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Writing a live blog is one thing, but describing the overall observations of the first week of training camp is another. In a live blog, a player that looked mediocre on one day may have an amazing practice on the next day. Or even a player that looked mediocre at the beginning of a practice session on one drill may have stepped it up and looked solid during another. While I tried to give a drill-by-drill account of what was going on at training camp, what was taking from those live updates may have been misinterpreted. So I will try to summarize some of the overall surprises and disappointments from the team's first three public training camp practices.
Early on, Alex Smith looked very inconsistent. However, he looked much improved during the more recent practices. One spot that he excelled at was his deep passes. Many of them looked right on target and resulted in some nice completions down the field even going up against a cornerback like Nate Clements. He was putting the balls exactly where the receivers could get to them. Smith really seemed to be picking on Clements, which is probably a good thing. If he can make some throws in there against a cornerback of his level, he can probably do that against much of the league. His two favorite targets looked to be wide receiver Arnaz Battle with the deep ball and tight end Vernon Davis on some shorter passes.
Dilfer looked really solid on Sunday. He did not practice much during the next two open practices, as he seemed to take more of a coaching role. You pretty much know what you get with a guy like Dilfer since he is by far the most experienced quarterback on the roster.
It is pretty tough for me to get excited about the competition between Shaun Hill and Luke Getsy since they are fighting for the third quarterback spot on the team and neither will likely get much, if any, playing time. At least, I would hope that they don't because that would mean something bad has happened to both Smith and Dilfer. While very raw, I would say that Getsy probably has the more upside. At times, Hill does not look very comfortable in the pocket. Getsy made a few nice throws out there to players like Jason Hill and to some of the running backs.
Frank Gore locks up the starting position. Michael Robinson likely locks up the backup position and looked good running up the middle. That leaves another third string battle on the depth chart. However, a third string running back is more likely to get some playing time than a third string quarterback. We already knew what we had in Maurice Hicks and he does not look any different from what we are already used to. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and is a solid runner outside of the tackles. Thomas Clayton seems very solid running up the middle or to the outside. He does a good job shaking defenders to get some more yardage from his runs and catching the ball out of the backfield as well. The only spot where he seemed very raw was his pass rush blocking and he seemed to be a little hot headed at times.
This is probably the most competitive position on the team. The 49ers will likely carry five, maybe six wide receivers this year and have ten players competing for those spots. The only players that are guaranteed a spot are Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Jackson only participated during one public practice, but looked good during his limited playing time. Although Battle missed Wednesday's afternoon practice, he looked very much improved on Sunday and Monday. He was catching everything thrown his way, even when going up against Nate Clements. Battle even beat Clements badly on a couple of plays deep. Everyone hopes that this will be Battle's breakout year and from what he displayed during practice with his good hands and solid route running, fans may get their wish. When Alex Smith threw the ball on any play to where Battle was supposed to be, he was there to haul in the completion.
Another pleasant surprise was Marcus Maxwell. After having a phenomenal season in NFL Europe, he is continuing to perform here at home. When passes went his way, it was very rare that you would see the ball hit the ground. When it did, it was usually the result of an ugly throw. He is doing everything needed in his effort to make the team. However, with so few spots open, he will have to have some impressive plays to distinguish himself from the others in preseason.
Jason Hill looked very raw at first but seemed to improve as the week went on. His pass catching and speed are good but his route running looks off at times. He is a lock for making the roster just on his potential alone.
Ashley Lelie looks as though he could be a good deep threat for Smith and has the speed needed to do that. A little inconsistent at times, he appears to be listening intently to the coaching staff in an effort to improve.
Taylor Jacobs has improved with each passing practice. While he failed to distinguish himself on Sunday and did a little better on Monday, he looked really good on Wednesday. He looks like a solid target for Smith up the middle even when he is well covered. He did a number on Clements a couple of times beating him once despite some pass interference and again on the outside getting to the ball despite some excellent coverage. He has certainly been more consistent than Lelie and much more reliable on shorter passes.
As a receiver, Brandon Williams appears fair at best which was a disappointment because of all the praises he received during this summer's OTA's. He had a number of drops. After one easily catchable drop on Wednesday, linebacker Manny Lawson went over and gave Williams a big ole' bear hug resulting in some chuckles from the crowd of fans. However, being the return man on special teams may earn him a roster spot.
Much to the delight of fans, Vernon Davis has looked really good out there. Sometimes he will juggle a few easy receptions but he almost always hauled them in anyways. Even more impressive than that was his ability to run after the catch often avoiding defenders for an even larger gain. With what appears to be more of a threat at wide receiver, Davis should be more open and primed for what could be a breakout season.
Zachary Hilton has not impressed at all, but if he improves, he has the size to be a good target. Fan favorite Delanie Walker has been erratic. Sometimes he hauls in a nice pass and other times he will drop some easy ones. He dropped a few when there was a lot of pressure around him.
