It's that time of year where football grinds to a halt. No combine. No Draft. No free agency. And no training camps. July is vacation for most teams and with it comes much silence. We are a little over a week away from training camp. Here is a little primer to prep us for what is to come in camp and preseason. I've focused on areas that I feel the team will address. QB, backup RB, #2 WR, RT, OLB, FS & CB al figure to have significant competition. TE, OG, ILB, SS figure to see little action in camp with the current starters and there backups established.
QB - This has to be the most highly publicized battle on the team. The job is still Shaun Hill's to lose even though Coach Singletary refused to name Hill the starter after the '08 season ended. Singletary openly admitted that he would like to see Hill "take the next step". Hill can manage the game quite well however, he has never been really asked to take over a game. Although, he did perform well under pressure against the Cardinals on Monday night. GM Scot McCloughan is a firm believer in Alex Smith. It's probably one of the strongest reasons why Smith is still with the team when many others might have cut him. During June OTA's, both QB's performed equally well in practice. For Hill, it is in contrast to his practices in past seasons where he didn't look as sharp. Maybe this is a half step closer for him in "taking the next step". Singletary has set his timetable to announce the starter after the 3rd preseason game. So this battle will go beyond training camp.
Backup RB - Frank Gore is a lock to start. The question is "who will back him up?" The 49ers have stated that they plan to reduce Gore's workload. The backup roles will be fought out by this year's 3rd round pick, Glen Coffee and undrafted rookie Kory Sheets will battle with practice squad regular, Thomas Clayton. The end may be nearing for Clayton. He will need more than a strong showing in all areas to keep a roster spot. Clayton is a good runner but must be more versatile. Michael Robinson is a valuable swingman on 3rd downs, short yardage and special teams. So he won't be expected to be a primary in any area. It would be hard to imagine the team going into the season with 5 RB's on the roster. Coffee is the favorite. Sheets or Clayton might be the odd man out.
FB - Frank Gore is glad to have Moran Norris back. Gore ran for 1,600+ yards behind Norris in 2006. It doesn't look like Norris is being handed the job easily though. There will be competition from last year's holdover, Zak Keasey, along with recent signee Brit Miller (who?). When it's all said and done, Miller should be cut and Keasey will be relegated to special teams duty.
#2 WR - This will be one of the most intriguing positional battles in the eyes of many 49ers fans. Michael Crabtree is the 10th overall pick. but Isaac Bruce is returning and Josh Morgan shows promise as the #2. Brandon Jones was also signed to a 5-year, $15 million contract when the free agency period began. Isaac Bruce is pretty much a lock at the Flanker position when the season starts. The plan is to work Morgan in as Flanker while Crabtree learns the Split End spot. But if Crabtree comes on strong in camp, then the team will be forced to get him onto the field one way or another, at the expense of Bruce, Morgan or Jones. Jones has stated that he likes playing out of the slot, so it's hard to envision him competing for a starting postition.
RT - This was the largest trouble spot on offense last year. It wasn't QB or WR, it was RT. The official word is that there will be competition here between Marvel Smith, Barry Sims and Adam Snyder. But the team didn't sign Smith to be a backup, so expect him to start here. Sims and Snyder will compete with controversial college free agent, Alex Boone for two remaining backup spots. I hope Boone impresses. Sims needs to go.
D-line - It will be interesting to see how this shapes out. Training camp and preseason wil determine the mix in the rotation. Justin Smith has one end spot locked down. Isaac Sopoaga is the starter on the other side and Aubrayo Franklin will hold the nose. There's not much competition here but Demetric Evans, Ray McDonald, last year's 1st round pick, Kentwan Balmer and former college standout, Ricky Jean-Francois will all fight for increased playing time. McDonald played well last year splitting gaps before he was injured. Balmer is looking to take the next step after a quiet rookie season. Evans versatility will almost guarantee him some playing time.
OLB - I'll start by reminding everyone that the 49ers operate out of a 3-4 scheme, so QB pressure is applied by the OLB. Singletary wants more sacks. Haralson has one side locked down. The other side is manned by Manny Lawson. We haven't seen enough from Lawson to formulate an accurate opinion. But Marques Harris was brought in to compete. If Harris has a strong showing in camp, he may take pass rushing downs away from Lawson.
#2 CB - Nate Clements will hold down the #1 spot but the season ending injury to Walt Harris was a big blow. It also might be a blessing in disguise. Dre Bly was signed to compete for the #2 spot in Harris' place. Bly joins the team at a time in his career similar to when Harris joined the team in 2006. Bly will compete with promising 3rd year CB, Tarell Brown. Bly should get the job. Regardless of who wins, the team is in good shape entering the season.
FS - Similar to Sims at RT, Mark Roman was a disaster on the defensive side of the ball last year. The 49ers could've given up one TD less per game had it not been for the spotty play of Roman. There's not much competition here after Roman was allowed to seek a trade and came away unsuccessful. Prior to this, oft-injured preseason standout Dashon Goldson has been declared the starter.
There it is. Be sure to keep an eye on these battles once training camp and preseason begins. Go Niners!