The 49ers rookies are set to report this Saturday, July 21st, with training camp scheduled to begin next week. Since it's been sort of a lifeless period of time up until training camp, there should be some significant storylines coming out of Santa Clara once camp gets rolling. When it comes to events such as training camp, preseason or regular season, it's always good to manage expectations and highlight particular storylines.
While there are countless storylines to follow, I'd like to centralize the focus around half a dozen or so. In this piece, we'll highlight some storylines heading into San Francisco 49ers training camp and allow for an open discussion following. Proceed after the jump for some notable headlines and what to expect in the Niners' 2012 camp.
No. 1: Stop worrying about A.J. Jenkins
It would be a wise decision for 49ers fans to put in ear plugs when it comes to rookie wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. If San Francisco did not have an arsenal of additional weapons on the offensive side of the ball, there might be more emphasis on Jenkins to succeed immediately, but the truth is, he doesn't need to. I view Jenkins as a long-term investment, but the first round status throws people for a loop because typically those players are supposed to be impact players right away.
Prediction: Jenkins will improve but at the end of training camp, will still be the team's 5th best wide receiver.
No. 2: Supporting Alex Boone's transition
This is a gamble for the 49ers going into 2012, but it's not like San Francisco hasn't had success rolling the dice before. I equate this move to the allowance of Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements departure -- three bold moves that wound up being three straight homeruns for the Niners, granted they were all defensive personnel moves.
Even with a need at right guard, the 49ers let Adam Snyder find a deal elsewhere (Arizona), neglected any free agents, and ignored the need till the later rounds of the NFL Draft. At this point, all the support needs to be behind Boone, who is the most experienced of the potential candidates. San Francisco is looking to make a title run in 2012, and cannot afford to have a gaping hole in their offensive line.
Teetering between 6'7" and 6'8", Boone must have a high-angle bend and consistently play with a low pad level. His frame his more ideally suited for that of a tackle, but can be an imposing player at the guard position if he gets his technique down. The benefit of having Boone as a guard is possessing another offensive lineman who's primary facet is pass protection, with the physique to also be a road grader in the run game.
Prediction: Boone will win the right guard job outright. The 49ers may bring in another offensive lineman for competition's sake, but Boone should be the starter in 2012. The long-term aspect of his presence there is yet to be determined.
No. 3: The LaMichael James factor
I expect LaMichael James to come in and start getting Randy Moss-like headlines, which if you haven't been keeping up, have been all beaming. The addition of James gives San Francisco's offense another game-breaking weapon with explosion, speed and leadership. James is easily is a potential offensive superstar in this league someday and could have a breakout first year, contributing on offense and special teams.
His presence provides the Niners with a whole new dynamic to their offense -- plays can be drawn up specifically for James. This guy uses the whole field to his advantage, and with the creativity of Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh, they will want to scheme around James, getting him the ball in open space and allowing him to cut loose.
Prediction: James will have numerous wow-plays in training camp and in preseason match-ups. He will solidify his place in the 49ers offense this coming season and earn a fair amount of touches, whether they are carries, receptions or returns.
No. 4: Alex Smith's development and rapport with offensive weapons
Alex Smith had a career-year in 2011 with one of the most depleted receiving corps in the league. The 49ers did not have nearly enough firepower on the offensive side of the football in 2011, but Smith still led comebacks and secured 14 wins last year. Now Smith is surrounded with offensive threats, many of them new, and he will need to build chemistry.
There was good news from media at Niners OTA's and minicamp already this year; NFL.com's Bucky Brooks attended one such Santa Clara workout, where he concluded that San Francisco's offense would be downright threatening in 2012. He noted that not a lot of balls hit the ground; citing "accurate, pinpoint throws" from Smith and excellent "timing and execution." We'll follow this closely as Smith and the offense continues to gel going into training camp.
Prediction: The mechanics. The progression in the system. The new weapons. Smith will be better, and he will take advantage of the opportunity in front of him.
No. 5: Continuing to work on situational offense
The 49ers were reportedly working on situational offense, which seemed logical given that it was their Achilles in 2011. San Francisco will be working on third down's -- which include third and long/short -- and the red zone situations. To improve in those two areas alone would make the Niners a much, much better football team overall -- visibly better on the field and on the stat sheet.
Greg Roman spoke about working on situational offense this offseason, so that will be something to monitor as training camp progresses. On a side note, this should benefit the defense as they look to get off the field on third down and consistently hold teams to field goals instead of touchdowns.
No. 6: The four corners
I find this to be one of the more unheralded storylines going into camp; the 49ers basically have four starting cornerbacks, which is a beautiful thing in today's passing league, and when the Niners have a schedule that looks the way theirs does.
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox are going to become as collectively famous as the 49ers linebackers. Three of them have starting experience, where they played solid football, and the fourth is a sure-fire starter that could be the best of the group when it's all said and done. This will be one of the most highly competitive position groups, not just in 49ers' training camp, but in all the NFL. The hope is, these guys become very tight, form a chemistry and push one another to get better.
No. 7: Aldon Smith's transition to a starter
And finally, Aldon Smith will be transitioning to a starting role in the 49ers defense this season. As a rookie, Smith was a pass rush specialist in 2011, rarely dropping into coverage. But as Smith looks to become a starter, he will need to add layers to his game and come to understand all the nuances of the outside linebacker position.
Smith will need to be formidable against the run, be able to read and understand offenses, and not be a liability in coverage. Because of Smith's physical prowess up front in the trenches, I don't believe that he will have much trouble as a run-stopper, but his football IQ is yet to be truly tested. Learning pass coverage will be the distinct challenge for Smith during this year's training camp, particularly zone coverages, which demand timing, instinct and the expectation that you will always be where you are supposed to. The second-year man coming off an astounding rookie season will be one of the more interesting storylines to follow gearing up for the 2012 season.
Prediction: It's Smith's job to lose; he should win the job over Parys Haralson in camp and be the starter going forward at right outside linebacker.