San Francisco 49ers Training Camp: Week 1 Stock Report
The first week of the San Francisco 49ers training camp is underway, and head coach Jim Harbaugh already has plenty of things to think about as the team shapes up for what promises to be a compelling 2014 NFL season.
In hindsight, perhaps six or seven months from now, we may look back at these infant storylines and say those proverbial lines like, "I told you so," or "you heard it here first."
Such is the nature of the 49ers and the NFL in general.
While training camp is merely a glimpse into what each team is gearing up for en route to the regular season, we can take away a number of significant factors and evidence that sheds light on what the team is shaping up to be and how those preparations are going.
San Francisco has already had plenty of storylines leading up to this point.
There have been holdouts, contract extensions, rookie development and off-the-field issues.
It just wouldn't be an offseason without such news to grace our headlines, wouldn't it?
But now these stories come to a point—now we can begin to speculate how all of these, and more, factor into what will happen on the football field in the coming weeks.
For the 49ers, we need to look at a number of questions and see how each potential dilemma or issue is being evaluated and potentially solved.
With just under a week of training camp in the books, we use that as a backdrop. In this slideshow, let us take an in-depth perspective at six areas of concern and determine whether San Francisco's stock in these categories is rising or falling.
Like anything else in the NFL, there are ebbs and flows, risers and fallers.
Let's see who fits into which category from the 49ers' vantage point.
The Lone Holdout: Alex Boone
Right guard Alex Boone is underpaid.
At an average yearly salary of $1.635 million, Boone certainly has a viable argument behind his decision to skip out on all of San Francisco's offseason programs thus far.
Boone, along with tight end Vernon Davis, were hoping that the 49ers would address the holdout to each player's liking.
But the 49ers have not budged.
Instead, San Francisco changed things up a bit—signing three-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley to a six-year, $43.2 million contract extension.
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
As they did with running back Frank Gore back in 2011, the 49ers are following a precedent: They will not negotiate a player's contract until he has reported to camp, per Eric Branch of SF Gate.
Davis has apparently seen the light and decided he would show up to camp regardless of his prior holdout.
Boone, on the other hand, remains a no-show.
The 49ers coaching staff, without doubt, would like to get Boone back into pads and prepare for the 2014 season. But they have also stressed a team-first mentality, referenced by Harbaugh as "the 49er way."
We can speculate for hours as to how this ongoing saga will end. Perhaps Boone recognizes that showing up will be in his best interest. Perhaps he sticks to his guns.
Whatever the case may be, the 49ers look as if they are preparing for a long-term absence from Boone.
San Francisco has been working out backup guard Joe Looney in Boone's stead, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.
Other players like rookie Marcus Martin, Adam Snyder, Daniel Kilgore or offseason acquisition Jonathan Martin could earn the nod at the start of the season if Boone's holdout continues.
But Looney could very well be the deciding factor when it comes to either side giving in. This is the argument made by Mike Florio of NBC Sports, who states, "As the holdout of 49ers guard Alex Boone lingers, the team’s resolve or lack thereof will hinge on the performance of his replacement, Joe Looney. 'So far, so good,' so the 49ers say."
Joe Looney becomes the wildcard in Alex Boone holdout http://t.co/JQVCeVrLaP— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) July 28, 2014
Perhaps this is the team's intention to entice Boone to report. If Boone feels his starting job is in jeopardy, then reporting may be in his best interest.
Either way, San Francisco is looking like it is willing to move past Boone's holdout. In the team's eyes, no one is irreplaceable.
Such is the case regardless of how much Boone is paid.
This author will admit that he wondered if the 49ers' first pick of the 2014 NFL draft would be able to step on the field in Week 1 of the 2014 season.
There was a good reason behind this.
Ward underwent foot surgery back in March and missed a sizable chunk of San Francisco's offseason programs thereafter.
According to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Ward was going to be behind in his development. He stated such, via Eric Branch of SF Gate:
He’s going to be behind. 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. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
When drafted, the 49ers envisioned Ward becoming their new nickel cornerback—a position held last season by Carlos Rogers, who signed with the Oakland Raiders during the offseason.
