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After the first public practice on Saturday, new 49ers quarterback Alex Smith smiled and joked with fans as he tried to sign everyone's memorabilia. He seemed to really be enjoying the interaction as some fans asked to borrow money. They were of course referring to the recent $50 million contract signed by Smith. He would just laugh and comment that he didn't have the cash on him. The women were hounding the young rookie and he seemed to really be enjoying the attention.
Smith made sure to sign as many items as he could. When pulled away by team representatives, he told the spectators that he would be back. He made good on that promise running out about 10 minutes later to take care of those that stuck around. He obviously knows how to deal with the fans and everyone ate it up. After all, he is the team's future.
Saturday's practice notes
Obviously the big question mark of the offseason has been the starting quarterback situation. Let's take a look at each in the order of playing time that they got on Saturday.
So this must be what $50 million looks like. It was Alex Smith's first experience playing in front of a large crowd of 49ers fans, but he didn't really let that interfere with his concentration. Whether it was scrambling and passing drills or a full scrimmage, Smith seemed very confident and in control. While did overthrow a lot of his deep passes, he was on target for the shorter ones and each throw had good speed. Considering he is a rookie, Smith looked to be on target.
Rattay was the most polished quarterback out there on Saturday. He seemed to command the offense like a seasoned veteran. When the left side of the line broke down and he was forced to scramble to the right, he was able to hit Brandon Lloyd for a short pass before the swarming defense touched him. If healthy, Rattay looks to be a solid starter. However, that will all depend on how quickly Smith can catch up to his level of play. After all, the 49ers have about 50 million reasons to play Smith early on.
While he looks bigger than last year, the question of arm strength still remains with Dorsey. He looked better than last season but his passes still appeared less polished than Smith and Rattay.
Pickett got very little playing time during scrimmages. While he did participate in some, most of his practice time was spent working on drills like snapping the ball, hand offs, and passing without the defense in front of him.
Now let's step away from the quarterback position and examine other key areas on the team.
Lloyd definitely made some good plays out there. He would dive for an amazing catch, jump up to pull in a pass or grab on to a ball zipped his way. Then there were times when he would simply drop both tough and easy passes.
The best looking receiver was obviously the seasoned veteran. Former Detroit Lion and Kansas City Chief, Johnnie Morton, looked as good as you would expect for someone that has been playing in the NFL for so long. He seemed to do everything that was asked of him and made some solid short route catches. On one play, the defender tried to wrestle the ball away and Morton was able to hold on. His route running skills appeared to be the best of all the receivers. The biggest contribution that Morton will make to this team will be his ability to mentor the younger receivers. When Lloyd would make a mistake, Morton would be right there explaining to him what he did wrong and how to improve. It would be shocking if Morton were not a starter once the season begins.
Wide receiver Rashaun Woods started out really slow but made some good plays toward the end of Saturday's practice. This was after receiver coach Mike Sullivan appeared to have some words for him. Woods did not play very aggressively early on and it showed during a drill that had the receivers trying to fend off defenders while running a straight route.
When he wasn't lining up at receiver, Arnaz Battle was fielding punt returns...and he dropped the first one. Coaches then threw in rookie Rasheed Marshall to do the same thing. The result was another ball on the ground. When Battle was thrown to during passing drills, he looked pretty solid. On one play, he was able to adjust to the route and catch a poorly thrown Tim Rattay pass. Had this been the regular season, the under thrown pass may have been intercepted.
Whether it was a short slant or a deep pass along the sideline, wide receiver P.J. Fleck continued to impress and caught almost everything that came his way. The guy just seems to find a way to get the ball.
One of the more impressive guys on the field was running back Frank Gore. He was pounding through the defense and gaining yards on every play. At one point, he busted through the middle and forced his way about 40 yards down the field. He looks like a real beast and at times appears to be a power runner in the same fashion that Garrison Hearst once was. His ability to catch the pass out of the backfield looked good as well. Gore is definitely a versatile running back and should push Barlow to improve upon a disappointing 2004 season. At worst, the two will provide an intense one-two punch for defenses.