The only real competition at the offensive line is Kwame Harris against Joe Staley. Staley has looked like a force in there while Harris...has looked like Harris. Harris is fine as a run blocker because he has the size and the strength, but when it comes to the pass rush, he looks as lost as always. Defenders would constantly blow past him and put unneeded pressure on the quarterback. He is so slow to recover when he makes a mistake and was often seen out of place after the snap. It will be shocking is Harris is not reduced to a backup role. Hopefully Staley gets some more playing time with the starters.
Jonas Jennings needs to find a way to stay healthy because having him and Larry Allen lined up at the same time is quite a sight. Those two add so much size to the offensive line despite the fact that Allen appears to have lost some weight. Allen is one of those guys that you just let do whatever he wants during training camp. The first thing that the team does during a practice is sprint across the field, return, and then shuffle sideways across again. Allen not only takes his time across on the first run, but if you look at him while the other players shuffle, he still just kind of jogs across at his own pace. But he is Larry Allen and you know what you have with a guy like that. He comes to play on gameday.
Ray McDonald is probably the guy many fans are interested in when it comes to tracking progress. He looks like he could be very impressive and was very solid against the run. Being a rookie, he is young and raw but he was still holding his own against the more experienced blockers.
Isaac Sopoaga had the strength to shove people around out there but not the speed or swiftness to do much about it when he did.
Bryant Young is Bryant Young so you know what you will get out of him. While he has little to prove to coaches, he still practices like he does. He was out there making plays and getting into the backfield.
We'll start with Patrick Willis who I really tried to keep an eye on during these public practices. He and Manny Lawson were causing all kinds of matchup problems for blockers when they were practicing during pass rushing drills. Willis appears to be exactly what fans were hoping for when he was drafted in April. He is fast and strong and even though he looks a little confused out there during scrimmages, once his NFL level instincts develop, he has the potential to be a really scary player on defense. His pass coverage looked a bit shaky at times but that will improve.
Another solid performer was Jay Moore who looked very good against the run during certain drills. Coupled with players like Ray McDonald and Nate Clements, it may be very tough to run against this defense.
Nate Clements seemed to be getting schooled by players like Arnaz Battle and Taylor Jacobs. He would often be seen shaking his head in disbelief when he was beat. Before fans start having flashbacks of Antonio Langham, Clements performed well during many other matchups and on certain drills. Two of the more entertaining matchups included the receivers against the defensive backs, where Clements had some nice pass breakups, and running drills where Clements looked to be a force against the run. I cannot stress enough how impressive he was against the run. When a running back came his way, he was the first one back there to attempt to make a stop. His ability to read what the offense is doing is uncanny. Clements looks like he was worth every penny...even if he was not giving it 100% during practice.
Walt Harris was shutting down his side of the field during practices even when going up against some of the faster Niner receivers. Paired up with Clements, this is a pretty scary set of starting corners.
Shawntae Spencer was doing very well when in at nickel and was blanketing his receivers on coverage.
Another pleasant surprise was rookie Terell Brown. He appeared very physical against the receivers and seemed to recover very quickly when they tried to shake him. He even had a very impressive leaping interception off of Trent Dilfer on Sunday. No one, probably including Dilfer, thought anyone would grab that pass and that it would simply sail out of bounds. He was also in there a couple of times knocking down passes when they came his way.
Michael Lewis looked good but didn't really stand out much during practices. He was quick to move over and help the corners when needed and seems to be faster than expected.
Mark Roman made some nice plays this week. He seems to have good instinct and is always near the ball. During one play on Sunday, Shaun Hill fumbled the ball in what appeared to be a very chaotic play. While all the plays during that drill were chaotic resulting in fumbles and false starts, on this particular fumble, Roman scooped the ball up and took off. Had it been a real game, his run would have resulted in a touchdown.
Marcus Hudson also had a few impressive plays for the defense and looked pretty good when assisting the corners on pass coverage.
Some fans have been interested in knowing how well Darnell Bing, the former Raider and Southern California player, was performing. It's funny because no one really knew what number he was early on because he was not listed on the roster sheet handed out to fans that attended these open practices. But once we figured out where he was, I tried to keep an eye on him. He did not get much playing time at all and was pretty much just standing out there observing during most drills. When he was in there, he seemed a bit out of place and never really got to the ball all that quickly. He kind of looked like an extra in a movie.
The 49ers are set at kicker. Andy Lee blasted his punts during every practice sending them high and far. Joe Nedney looks like Mr. Dependable out there sending his kicks right up the middle of the uprights from any distance. Neither has any need to be worried about their competition, which are simply camp fodder. Punter Ken Parrish looked absolutely terrible. At one point on Wednesday, he sent a punt not only out of bounds, but also into the stands hitting a woman in the head and causing her nose to bleed. Parrish seemed to be getting worse and worse with each practice.