Rookies and selected veterans reported to camp last weekend, but with the rest of veterans reporting yesterday and full team practices starting tomorrow, training camp is officially a reality. The return of training camp means there will be plenty of storylines and position battles to break down over the next six weeks before the regular season starts.
During the draft, you might recall I was involved in some video production breaking down the NFL draft. I focused on the NFC West, but also provided some commentary on the other divisions (Day 1, Day 2, Grades). Now that training camp is upon us, we are going to be providing some more video content. It will be a mix of studio produced and my own stuff.
We'll have three studio produced videos this preseason, with the first today looking at the five biggest training camp storylines/position battles. It involves me producing some content via webcam in DC and then our studio adding in some graphics and sound to spice it up. I thought this first one looks really solid and I think you'll really like the other videos we'll be producing.
And yes, I am aware Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins are flip-flopped in the video.
A five minute video isn't the easiest way to fully explain the position battles the 49ers face heading into training camp. However, I felt like I could provide a fairly high level overview, and then we can "explore the studio space" after the jump and in the comments. The 49ers are one of the NFC favorites, but as with any team, they face a variety of questions heading into the season. Ideally they'll get some positive answers to these questions, but it will take some time to figure out exactly where we are at.
Although I feel the five storylines in the video are among the most important, they are not the only issues facing the 49ers. Feel free to chime in if you think there are other more significant issues. For now though, the five in the video were:
1. Wide Receiver
2. Right Guard
3. Running Back
You could make an argument that Alex Smith's progress (or lack thereof) is as important as any storyline. I would argue that is more just one monster continuous storyline, and these five are significant after that. Take it however you want.
The only player that would appear to be locked into anything resembling a specific part of the depth chart is Michael Crabtree. He was last year's leading receiver and has made strides each year. However, the 49ers lacked depth at the wide receiver position, which resulted in several offseason additions. Randy Moss appears to be slotted in opposite Crabtree, with Mario Manningham tentatively looking like the number three receiver.
For Moss, sitting out a year makes it hard to sort through what to expect from him in 2012. All the OTA reports were positive, but until he starts playing in pads and taking hits, can we really know for sure? I am optimistic because he has always been such a freak of nature, but we'll find out more over the next month.
I think Kyle Williams remains an interesting possibility this season because of the motivation he seems to have following the intense criticism after the NFC Championship Game. If he can channel that criticism, I would like to think he could develop into a solid receiver. He showed some signs last season, but couldn't quite break through.
As for A.J. Jenkins? Well, it's difficult to tell what the 49ers rookie receiver will do in 2012. He will try and push Kyle Williams (and potentially Ted Ginn Jr.) for playing time. There has been some criticisms of his OTAs, but some believe the criticisms are overblown to a certain extent. Most OTA practices were closed to the media, so I think we'll get higher quality assessments (good OR bad) in the coming weeks.
Right Guard/Offensive Line
We discussed offensive line depth this morning, as more details about practice plans were revealed yesterday. Alex Boone would seem locked in at right guard, leaving the real battles for the backup positions. Mike Person is one guy in particular that I am interested in following over the next six weeks. He made the roster last season, but was inactive all last season. He has been working primarily at offensive tackle in this year's OTAs.
While Frank Gore is going to enter the season as the lead running back, his workload will likely be cut back as much as any time in his years as 49ers starter. I would imagine he will finish the season as the team's leading rusher, but the 49ers will be mixing in Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs (or maybe Anthony Dixon?) in a variety of ways.
If we wanted to focus in on specific battles, you could argue it's Hunter vs. James and Jacobs vs. Dixon. Hunter and James would seem most likely to get the lion's share of playing time behind Gore, but where Jacobs fits in remains a bit up in the air. Some folks here think he won't make the team, others think he could be a sizable impact with his size. I am inclined to think the rushing attack behind Gore focuses on Hunter and James as long-term platoon options.
Although Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown enter training camp as the starters, Chris Culliver could push for more than just last year's nickel role. It will be interesting to see what Perrish Cox brings to the table after a year without football. He is young and talented, but sitting out a season remains a significant issue to overcome.
The cornerback position battle would really seem to revolve around Culliver, Cox and Tramaine Brock. Although Brock is a little more under the radar, he has quietly worked his way up the depth chart, moving from UDFA to practice squad to the active roster and a solid contributor. This year he will look to move past that into a more prominent role and I wouldn't be surprised to see him potentially surpass Perrish Cox on the depth chart.
This also doesn't factor in Curtis Holcomb. There was some thought that the 49ers had a steal when they grabbed Holcomb in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Unfortunately he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the first practice of training camp last year and was lost for the year. He could be a practice squad candidate if the team can get him through waivers.
Whatever the case, I have to say that I am quite pleased with the 49ers depth at cornerback. They've got a solid mix of talent that combines youths and veterans. Given the pass-heavy nature of the league, a team can never have enough solid cornerbacks.
Then there's the safety position. The 49ers have a solid starting duo in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, but the depth is filled with question marks. That's not to say we won't find answers over the next six weeks, but the questions remain. The 49ers will be looking at C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson and Michael Thomas, among others.
Spillman worked primarily on special teams last season, but he was also brought in on the 49ers goal line defense. The 49ers added Robinson in the sixth round this year, and he and Spillman have spent a lot of time with the first team defense while Goldson has remain unsigned and Donte Whitner has gotten some rest. If Goldson sits out any chunk of training camp, there is some value to be gained for both Spillman and Robinson.
Michael Thomas played under Harbaugh at Stanford, which does provide a little bit of a benefit. He is battling for time at a position with little depth, which provides another benefit. He is a guy to keep an eye on, particularly if the 49ers decide they want a bit more versatility that Colin Jones might not be able to provide. Although a safety in college, Jones was drafted almost entirely for his special teams value, and in fact has spent more time working with wide receivers than safeties.
These are just five of the storylines the 49ers will be dealing with over the next six weeks. What other position battles do you find most interesting?