Tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati were the objects of Niners’ fans obsession as offseason practices got underway. How big were these guys? Could they move? How were they looking in action? Were they ready to start? How about now? And now??
With the 49ers working without pads throughout OTAs, rookie camp and mini-camp, all of the questions regarding the first-round offensive linemen were answered with definite maybes.
Meanwhile, second-round pick Taylor Mays and third-rounder Navorro Bowman were stealing the show.
Sure, it was Davis and Iupati who sneaked in for some first-team repetitions. But they didn’t exactly dominate. Davis got beat fairly regularly on pass plays, and committed a few false starts along the way. Iupati looked more at ease – until one-on-one blocking drills during the two-day minicamp, when he learned some lessons from the likes of Demetric Evans and Derek Walker.
Mays and Bowman certainly weren’t perfect. Bowman was torched on some passes, though seeing an inside linebacker chasing a receiver deep downfield would seem to signal a defect in the coverage scheme rather than the player. And it’s true that it’s easier for a defensive player than an offensive lineman to impress in a non-contact drill.
But without a doubt, toward the end of the program, Mays and Bowman were making big plays. The safety intercepted both David Carr and Nate Davis on the second-to-last day, and the linebacker jumped an Alex Smith pass for a certain pick-six touchdown in the final practice.
How encouraging was Mays’ progress?
Here’s what coach Mike Singletary said about him last week: “I think it’s just important for him to not really look at anything that’s happened during these OTAs and say, ‘Wow, I’ve arrived. See, I told them.’ No. You know what? Keep your nose to the grindstone, keep working, because what’s he done, there’s a whole lot there. It’s just a matter of the commitment that he has to have, day in and day out, to get it done.”
Break out your NFL Coach Decoder Ring, and it translates to “This kid is doing great.” If Mays, considered a raw prospect despite his tremendous physical skills, had been struggling, Singletary no doubt would have boosted him up a little publicly. The fact that the coach was attempting to keep Mays grounded spoke volumes of his development.
Singletary went on to describe Mays as a veritable sponge for learning the intricacies of NFL pass coverage.
“He is a breath of fresh air in terms of his work ethic, his mindset,” Singletary said. “He’s driving V.J. (secondary coach Vance Joseph) and Johnnie (Lynn) crazy. He’s called me a few times. He’s called them a few times: ‘Hey coach, what about this? Hey coach, what about that? Can we get together tomorrow? Can we do this? Can I come in on Sunday?’ I know V.J. is like, ‘Man, are you kidding me?’ “
Asked about Mays’ habit of standing 35 yards off the line of scrimmage and consulting Lynn during his off-plays, Singletary said that was entirely the rookie’s idea, adding that the 49ers’ pre-draft investigation had already prepared them for such focus.
“I had a chance to talk to a number of different people about him, and they all talked about his work ethic,” the coach said. “It’s nice to see that he’s following through.”
Safety Reggie Smith, still ahead of Mays on the depth chart and a good bet to remain there this season, also like what he sees in the rookie from USC.
“Hell of an athlete, man,” Smith said. “He can cover the field. Everybody knows he has speed. Like everybody else – me and Curtis (Taylor) and all the safeties right behind us – it’s just getting in that playbook. He’s a freak of an athlete and can do a lot of things. Big body. If he can just get that playbook down, he’ll be fine.”
Bowman doesn’t leap out physically as much as Mays. But he’s a versatile, physical linebacker who also has coaches and veterans singing his praises. Over the past couple weeks, Bowman seemed quick in his reads and confident in pass coverage (when he wasn’t 25 yards downfield).
Takeo Spikes, who has played linebacker for 12-plus NFL seasons, has been encouraged by the 49ers’ third-round draft choice. He also cautions that until you get to training camp, you don’t really know what you have in a player. And that lesson can be applied to Mays, Davis, Iupati and the rest of the first-year guys.
“It’s an ongoing process. So far, from what’s been given to him, he’s doing a pretty decent job, as far as understanding what he’s supposed to be doing,” Spikes said of Bowman. “And at this point, that’s what you want of a rookie right now. It all changes when you slip the pads on. Everybody can be swimsuit champions.”