The San Francisco 49ers will officially start their training camp on Friday, July 27 with everyone on the 90-man roster at team headquarters for the first full-squad practice of 2012. There will be plenty of questions surrounding who will make the team and who will fill out the depth chart at every position. Here are five position battles to watch out for during the 49ers 2012 training camp:
Projected Starter: Alex Smith
Also at Training Camp: Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson, Scott Tolzien
The only way Alex Smith loses his starting job before the start of the regular season is by having a horrible training camp and preseason, and also by being outplayed by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The only way Smith loses the starting job during the regular season is if he reverts back to his old, turnover prone ways.
Most Niner fans would agree Smith is the best man-under-center for the 49ers this season and he will only continue to progress under Jim Harbaugh. Ask anyone outside of the 49ers fan circle about Smith and they would probably say he is still not a franchise quarterback to build around because he’s had only one year of being a successful quarterback out of the six seasons he has played in the NFL.
After basically being a draft bust for six seasons, asking can Smith replicate his success from last season is a legitimate question. Smith recently signed a three-year contract with the 49ers but the team is grooming Kaepernick as the quarterback of the future. So a lot will be on Smith’s shoulders to show he can be as good, and even better, than he was last season. Otherwise, 49ers fans will call for Kaepernick to be in at quarterback and believe me fans will call for him if Smith does not live up to last season. In addition, Kaepernick thinks he is ready to start and has a fire inside for being the 49ers’ starting QB now, rather than in the future.
I believe in Smith being able to be even better than last season. Not only with the talent around him, but because he has confidence and now the experience of being a winner, thanks in large part to Harbaugh, which he never had in his first six years in the NFL.
Projected Starters: Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson
Also at Training Camp: C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Colin Jones, Cory Nelms, Michael Thomas, Mark LeGree, Ben Hannula, Darcel McBath
The position battle at safety rests solely with Dashon Goldson and whether/when he signs his one-year franchise tender. Goldson has not given any indications on when he will sign his contract as the 49ers franchise tagged player. But rest assured Niner fans Goldson will sign and be in camp at some point. Let’s hope it is sooner in training camp, rather than later.
Still, Harbaugh and his coaching staff need to prepare as if Goldson will sit out the season and have a plan in place in case that becomes a reality. Donte Whitner is a lock at strong safety. The top-two replacements for Goldson at free safety are C.J. Spillman and rookie Trenton Robinson. Both have played well at minicamps with the first-team defense. Even though Spillman is more of a special teams player and was only on the field for 16 defensive plays last season, he is the front-runner to start over Robinson should Goldson remain a holdout.
Projected Starters: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks
Also at Training Camp: Parys Haralson, Tavares Gooden, Cam Johnson, Darius Fleming, Eric Bakhtiari, Kourtnei Brown
The 49ers defense at outside linebacker was solid throughout the season in 2011. Led by Aldon Smith, the outside linebackers combined for a total of 26 sacks in the regular season and playoffs. This season Smith is taking on a more expanded role as an all-round OLB who can be in on every play and not just passing downs. Smith’s progress has been overshadowed by his DUI arrest in January and being stabbed at his own house party in June. Not much has been said about Smith’s recovery but he is expected to be 100% by the start of training camp.
Since Smith has been silent on the issue, he can expect plenty of questions surrounding his two off field incidents in the last six months. He should answer the questions right away and not avoid them, because dodging the questions and not giving straight answers will start to wear on him as the regular season approaches.
Smith will be competing with Parys Haralson who was the starter at outside linebacker last season. Before Smith’s stabbing ordeal, I would have said he is a lock as the starter opposite Ahmad Brooks. Haralson now has a chance to reclaim the starting job from Smith at training camp, especially if Smith is not 100% recovered and/or his past transgressions distract him on the field.
Another concern at outside linebacker is injuries to rookies Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson. Fleming is out for the season after tearing his ACL and in June, Johnson had a minor knee procedure. This opens the door for Tavares Gooden, Eric Bakhtiari and Kourtnei Brown to make the team as backups with the injuries at outside linebacker.
Projected Starter: Frank Gore
Also at Training Camp: LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon, Jewel Hampton, Cameron Bell
The only reason the 49ers will have a position battle at running back is because of the talent the team has massed over the last few years. Usually, the story at running back is who will be the backups behind Frank Gore and can they contribute in his absence when he is resting on the sidelines. Gore has never had this much talent behind him at running back in his career and this will keep him healthy throughout the season.
Gore is no doubt the starter but who falls where on the depth chart will be determined by their play in training camp and the preseason games. Kendall Hunter will most likely win the second slot on the depth chart as Gore’s main replacement in games. Brandon Jacobs and his bowling ball type running style will finally give the 49ers the short-yardage back they have been lacking. We can expect to see Jacobs on the field other than just on short-yardage plays, but a lot of that will depend on how he performs over the next month.
LaMichael James is the player that excites me the most over any other player on the 49ers this season. He has the potential to lead all rookies in all-purpose yards on offense because Harbaugh and his offensive coaches will utilize him like Darren Sproles was used in New Orleans last season. They will be able to line James up anywhere on the field and he will be a threat.
After Gore, Hunter, Jacobs and James, the 49ers offense may have only one spot left on the roster at running back. The final spot will come down to Rock Cartwright and Anthony Dixon. Cartwright was signed this past offseason more because of his special teams play, than what he did at running back. Dixon will be the odd-man out as he has struggled in his two years in the NFL.
Projected Starters: Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss
Also at Training Camp: Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, Joe Hastings, Nathan Palmer, Chris Owusu, Brett Swain, Brian Tyms
This is another case of the 49ers having a position battle because of the talent the team has massed. The 49ers most glaring hole on offense, not only last season but ever since Jerry Rice stopped wearing a Niners uniform, has been at wide receiver.
Now, the 49ers have a more experienced Michael Crabtree who had career highs in receptions (72) and receiving yards (874) last season, to go along with newly signed receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. While there is excitement for Manningham, it is more subdued for Moss. 49ers coaches and players have all praised Moss’ work ethic, the examples he is setting for the other receivers and how he has looked on the playing field. This is all great, but there is hesitation with Moss because he did not play at all last season and when he last saw action on the field in 2010, he was playing with his third team of the season. Plus, the minicamps where Moss was seen on the field was not in full pads and had no contact. Moss will be an upgrade for the 49ers but he will need to prove he is his old self at receiver, but not his old self when it comes to his antics.
You know the 49ers have an abundance of talent at wide receiver when they use their first-round draft pick to select A.J. Jenkins, he then struggles at offseason workouts and the team would be fine with him being number four or five on the depth chart. Jenkins is a work in progress but he has experienced players around him to teach him how to play wide receiver in the NFL and he has the time to develop without having any pressure for him to contribute right away.
Crabtree is really the only lock on the depth chart and he will be at the top spot as the number one receiver. Depending on how good of a training camp they have we could see Moss, Manningham, Jenkins, Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams land anywhere between the number two and six positions on the depth chart. This will be the most exciting position battle at training camp.
Here is how the depth chart might end up come the start of the regular season: Crabtree, Moss, Manningham, Williams, Jenkins, Ginn.
Note: The 49ers have four former first-round draft picks at wide receiver: Moss (1998), Ginn (2007), Crabtree (2009) and A.J. Jenkins (2012).