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The 49ers' rookies and veterans reported this past weekend and the team kicked off their first practice yesterday. Today they have their first public practice and it sounds like the Nutcracker will get going today. Given all that is going down, I thought now was as good a time as any to begin our annual look at training camp battles. As I've done the last couple years, I like using the horse racing analogy to look at the various battles. We'll start by looking at the positions after the first turn, after the first game we'll look at the position battles coming around the back side, and we'll close out with the position battles coming down the home stretch.
I consider this the first turn for several reasons. Since there has not been a ton of turnover, the position battles were impacted by the draft, free agency, and May/June OTAs and minicamps. The team has addressed a variety of weaknesses on both sides of the ball and we could have some intense battles this season. Basically, all of the offseason to this point brings us around the first turn of the horse race.
One interesting note is that the #1 QB spot is not a position battle for the first time in quite some time.
The two big offensive line battles are this and the right tackle battle. Naturally, the addition of rookie guard Mike Iupati in the first round would seem to strongly indicate that the 49ers want Iupati in the starting lineup as soon as possible. Of the two big rookies, I feel pretty certain that Iupati will enter the starting lineup first. And it could even happen by the start of the season. However, at this point in time, as Coach Singletary has stated, he doesn't want to give the rookies anything before they're ready. They're going to get their cracks with the first team and the second team, so no need to rush things at this point. The most interesting comment in that exchange was about how Crabtree came in after his hold out and it was clear that he was head and shoulders above everybody else.
Although this situation is very similar to that of the left guard position, the addition of Alex Boone to the equation makes things a bit more interesting. With guys like Boone and Sims around it makes things a lot more interesting at those additional roster spots. The team has some very solid talent beyond just the starters and it makes the battle for roster spots all the more interesting. There were question marks as to whether Davis would be able to step up right off the bat. Singletary is a big believer in the eye test so we'll just have to see how long it takes for Davis to pass that test.
Participants: Barry Sims, Alex Boone
Leader at the first turn: Barry Sims
After an up and down first season, Barry Sims was huge for the 49ers last season while filling in for an injured Joe Staley. As we head into the 2010 training camp, I think we could be in for a fun battle for practice time between Sims and Boone. Boone has been moving around the line a bit more this offseason and is supposedly in excellent shape. Sims is hanging around but I would imagine the 49ers would love to see Boone make a strong push to become the primary swing tackle. Of course, they might also be satisfied with him stepping up at one tackle position, and then the team just keeps Boone AND Sims.
This is another spot where Moran Norris gets the courtesy spot because he's been around the longest, but he also could find himself in a bit of a dogfight for his starting spot. Brit Miller got some first team reps at fullback yesterday, so clearly the teams want to see what's up with him. Miller brings some special teams skills which should help him considerably with a roster spot. The question is if he can do enough to unseat Norris. We have to also remember that Frank Gore is definitely a Norris fan. We'll see if that affects the battle.
Anthony Dixon has been a bit banged up but apparently is more or less good to go at this point. The team has consistently spoken of getting somebody back there who can give Frank Gore more of a breather, in spite of the fact that Frank Gore really never wants a breather. I included Michael Robinson on this list of participants, but it was more of a courtesy to him at this point. He'll get his playing time all over the field, but it seems like this is a 2-man battle between Coffee and Dixon. It should make for an interesting battle with plenty of opportunities for both guys. As we approach the first preseason game in a couple weeks, Gore likely won't get many carries in the preseason, which means a whole ton of carries for Coffee and Dixon. It will be interesting to see which of the two can step up.
All three of the main beat writers (Barber, Maiocco, Barrows - links below) discussed the various player alignments on defense, and at this point Isaac Sopoaga seems to be the man at left defensive end. In last year's look at the position battles, the LDE was discussed with Sopoaga once again leading the way. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In yesterday's practices, Sopoaga got starting reps at LDE, but also got some work at nose tackle with the second team behind Ricky Jean-Francois. Sopoaga has had some practice at the nose before, so it would seem to be another chance to further his flexibility along the line. Balmer has a lot to prove this training camp, so we'll certainly be keeping an eye on him. As for Ray McDonald, he had his DUI issue in the offseason, but I remain a fan of him in the pass rush. I don't know if he'll ever move beyond the situational pass rush role, but he can be very solid even if just in that role.
Haralson seems to be a lock to start on one side of the 3-4. Brooks seemed to emerge last year, but Manny Lawson is starting out with the first team reps at this point. Brooks will need to prove last year was not a fluke. Of course, with Manny Lawson gunning for a new contract, that walk-year skill could shine through for him. I find it hard to doubt a man gunning for millions of dollars.
This is a tough battle to call. With Ted Ginn likely locked in at kick returner, Vann, Jones, and Williams will be battling it out for time as punt returner. I include Jones, in spite of his awful showing last season in the role, because he apparently got a decent amount of practice yesterday as the punt returner. I think the fan favorite is Vann given his amazing performances in college, but at this point nobody has come close to seizing a hold on the job. And really, I don't think anybody will grab a firm hold until at least the first game. Everybody will get their cracks in practice, but I think the only thing that can come from practice is losing ground on the job. In practice, I don't think anybody can strengthen their chances of winning the job, as much as they can weaken their chances with muffed returns.
Bowman would seem to be the Ted linebacker of the future, but McKillop likely has the strongest grasp on the position at this point. McKillop is getting second team reps at this point and I'd imagine that should stay the same for now. Takeo Spikes is certainly not breaking down at this point in his career, but the team certainly has to be wary as he gets older. They want someone with at least a little bit of experience available as a backup. Bowman could certainly step up in camp, but McKillop has the advantage in the 49ers defense, and also all his playing time on special teams.
5th and possible 6th wide receivers
Participants: Brandon Jones, Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler
Leader at the first turn: Neck and neck
I realize not providing a leader at the first turn is a bit of a cop-out, but I honestly don't think anybody has really emerged at this point. After Crabtree and Morgan, it would seem like Ted Ginn and Jason Hill are the likely 3/4 combination in some form or fashion. Offseason reports have indicated Hill has been stepping up his practice so I've moved him out of this little battle here. I'm not all that sure how many receivers the 49ers will run with this season, so no more than one of these guys is guaranteed anything. Although Kyle Williams has some talent, if he doesn't step up, I wonder if he would be the most logical candidate for the practice squad. I guess we'll have to wait and see.
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