Unless you are Patrick Willis or Frank Gore or a similarly tenured NFL veteran, training camp is one giant hot seat. Every practice is significant, every rep an opportunity to stand out (for better or worse). But training camp 2010 will not treat every Niner equally. Here are the players with the most to prove when practices begin next week.
QB Alex Smith: Duh. Smith’s development in Jimmy Raye’s offensive system is the biggest question facing the 49ers this season. The quarterback got rave reviews for his confidence and leadership during offseason OTAs and minicamps, but training camp will be much more telling. If Smith really can turn a corner, the Niners have enough talent around him to make a playoff push. If he struggles, it could be his last run as an NFL starter.
OLB Manny Lawson: He didn’t express any bitterness when he arrived for the mandatory minicamp in June, but it’s no secret that Lawson is unhappy with his contract, a deal that calls for a salary of $625,000 in its final season. The linebacker would love to prove that he is worth much more than that; his campaign begins next week.
WR Brandon Jones: He signed a five-year, $16.5 million free-agent contract in 2009, and hasn’t done much to justify the money thus far. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury during the 49ers’ final mini-camp. He’ll need to start strong and stay healthy to make an impact in 2010.
T Anthony Davis: Like most NFL rookies, Davis showed his inexperience at times during offseason work. The refrain was always the same: You can’t evaluate an offensive lineman until the pads go on. Now they’re about to go on. The 49ers drafted Davis with the intent of starting him at right tackle in 2010; he will be scrutinized intensely until he proves he’s the man for the job.
CB Nate Clements: He went into last season as the unquestioned leader of the 49ers secondary. But Clements was benched for the Colts game in Week 8, then broke his shoulder blade and missed the rest of the season. He is fully expected to step back into his starting job at cornerback, but no one is sure if Clements can regain his former dominance.
QB Nate Davis: Once the regular season starts, Davis isn’t expected to see a lot of action. He must make his mark in training camp. Davis has supporters in the organization, but an up-and-down performance this spring tempered the enthusiasm.
Other 49ers on the edge include RBs Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon, WR Ted Ginn, TE Nate Byham, OL Mike Iupati and David Baas, DL Aubrayo Franklin and Kentwan Balmer, LB Travis LaBoy and CB Will James.