012 and does possess the ability to make big plays. Yet an injury hindered his 2013 campaign, and there are reasons to believe that he will not be fully healthy at the start of the 2014 season.

    #49ers Wire: 49ers | Stevie Johnson nursing hamstring injury http://t.co/hTTKUyP5Bk #NFL @playerpress

    — 49ers Football (@ninerspress) June 4, 2014

    Thick competition for slot receiver is another hindrance to Johnson, who may lose that battle, according to Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

    Then there is Lloyd. At 33 years old, Lloyd still could make the roster based on his veteran and red-zone prowess alone, but he'll have to continue proving himself in training camp for that to be the case.

    While this competition is a good thing, the fact remains that all the pieces need to come together in the correct order. 

    This all boils down to play-calling. As stated, we should not expect San Francisco to suddenly become a pass-happy team all of a sudden. Last year, the 49ers were last in the league when it came to utilizing three wide-receiver sets according to ESPN. 

    Roman has suggested, via NFL Media's Alex Flanagan (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com), that the 49ers offense will be more dynamic in 2014. Much of this will hinder on how the group of wideouts formulates as well as what transpires with Vernon Davis' holdout.

    On top of that, there needs to be a developed chemistry between Kaepernick and his receivers.

    We know this is already established between Boldin and Crabtree. Patton is pretty far along based on what he did last season. The rest remains in question.

    Training camp provides the final glimpse into how NFL teams come together in the weeks before the preseason. 

    Like any other franchise, the 49ers have a plethora of tough questions to answer as they prepare themselves for a difficult and demanding challenge that calls for nothing less than a Super Bowl title.

    In the coming days and weeks, we'll know more about how this roster is shaping up and which players are rising to the challenge.

    Until then, all we can do is try to speculate what will happen.

     

    All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

     

    Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.

     

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