Speaking of catching the ball out of the backfield, that seemed to be all running back Kevan Barlow did. While he looked good doing it, there was not much pressure to have him run the ball. However, this may simply have been because Barlow left practice early on Saturday due to "heat frustration" or burnout according to coach Nolan.
Terry Jackson had some impressive runs as well. He seemed to be running strong and definitely caught the eyes of some of the coaches and a lot of fans.
Linebacker Julian Peterson was back out there practicing and he looked like his former Pro Bowl self. The fact that he was out there performing strongly with his teammates may indicate that he is ready to go and may be at or near 100%.
Andre Carter looked very good at outside linebacker. He is obviously making the adjustment from defensive end with ease. He has speed from the edge and could be in a position much better suited for him than trying to fight off bigger offensive linemen on every play.
Cornerback Ahmed Plummer's coverage looked pretty good. He was really interfering with some of the receivers, which resulted in some of the coaches yelling at them. This has to be good news for Plummer who hopes to prove that he is a solid cover man.
Defensive tackle Anthony Adams said that he is very excited about the 3-4 defense and feels very comfortable playing at nose tackle.
Wide receiver P.J. Fleck said that he has high hopes of making the team this year and that he is doing everything he possibly can to impress the coaches.
Sunday's practice notes
Running back Kevan Barlow must have been feeling much better on Sunday. Prior to practice, he was out there dancing around and listening to his iPod.
Linebacker Julian Peterson was in a good mood as well as he and Andre Carter were dancing around while stretching. Perhaps they should have borrowed Barlow's iPod for some music.
Once the kickers started practicing, it was tough to not notice how well Joe Nedney was doing. During field goal practice, he was kicking the ball anywhere from 50 to 60 yards. And the one that went 60 yards hit the middle cone that indicated the middle of a field goal post. Of course, it is important to note that during a real game situation, the kicks would be shorter to account for the endzone and the fact that kickers kick from well behind the line of scrimmage. Kirk Yliniemi's kicks didn't look as polished as Nedney's. Once it was time to practice kickoffs, Nedney still stole the show.
Tim Rattay received more snaps on Sunday. Even though he appeared to be helping young Alex Smith, the competition between himself and Smith was heating up. The amount of practice reps between Rattay and Smith was nearly even.
Rattay and Smith both looked good while tossing short passes. While Rattay started out strong, he was not finding open receivers on some plays and was forced to start scrambling toward the end of practice. While he wanted to take off downfield, the coaching staff quickly killed the plays. Smith's problem with getting the ball downfield continued as many passes were once again overthrown. In fact, his first pass to a receiver was overthrown. Obviously the crowd was disappointed. He definitely has a good arm because he can get the ball down there. He just can't get it in the receiver's arms most of the time. Howeevr, his most impressive pass of the day was a deep throw to Arnaz Battle who caught the ball after beating coverage. His worst pass of the day was an interception thrown and caught by Tony Parrish. It was intended for receiver P.J. Fleck. When it came to shorter passes, Smith was as strong as the rest. On one play, the coverage was good that Smith was forced to scramble to the sideline for an 11-yard gain.
At quarterback, the biggest improvement from Saturday was Ken Dorsey. Whether it was a short or deep pass, he looked much better than he did on the previous day. He hit his targets perfectly and commanded the offense well. Dorsey was the best of the four quarterbacks on Sunday.
Once again, Pickett got the short end of the stick when it came to reps. He participated in drills without the defense, but barely participated in scrimmages. Pickett participated in about 10% of the scrimmages while Dorsey participated in close to 25%.
Receivers Rasheed Marshall and Javin Hunter, cornerbacks Randee Drew and Derrick Johnson, and running backs Maurice Hicks and Tony Ficklin were all practicing kick returns. Receiver P.J. Fleck made a big impression as a lead blocker for kick returners as he screamed out signals for the special teams unit.
