Postcard from camp: 49ers
Whoever wins the QB job, likely Shaun Hill, should have better protection
San Francisco might be having regrets about not drafting a DE with No. 10 pick
Rookie Glen Coffee will be a nice complement to Frank Gore in run game
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what George Dohrmann had to say about the 49ers' camp in Santa Clara, Calif. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
Northern California is a beautiful place, with some of the country's most photographed landmarks and amazing vistas around almost every corner. The 49ers practice facility (which is also their training camp site) in Santa Clara is not near any of that. It sits in a corporate park-like area (Cisco System's headquarters are nearby) and is bordered on one side by a power station and on another by tracks for a commuter train. The noise of the train racing past mixed with the sounds of planes that have taken off from the San Jose Airport gives it the ambience of El Segundo. You don't even get a glimpse of faraway beauty because of the smog smothering Silicon Valley. The players get to sleep at home and probably care little about the lack of character, but it is a surprisingly drab setting in an otherwise picturesque part of the country. (That said, the Santa Clara site remains a significant step up from the 49ers previous training camp locale, in Stockton, Calif., a city that earlier this year Forbes selected as the worst place in the nation to live.)
1. The offensive line will improve. Contributing to the quarterback struggles and the offense's overall woes last season was the inconsistent play of the line, which allowed a league-high 55 sacks. Part of the problem was the shuffling of players, which included Joe Staley moving from right to left tackle and then a revolving door at his old spot. Marvel Smith was signed in the offseason to play the right side but don't be surprised if he gets beat out by Adam Snyder, who played guard and tackle lat season.
Before camp began, Snyder met with head coach Mike Singletary and pledged to perform better if given the chance to settle in at one position. Singletary complied and Snyder has hard a great camp. Whether or not he beats out Smith, the line should be improved, with better depth and more continuity.
"This is not a young an inexperience group anymore and we're more settled," say center Eric Heitmann. "There is certainly a chance for us to be a lot better."
2. Shaun Hill has the edge. There is not much you can deduce from watching Hill and fellow starting quarterback contender Alex Smith in practice, but reading between the lines when Singletary talks about his quarterbacks leads one to believe Hill is going to start the opener. After the first preseason game, Singletary said Hill was "less of mystery," and a team that aims to win with its defense and running game is probably going to go with the safer pick. Smith, in Singletary's words, is "maturing as a quarterback," and that would suggest he still has some maturing left to do before Singletary is comfortable with him.
In a way, it might be best for Smith to serve as Hill's backup for a spell. He is undoubtedly the more talented of the two, but fans won't cut him much slack. If he comes in after Hill has struggled or gets injured, he will have a little more wiggle room and he needs that.
3. The pass rush isn't there. When defensive coordinator Greg Manusky briefed the press and used terms like "work in progress" and "a lot of improvement has to be made," he was not kidding. In one drill that pitted the defensive ends against the tight ends, the tight ends were the clear winners. If the likes of Manny Lawson, Justin Smith and Co. can't get the best of their own tight ends, it doesn't bode well for San Francisco improving on its long-struggling pass rush.
With first-round pick Michael Crabtree, the wide receiver from Texas Tech, still holding out, one has to wonder if San Francisco doesn't regret not talking a pass rusher with the No. 10 selection like Aaron Maybin (who went one pick later to Buffalo) or Brian Orakpo (No. 13 to Washington).
New Face, New Place
Dashon Goldson, safety. Goldson is in his third season with the team, so his face is not new, but he has been handed the starting job at free safety and is being counted on. Goldsen has been a standout in practice the past two seasons, and the former college cornerback at Washington has the tools to be a big-time player. Veteran Mark Roman was relegated to second string in part because he didn't wreak havoc in the way the defense needed, creating turnovers. Goldson does not want for intensity; he had to be told to stop hitting offensive lineman early in camp. It is time for him to stay healthy -- missed seven games last season due to a knee injury -- and transfer his practice play to games. "I don't think I'm injury prone," Goldson said. "I had the knee last year, but nothing that keeps bothering me. I feel good and am ready. I know people are expecting a lot of me and that's good. It means the work I have been doing, all the time studying film, it's paying off."
The biggest name from the rookie pool, Crabtree, is not around and that hurts when wide receiver is a position in need of an upgrade. But in third-round pick Glen Coffee the 49ers may have found something. San Francisco has long sought a quality backup to Gore (remember DeShaun Foster last season?) and Coffee has looked up to the task so far in camp. His style is similar -- he is a determined, one-cut runner -- and his presence might have also lit a fire under Gore, who came into camp in great shape after working out in Miami in the offseason and has hogged most of the first-team snaps in practice, not ceding much to his understudy. If Coffee can spell Gore for five to 10 carries a game, Gore will be more effective late in the season.
Midway through practice, guard Adam Snyder's wife and son arrived to watch the action. Snyder's son was wearing a custom jersey with "Lil-Snyds" on the back. The child looked to be only about a year old, but he could already push his own stroller around in circles as if it were a blocking sled. If I could buy stock in Lil-Snyds' football future I would do it. He was mauling that stroller.
The team did not run the now famous "nutcracker" drill on the day I visited, in which two players of similar size smash into one another. It had been one of the highlights of the early part of camp, and proof that Singletary wanted a more physical approach.
Next to the practice field is a mound covered in grass that has been called Mount Mike and Singletary Summit. After Smith threw an interception off a deflection during an earlier practice, Singletary banished him to the top of that hill for the final 20 minutes of practice.
Vernon Davis doesn't get enough credit for being one of, if not the best, blocking tight end in the league. Watching him handle Lawson and others one-on-one was amazing. I know this has been said many times before, but if Davis becomes the consistent past-catching threat the team hopes he will be, he could be an All-Pro.
It's hard not to root for Smith, a likeable guy.