Progress report with six weeks until 49ers open camp

The 49ers have concluded their offseason practices. The next time I’ll watch these men run around in Santa Clara will be July 30 – the first day of training camp.

At that point, the pads can go on. Their first exhibition game will be 15 days away, and a few questions will begin to get answered.


Here are some thoughts after viewing the vast majority of the team’s offseason work:


–Because those offseason practices are non-padded and, mostly, non-contact, it is almost impossible to evaluate players at certain positions, especially when position coaches have been ruled off-limits for media interviews. The media no longer has access to position coaches to find out which players have been standouts in the classroom. On the field, in non-contact work, it’s really difficult to tell much about offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers, in particular.


–Also, every running back is going to look good because I haven’t seen one of them get tackled, yet. That said, it looks look as if Glen Coffee runs with power. I think you’ll see a bruising style in action during the exhibition season. Also, Kory Sheets and Thomas Clayton have the quickness and burst, but will they come down easily on first contact?


–Most folks who spend time around NFL teams have an affinity for offensive linemen. This is a sweeping generalization, but that unit often produces some pretty good dudes. I’ve spoken twice with rookie Alex Boone, and he appears to fit that mold. I truly wish him the best. Hopefully, he can conquer his demons and lead a productive and enjoyable life. The 49ers want him to remain close to the team leading up to training camp, so they can closely monitor his life choices, as well as get him up to speed on conditioning and learning the playbook.


–Another undrafted rookie, Sheets, checks in today on Twitter to write (in 140 characters or less), “Back to workouts. Hill here i come.” Looks as if Mike’s Peak is going to be getting some use in the next six weeks.


–I really can’t wait to see Alex Smith in a game situation. (Correction: I just re-read that last sentence I wrote. Honestly, I can wait. Maybe I should have written, “I’m looking forward to seeing . . . “) The last time I saw him play when his arm was right was a 2007 Week 3 game in Pittsburgh. What I remember most about Smith’s first three games of ’07 – and last three healthy games – was how little help he received from his teammates. In games against the Cardinals and Rams, wideout Darrell Jackson dropped beautifully thrown deep passes. Against the Steelers, Taylor Jacobs ran the wrong route, resulting in a Bryant McFadden 50-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The 49ers’ supporting cast now is much better than it has been at any point since Smith came to the team in 2005.


–Yes, Smith looked better than ever in practice. But, in the past two weeks, I have not seen Shaun Hill look any better on the practice field, either. Hill was completely miscast in Mike Martz’s offense. There seems to be enough flexibility in Jimmy Raye’s scheme to easily adapt to a quarterback’s strengths.


–And, yes, the 49ers will have an audible system in place for a QB to change the play at the line of scrimmage this season.


–I have no idea how Raye will fare as a play-caller. But it does not look as if the offense will be as stodgy as everybody has assumed. While there will certainly be a meat-and-potatoes approach, the 49ers exhibited as many gadget plays this summer as I’ve seen the team practice in the past.


–Prediction: Tight end Vernon Davis will have a notable season. He’ll catch far more passes than a year ago. He will flash his extraordinary talent, but he will also have his occasional flub that will leave everybody scratching their heads.


–Obviously, the key position for the 49ers on offense is the quarterback – whomever wins that job. Defensively, the key man is Manny Lawson. He added some weight to help with the power that’s needed to rush the passer. The plan on third down is for Lawson and Parys Haralson to line up at the defensive-end spots and get after the quarterback. The impact of their success – or lack thereof – will be felt throughout the defense and throughout the entire team.


–As I scour the roster, here are some quick thoughts . . .


There are 42 players I fully expect to be on this team: Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Glen Coffee, Moran Norris, Michael Crabtree, Brandon Jones, Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Delanie Walker, Bear Pascoe, Vernon Davis, Chilo Rachal, David Baas, Eric Heitmann, Adam Snyder, Tony Wragge, Marvel Smith, Joe Staley, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, Demetric Evans, Justin Smith, Kentwan Balmer, Takeo Spikes, Patrick Willis, Jeff Ulbrich, Scott McKillop, Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson, Nate Clements, Tarell Brown, Mark Roman, Dre’ Bly, Reggie Smith, Michael Lewis, Dashon Goldson, Andy Lee, Joe Nedney, Allen Rossum and Brian Jennings.


There are eight others who I believe have strong chances to make the team (if healthy): Damon Huard, Jason Hill, Cody Wallace, Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean-Francois, Marques Harris, Jay Moore and Shawntae Spencer.


And there are 11 others who, right now, stand at the top of the group competing for the remaining roster spots: Nate Davis, Kory Sheets, Thomas Clayton, Arnaz Battle, Dominique Zeigler, Barry Sims, Alex Boone, Jacob Bender, Ahmad Brooks, Marcus Hudson and Curtis Taylor.


I’m not ruling out anybody and squashing dreams. But the other 19 players who will go to camp with the 49ers must perform very well when the pads go on and have a little luck along the way to stick on the season-opening 53-man roster.


–Nate Davis will be an interesting case. We’ll see what happens in training camp, but I know the 49ers want to keep Huard on the team. Then, what would they do with Davis? Last year, there were 13 quarterbacks drafted. Ten of those rookie QBs finished the season on the roster of the team that selected them. Only one of those teams (Buccaneers) kept four QBs in order to retain a rookie draft pick. Two drafted QBs (Giants’ Andre’ Woodson and the Texans’ Alex Brink) made it through waivers to the practice squad, and one was placed on injured reserve.


Battle will be in a, well, battle to earn a roster spot because of the crowded field of receivers. He needs to get healthy and leave no doubt he is one of the team’s top wideouts and special-teams players. He enters the final year of his contract, which calls for him to make $1.47 million. That’s a pretty good price tag, so he must leave no doubt. Also, Jason Hill must show an ability to remain healthy. Hill’s durability might be the only thing preventing him from being a lock to be on the team.


–The 49ers have done a strong job of getting their rookies under contract. I’d fully expect everyone to be signed for the opening of camp. Michael Crabtree, Glen Coffee and Nate Davis are the only rooks who have yet to sign their deals.


–In conclusion, I was generally impressed with what I saw during these offseason workouts. Of course, after the quality of football I’ve watched the past six years, maybe my standards are a little skewed. I do believe the 49ers have the potential to be a good team. The success of the 49ers will be determined, mostly, by the performances of their offensive coordinator, quarterback and pass rush. And, frankly, there are big questions about each of those spots.


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