49ers Training Camp: 2 Big Things

Training camp is upon us. It seems a lot less important than normal since it’s right in the middle of the Olympics (USA!), and I’m not a Jets or Broncos fan. Even so, it’s exciting. For the first time since last season, teams are in pads going full tilt boogie, and soon enough the season will be here. Here are 2 big thoughts for the 49ers this week.

1. The Guy Behind the Guy

One of the major concerns going into the 2012 season for the 49ers, as many have noted, is injuries. Not that they have many, or are injury prone, but that last season was remarkably injury free.  The team succeeded on the strength mainly of it’s top 22 starters; it seems people are worried that the team will regress to the mean this season and suffer any number of costly injuries. Success in 2012 will depend on one of two things: either A) the team remains mostly healthy once again or B) the team develops enough capable backups to step up in case of injury.

In terms of possibility A, the chances of repeating that success seems relatively likely, to me. Yes, I know statistics say that teams will regress to the mean, and that past performance is no predictor of future results. Fortunately, the human body is not a statistic. Many of the members of the 49ers have proven to be relatively injury free throughout their careers—Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, etc. Yes, Alex Smith is an injury risk, but I believe improved O-Line play will help keep him healthy.

Option B, though, is going to be crucial. It was fortunate that the 49ers suffered no major injuries because they didn’t have much depth last season at almost all positions. The 2012 draft featured no predicted impact starters; that means all those players a depth players or projects. The free agent signings, mostly on the outside on offense, improve both talent and depth. Along with improvement in players already on the team, the overall depth projects to be improved. If the team can’t avoid injuries, they’ll have to hope so.

Depth is crucially important for any team with title aspirations. It allows you to keep your starters rested, as well reducing chances of injury by lowering the amount of time they spend on the field. It gives your opponent no respite. The model of depth is Oregon—at the speed they move, it is critically important for them to remain fresh. When one guy gets tired, the next guy comes on and performs. The team never has to use the brakes; they don’t even take their foot off the gas. That’s the goal.

So what are the positions to watch this training camp?

First, the positions I’m not worried about: offensive line, running back, tight end, linebacker, cornerback, and defensive line. These positions either have established players at backup spots (like Larry Grant and Parys Haralson at linebacker), or plenty of options to go around (like the offensive line and cornerback).

Less promising positions: quarterback, safety back, and wide receiver. While Colin Kaepernick looks to be having a very sharp camp, he has no meaningful game experience. Not ideal for a backup, to say the least. A backup needs to be steady, know the offense, and make good decisions. Many think Josh Johnson fills that role better, but he is simply not a great passer. Scott Tolzien remains a project. There’s enough to be said on this topic that I’ll tackle it in another post next week.

Safety is a serious concern. If either Goldson or Whitner goes down, the team might be in trouble. Though perhaps the easiest position for which to find a replacement, the team would be relying on any number of players with little or no NFL game experience: CJ Spillman, Trenton Robinson, perhaps Michael Thomas (an undrafted free agent), or Colin Jones. Not promising.

Wide receiver might seem like a deep position, but it relies on a lot of ‘ifs’. IF Randy Moss is a number 1 receiver, the 49ers will be talented outside. If not, Mario Manningham will have to be better than the number 3 receiver he was in New York. If he isn’t, AJ Jenkins will have to contribute earlier than expected. If Michael Crabtree continues to improve, he will be a big help to Alex Smith. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, and depth looks a lot more like ‘yes’. This position is still likely the biggest question on the team.

Overall, the 49ers appear deeper throughout the depth chart. Of course, the depth chart is only paper. If the guys behind the guys show that they’re ready through training camp and the preseason, this team will likely be ready to take the next step; if not, well… We’ll see.

2. From Cupcake to Heavyweight

D2: The Mighty Ducks saw the ducks, now team USA, go from the ragtag band of unwanted misfits from The Mighty Ducks to one of the gold-medal favorites in the Junior Goodwill games. The team must deal with new players, heightened expectations, increased media attention, and myriad distractions. Of course, they go on to win the gold, as you may have guessed.

The story for the 49ers is much the same—new coach Jim Harbaugh comes in, taking over a 6-10 doormat and transforms them into a fearsome, fearless squad. Now, everyone knows they can play; how will they handle the pressure? What motivational factor will they use to drive their season? How well will the new additions integrate?

Harbaugh knows success, he’s has had it wherever he’s been, and is comfortable being successful. The concern for me is not whether they can get their minds right on a weekly basis; these are professional athletes, and Harbaugh is an excellent motivator. The concern for me is whether they can execute on third down and in the red zone, whether they can convert more touchdowns rather than field goals, whether they can create more explosive plays on offense.

The worry for me is that the team will exist at the level it did last season. 13-3 is wildly successful, but they scraped by on offense most of the season. Can the team go from hunter to hunted and improve their game, rather than remaining static? Every team will be coming hard at them, and all the other teams will have had a full offseason of preparation as well. The 49ers had a consistent formula last season of tough defense and special teams, and enough on offense to get by. If the team wants to be 13-3 again, they need to improve in all phases.

Those are my big things this preseason; let me know what yours are in the comments below, or tweet at me.

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