The learning curve, especially at slot, is difficult for defensive backs. Rare are the breeds like last year's first-rounder Eric Reid.
The expectations remain high on Ward, as described further by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, and signs appear that San Francisco wants its first-round pick to be able to contribute at a high level right away.
Now healthy, eyes have started to shift their attention to Ward and his abilities on the field.
On his first day of practice at training camp, Ward dove for a tipped pass and hauled it in for an interception, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. The effort, along with other notable aspects to his game, earned Ward praise from Fangio.
Not so long ago, we may have been looking at one of the other, more experienced 49ers defensive backs as favorites to earn the No. 3 corner role in Week 1.
Ward appeared destined as a backup, at least until he developed more in the wake of his offseason surgery.
Now it is hard to fathom Ward doing anything else but starting at that position.
The Cornerback Position
Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke can talk up the 49ers cornerbacks as much as they want to, but it is hard to overlook the notion that this unit is perhaps the most questionable, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Jimmie Ward obviously gets a pass, as we have indicated on the previous slide. But what of the other changes?
Gone are veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers—smart moves in terms of cap space and development, but both are certainly losses that affect the level of experience within the 49ers secondary.
Replacing Brown atop San Francisco's depth chart is fourth-year pro Tramaine Brock, whose excellent play gave the 49ers the option to part ways with Brown.
Brock has scored high points with Harbaugh, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:
The 49ers have every reason to be excited about Brock, who signed a four-year contract extension last November. He improved so much last season once he got on the field and continues to grow this summer. Harbaugh raves about Brock's work ethic. Brock has had a perfect attendance in the offseason workouts in all three of Harbaugh’s three seasons with the 49ers, the coach said. Harbaugh said Brock‘s preparation is "at the highest level.”
We certainly cannot count against the stellar development Brock has shown recently, but the 5'10" defensive back has started just seven games over his career.
Brock and Ward are probably the least of San Francisco's worries at cornerback.
Perhaps the biggest is Chris Culliver, who missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL suffered in training camp a year ago.
The 6'0'' Culliver hopes to shake off the forgettable performance he put together during San Francisco's Super Bowl run in 2012 and look more like the cornerback whom San Francisco hoped for when it drafted him in the third round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Initial indications are positive from the 49ers coaching staff, as indicated by Eric Branch of SF Gate:
Fifty-one weeks after he tore his ACL in training camp, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver resembles, well, Chris Culliver circa 2012. At least that's the opinion of 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio after watching Culliver in the first practice of training camp Thursday.
Still, 49ers fans want to know which Culliver takes the field in 2013. Will he show promise, or will Culliver look like the young back that was getting burned badly in the postseason in 2012?
Similar questions could be asked about the remaining cast of 49ers cornerbacks.
Offseason acquisition Chris Cook has all the physical traits, and at 6'2" and 200 pounds, it is easy to see why the 49ers feel highly about him even if his career did not get off to a good start in Minnesota.
Cook may benefit from the press-based coverage scheme employed by Vic Fangio, but it is anything but guaranteed that the four-year veteran will be an impact player.
At best, Cook makes the team as the No. 3 or No. 4 corner depending on what happens with Ward.
That leaves three fringe players: Perrish Cox, Darryl Morris and rookie Dontae Johnson. Fellow rookie Kenneth Acker is all but destined for the practice squad in this author's opinion.
Morris is an intriguing candidate based on his speed and special teams abilities alone. He may win out against Cox based on that, but training camp will be the ultimate deciding factor. As was the case a year ago, Cox appears perpetually on the roster bubble.
Of course, Johnson is envisioned as a long-term project from the 49ers' perspective. A fourth-round pick, Johnson has some excellent physical attributes—6'2" and 195 pounds—but he is pretty raw according to David Fucillo of Niners Nation:
We take a look at 49ers rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson in our latest 90-in-90 breakdown http://t.co/FPyyjKZWfo— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) July 19, 2014
Aside from Brock and Ward, each one of San Francisco's remaining corners raises some pretty big questions. There have been signs of progression and promise, so we should not discount that.
