The NFL preseason has been notorious for a lack of excitement; games are deemed useless because the win-loss column means so little for a team come regular season. In 2010, the 49ers posted a perfect 4-0 record while the Indianapolis Colts went winless so clearly there are some false indicators. To provide 49ers fans with some immediate entertainment with the regular season still weeks away, I'm going to give a few tips on what to look for this preseason.
Alex Smith looks to be the starter this coming season with second rounder Colin Kaepernick still learning the ropes in camp. Kaepernick has had some great plays in camp, however, he isn't to be rushed into the starting spot if he is clearly not ready. Starting with the New Orleans Saints matchup on Friday, Smith, Kaepernick and unheralded rookie Jeremiah Masoli all look to get reps.
Smith: What you are going to want to look for is how Smith carries himself and takes command of the offense. We have all heard about Smith asserting himself as the unquestioned leader of the 49ers; organizing workouts during the midst of a lockout and coaching brand new material to the attendees. The top quarterbacks in this league have swagger --- a general essence and belief that when they are on the field, they have a plan and it will be executed to a T. Look for how Smith progresses through his reads and how well he connects with the wide receivers specifically. We are all aware he can connect with his tight ends and check the ball down to his running back, but San Francisco was statistically near the bottom of the league in pass catching categories by the wide receivers.
Kaepernick: We are all excited to see this young buck hit the field to show the world what he can do for this franchise, but lets not get ahead of ourselves -- Rome wasn't built in a day. Against the Saints, look for how Kaepernick takes the snaps from under center. Kaepernick is transitioning from the pistol offense at Nevada and we want to look for any miscues, hopefully there are very few if any. Great quarterbacks also have the ability to feel pressure and adjust while keeping their eyes downfield, its called pocket presence. We saw Kaepernick do this exceptionally well at the collegiate level but the NFL is a different challenge, so keep an eye on his transition in that phase of the game.
Masoli: He just recently began taking all of his reps in camp at the quarterback position because Harbaugh believed he had proven himself. Masoli had also been taking snaps at the tailback position with his great athleticism and playmaking ability he displayed at Ole Miss and Oregon. See if Masoli can perform like even a mediocre third string NFL quarterback; if he is not a total mess, maybe we can redeem ourselves for letting Nate Davis go to Indianapolis.
I think it is safe to say most of the Faithful are becoming more comfortable with the offensive line. Joe Staley has been a rock when healthy, and Mike Iupati has been the mauler we all hoped he'd be. The addition of the Pro Bowl-making, Super Bowl-winning Saints center Jonathon Goodwin will make for a great addition to a line in need of experience. He is slated as the #2 center at camp behind Adam Snyder but that all could change. In fact, it most likely will with it making more sense to slide Snyder over to right guard where Chilo Rachal has unfortunately underperformed. That decision is yet to be made so watch the the trifecta performance between Goodwin, Snyder and Rachal. Anthony Davis is a great physical specimen who will be an efficient starting right tackle if he loosens up and stops drawing unnecessary flags.
This preseason, look for how the line communicates with each other. Are they making the appropriate calls at the line when it's warranted? Do they do a good job in pass protection? Are they cutting down on the false starts and holding? Do they look comfortable with each other?
Michael Crabtree is nicked up, so forget about him for now. If you can't forget about him, look to see if he is acting like a professional on the sideline. Is he watching the game or perhaps asking questions of the incoming veteran Braylon Edwards or in receivers coach Johnnie Morton's ear? These would be good signs to see from Crabtree. Edwards does not have anything to prove in preseason and may see limited reps, though he is still getting his timing down with the quarterback -- we are more worried about him off the field than on the field.
And I'll repeat, we really just want to see the receivers catching balls. It is imperative that the receivers begin contributing to the offense for it to be a complete threat. Ted Ginn has blazing speed but questionable hands; in the west coast installation, look for him to run short to intermediate routes to secure the ball and cut upfield with his breakaway speed. Kyle Williams and Ronald Johnson have the potential to be great slot receivers sooner rather than later, but the verdict is still out on them. Watch those two closely by scrutinizing the crispness of their routes and overall ability to create separation from the defender.
Two words, Bruce Miller. This is the late round gem that Harbaugh is looking forward to converting from collegiate defensive end to professional fullback. This guy was a high motor madman at Central Florida, earning the all-time career sacks honors at the D-1 program. The 6'2, 255 pound bruiser looks to knock someone out on every play with hopes to clear a path for the back.
Moran Norris has been the best complement to elusive superstar Frank Gore but between the physical toll of the position and time affecting all of us equally, someone will need to assume the duty when Norris has moved on from the game. If Harbaugh's draft intuition is correct, Miller might be that guy. Recently activated off the PUP list, look for Miller knowing the playbook and making contact with defenders in both pass protection and run blocking.
I hope you, the Niners Faithful, now have something to look forward to come Friday night when your San Francisco 49ers buckle up their chinstraps for the first time in the Harbaugh era. There is plenty to look forward to and come back for part two of this article when we cover the defense.