The running backs looked just as strong on Sunday, including Kevan Barlow. He had some solid runs of about 5 or 6 yards each. Then he burst down the field for a 16 yard gain impressing fans who responded with cheers. After struggling early to get past the line of scrimmage, Hicks wowed the crowd with the best run of the day...an 18 yard gain. Gore's lack of practice time was likely due to a stinger that he suffered in his shoulder on Saturday. He and Bobby Purify got a little more than 15% each of the reps compared to Barlow's 40%. Hicks also had more reps than Gore.
At the wide receiver position, Arnaz Battle looked solid all day. He caught the first pass thrown to him and kept doing more of the same whether it was a toss up the middle or toward the sideline. The only big mistake he made was dropping a deep pass after he easily beat safety Tony Parrish downfield.
P.J. Fleck is going to make it tough for the coaches to cut him this year. It did not matter if the pass was too high or right on target...Fleck caught it. Being short and quick, he looks a lot like a Tim Dwight type of player. And his special teams contributions were solid.
Woods was much improved from the previous day. The momentum that he gained toward the end of Saturday must have carried over. He did have a few noticeable drops but that was about it. Of course, he did not seem to be doing anything too complex out there. While nothing spectacular, he was finally catching a good amount of balls.
The biggest improvement was the play of Brandon Lloyd. While he was erratic at times on Saturday, he was consistently great on Sunday. His catches were impressive. He even came up with the ones that were badly thrown. On one play, he caught the ball and then juked cornerback Daven Holly before continuing downfield. He did drop one Alex Smith pass, but it was overthrown.
Javin Hunter, Jason McAddley and Marcus Maxwell were also participating in receiving drills. Of the three, Jason McAddley appeared to be the most impressive. Although, Maxwell did make a nice diving catch from Tim Rattay. He also faked cornerback Rayshun Reed for a big gain. Rasheed Marshall also looked solid.
Tight end Eric Johnson received more practice time on Sunday than he did on Saturday. He looked real good catching balls on short passes and down the field, including a deep pass from Alex Smith. Yes, Smith did make a few. He will appreciate having Johnson as a outlet if he can't find anyone open downfield.
Peterson looked impressive blitzing from the right side of the defense. Whether it was Rattay or Smith back there, he was consistently getting pressure on the quarterback. He seemed to be more active during this practice than Saturday's.
At cornerback, Willie Middlebrooks didn't seem to be making much of a push for a starting job. Ahmed Plummer's job is probably secure.
At safety, the most impressive plays of the day were from Mike Rumph and Keith Lewis. Rumph was playing very physical. He literally robbed receiver Javin Hunter of a catch that likely would have resulted in a flag during the regular season. It was still a fun play to watch. He looks to be adjusting well and may be an exciting player to keep an eye on. Keith Lewis made a spectacular play batting down a Ken Dorsey pass when Dorsey was forced to scramble to the right after the pocket collapsed.
Players that impressed
Tim Rattay (Saturday) and Ken Dorsey (Sunday) - Rattay looked solid but Dorsey was the most improved from Saturday and going into Sunday. Smith doesn't look too bad for a rookie and if he can throw a more accurate deep pass, may surpass the others. He's still making mistakes, but from the looks of his gestures after a bad play, he knows it and will learn from it. He is definitely an exciting player to watch.
P.J. Fleck, Brandon Lloyd (Sunday) and Johnnie Morton - Obviously Morton has been doing this for years so we will not address him. Fleck was simply catching everything. Not only that, but he seemed to be doing well on special teams. It would be a real shame, not to mention a shock, if he did not make the team this year. Lloyd's improvement from Saturday to Sunday was incredible. He made fewer mistakes and the plays that did not work out in his favor were usually not his fault. On Sunday, Lloyd looked like the player everyone hoped he would become.
Joe Nedney - Put simply, if he continues to perform like he did this weekend, there is no way this guy does not win the kicking job.
Eric Johnson - He could be in for another big year. He has the hands to be a threatening target up the middle or along the sidelines.
Isaac Sopoaga - At times, he looked like an animal the way he would just throw people around.
Julian Peterson and Andre Carter - Both were coming off the edges well and creating chaos in the backfield. Hopefully this wasn't because the offensive line is bad.