But as Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area points out, this position is the one with the most question marks heading into training camp.
Maybe that's a good thing to have going forward—the desire to prove the doubters wrong. But we have yet to see enough from this unit to be of good inspiration.
Stock: Falling (albeit not much)
Wide Receiver Stevie Johnson
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson was bound to have plenty of competition when he was traded for by the 49ers during the 2014 NFL draft.
Returning to his hometown of San Francisco, Johnson now has to take on the likes of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Quinton Patton and offseason additions Brandon Lloyd and rookie Bruce Ellington to crack the 49ers roster.
There is no doubting that Johnson has talent. He averaged over 1,000 yards between 2010 and 2012, but injuries plagued his 2013 campaign, which is perhaps why the Buffalo Bills felt compelled to trade him.
On the outset, Johnson may have been a lock to earn the No. 3 receiver job, but as Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area pointed out, there are plenty of obstacles in his way. Maiocco wrote:
The big addition was Johnson, who turns 28 on Tuesday. He had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Buffalo Bills before being limited by injuries last season and seeing his production drop to 597 yards in 12 games. Johnson is the front-runner for the No. 3 job, but he will have to clearly win the job due to his scheduled $3.925 million pay for the season.
Add to that the nature of competition for San Francisco's slot receiver job. The 49ers have certainly not given up on second-year pro Quinton Patton, and rookie Bruce Ellington possesses the flashy speed that the passing offense so desperately needed a year ago.
Plus, if Brandon Lloyd continues to impress, then Johnson could be pushed to the bubble.
Fortunately for Johnson, signs are pointing to him being fully capable of contributing right away.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com describes some of Johnson's first impressions during training camp:
Thursday, in the 49ers' first training camp practice, we could see why Kaepernick was so pleased that the 49ers' traded a mid-round pick next year to Buffalo for Johnson. He was all over the field and he was one of the bright lights of Day 1 of the 49ers' training camp.
#49ers Stevie Johnson could be a real nice added dimension to this offense. Stunning how much better this WR group can be.— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonESPN) July 25, 2014
Johnson said, via Maiocco:
It feels good. I can’t lie. It feels good to know that you got other guys that can make big plays. It’s not all on your shoulders. I’m happy to be a part of it, and I’m sure the guys are happy to have me on the squad with them and get this thing rolling.
Johnson's resurgence is obviously a good sign for a 49ers receiving unit that ranked No. 30 in receiving yards last season (2,979).
What this means for the rest of San Francisco's wideout crop is yet to be determined, but all signs are indicating that Johnson is here to stay.
The 49ers Running Backs
Before training camp, the 49ers could boast one of the deepest and most promising running back groups in the NFL.
Behind the veteran presence of Frank Gore, San Francisco could count on the backup presence of Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James as well as the much-anticipated debuts of rookie Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore.
While Hyde and Lattimore garnered much of the focus as the team looks to eventually transition away from Gore's services, the team could take comfort in knowing it had a proven backup in Hunter, who is as good a No. 2 runner in the league.
My, how much can change in short order.
Hunter suffered a torn ACL on July 26 and will miss the entirety of the 2014 season, per FOX Sports.
The news is a huge setback for San Francisco's ground game, which is such an important component of the team's offense. Smart speculation would lead us to believe that the 49ers would limit Gore's carries in order to keep him fresh.
That would have meant a sizable workload for Hunter, and the team is "concerned" according to ESPN's Ed Werder (h/t Mike Florio of NBC Sports).
Jim Harbaugh on Kendall Hunter injury: "I'm sick, physically sick. He's a fine person, a good friend and ally."— Cam Inman (@CamInman) July 27, 2014
Now this unfortunate incident likely would've opened the door for James to a certain degree—James has been vying for a more significant role on offense and not just on special teams.
James, who has been part of speculation regarding a possible trade, should have expected his touches to rise in the wake of Hunter's injury. But James also suffered his own injury—a dislocated elbow that should sideline him about a month, per Mike Coppinger of NFL.com.
Who is left?
We know the answer, obviously. Behind Gore, the 49ers will look to Hyde, Lattimore and Jewel Hampton.
Hampton has spent the entirety of his two-year career on San Francisco's practice squad, but he figures to get plenty of carries in the preseason while the 49ers avoid overworking Gore.
Then there is Lattimore. Lattimore entered training camp on the non-football injury (NFI) list. And while general manager Trent Baalke has insisted it's not a setback, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, one does have to be concerned about the physical recovery of Lattimore after his gruesome collegiate injury.
In short, no one can easily state when Lattimore will be 100 percent.
That leaves Hyde, which may be a blessing in disguise after all, considering his collegiate accolades and worthy draft stock.
Hyde may very well be the primary beneficiary of the injuries sustained to Hunter, James and Lattimore, and the 49ers are certainly excited about his future.
But the fact remains that Hyde is an unproven commodity at the NFL level. He will still have to learn and display the great blocking abilities that Gore has perfected over the years. That will take time.
We could easily state that Hyde is trending upwards in the wake of these injuries. Perhaps he is.
Unfortunately, this unit as a whole has been set back by what has transpired thus far in camp. Hopefully, they can get past it in short order.
San Francisco's Linebackers
If you told me four months ago that the 49ers would be without standout linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith for a sizable chunk of the 2014 regular season, I would have shuddered.
Of course, this will likely be the case at least for the first few weeks of the season.
Bowman is recovering from the MCL and ACL injuries sustained during the NFC Championship earlier this year and is expected to miss about half the season, per Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports.
Aldon Smith's absence, on the other hand, has yet to be determined.
In the wake of Smith's off-field issues, the 49ers must now await the decision on whether the NFL will suspend the 2012 All-Pro and for how long.
Accounts vary in speculating how much time Smith will miss, but as Dan Hanzus of NFL.com points out, a suspension of any length is likely, and the 49ers will be forced to play without one of their prolific pass-rushers for an undetermined length of time.
With camp open, 49ers LB Aldon Smith still hasn't been summoned to the league office http://t.co/EwcdX1ZqlZ— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) July 24, 2014
In Smith's case, anything less than four games would be a blessing for the 49ers. We must wait and see what the NFL elects to do here.
At any rate, San Francisco has to figure out how to handle the absence of both of these star players.
Fortunately, it looks as if it has already built in plenty of strength within this unit.
The task of backing up Bowman will likely fall upon Michael Wilhoite, who performed a similar role for Patrick Willis a season ago.
Wilhoite did a solid job in Willis' stead, and there are little reasons to believe he won't perform similarly to start 2014. But if he does suffer a drawback, then the 49ers can look to the athletic Nick Moody along with impressive rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee describes this competition in detail:
[Borland] plays with heart and hustle, and he always seemed to find his way to the ballcarrier when he played at Wisconsin. He and Michael Wilhoite, who filled in when Willis was nicked last year, have to be considered the front-runners for the position. Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick a year ago and the most athletic of the group, also will compete for the spot.
On the outside, the 49ers can count upon similar depth.
Second-year pro Corey Lemonier may get a chance to showcase the pass-rushing prowess that made him such a defensive standout at Auburn. Backup contributor Dan Skuta may also be featured in coverage roles.
Then there is rookie Aaron Lynch, who is currently listed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, per Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
Lynch is a polarizing figure according to Barrows, but he does have some incredible talents that should not be overlooked.
We certainly would rather see both Bowman and Smith on the field to start the 2014 season, but circumstances have dictated otherwise.
Had the 49ers not engineered themselves to overcome such obstacles, this unit would unquestionably be falling in stock. Fortunately, this dominant strength of San Francisco's defense looks to retain its presence regardless of who is physically out there on the field.
That is worth taking stock in.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive for 49ers news, insight and analysis.
Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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