SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the first time since 2004, the San Francisco 49ers are conducting training camp without Alex Smith as part of the quarterback equation. Throw in a long, growing list of injuries, and the NFC West's most established team is tougher to recognize.
I spent two days in camp without seeing starters Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis or Jonathan Goodwin practice. Receiver Michael Crabtree was already out, of course. A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter also were not practicing. Third cornerback Chris Culliver, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL.
Fortunately for the 49ers, it's still early August. They know how to develop talent and coach to players' strengths. But for San Francisco to win a third consecutive NFC West crown, the team could use better luck with injuries from this point forward.
Beyond the injury concerns, all signs point toward a continued rise for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is becoming his team because of the way he works and because he's such a talent. Offensive and defensive players alike say so. Kaepernick often shows up for work before 6 in the morning. He dusts teammates up the hills they run in nearby San Jose.
Outsiders tempted to brand Kaepernick -- after 10 NFL starts -- as a one-read quarterback or a read-option quarterback aren't seeing what coordinator Greg Roman is seeing.
"He doesn't look at things in a rote fashion," Roman said. "He can see big picture. He understands the trickle-down. Say you give him a play, he is going to look at it in his mind versus all different coverages. All those little acetates are going to fall down at once in his mind, and then he understands the impact and 'hey, maybe we should put this guy in this spot, let him run this and let what's-his-name do this.' He is very interactive."
The 49ers still plan to use two backs frequently and lean hard on the running game, but it's not so much because a young quarterback is limiting their options. The collaborative aspect Roman referenced is telling in that regard.
"Last year, I started to bounce things off him because I started to really trust him," Roman said. "I liked what I was hearing and seeing. Now, he has a hand in the pot, too. That is what you want. He is the quarterback. You can evolve with him, and he'll be part of that evolution process. I just love getting him thinking, because he is great."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Attrition at wide receiver. Every 49ers fan should be sending letters of gratitude to general manager Trent Baalke for acquiring receiver Anquan Boldin before the team absolutely, positively had to have him.
The situation at receiver is going to improve as Williams, Jenkins and Manningham in particular get healthy. Crabtree might even return late in the season.
For now, though, the 49ers have the following behind Boldin at the position: Austin Collie, Lavelle Hawkins, Charly Martin, Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs and Quinton Patton, who has one healthy hand and is running routes under orders not to catch any passes.
The 49ers need Jenkins to be a factor, but that's not going to happen until the 2012 first-round choice returns from a sore hamstring. Jenkins got safety Donte Whitner's vote when I asked Whitner which of the young wideouts would emerge. Whitner said he thought Jenkins' speed would allow him to "take the top off" opposing defenses. Again, that can't happen with Jenkins on the sideline.
San Francisco does have the ability to use two tight ends and/or two running backs, lessening the need for multiple wideouts.
2. Secondary concerns. Culliver's injury and free safety Dashon Goldson's departure in free agency could make the 49ers worse in the secondary for the short term. The team has leaned on its dominant front seven to protect the back end. That will be the preferred formula this season.
Pushing first-round pick Eric Reid into the lineup at free safety sounds good in theory. He's going to be the starter eventually. Why not let him play? Craig Dahl has much more experience. C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson are in the mix, too.
One consideration: San Francisco opens the season against Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck before making a trip to St. Louis, where the Rams beat the 49ers last season. The 49ers will want to let the safety race play out through preseason before making a decision.
At corner, Nnamdi Asomugha appeared likely to step into Culliver's spot as the third corner, but Tramaine Brock was the player defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called upon first. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are the starters, with Rogers shifting inside in sub packages.
As for Asomugha? He made plays on the ball when I visited practice, but the ever-direct Fangio offered a mixed assessment.
"He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it," Fangio said. "I think we're kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully, he'll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia. So, I think the jury is still out there."
Fangio passed on an opportunity to blame Asomugha's struggles with the Eagles on the scheme Philadelphia was running.
"I think there's some of that, but Nnamdi is at this stage in his career where some guys start losing, their physical skills start to diminish. We just have to see if that’s entering into his picture, too, or not."
3. Potential defensive tweaks. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald rank among the NFL's top five defensive linemen in total snaps played over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The heavy use might have contributed to the torn triceps Smith suffered late last season.
The defense wasn't the same with Smith on the sideline, and was limited upon his return. The plan this season calls for expanding the rotation along the line. Ian Williams and free-agent addition Glenn Dorsey will be key to making that happen. And once second-round choice Tank Carradine gets healthy, San Francisco will have another option to help keep its veterans fresh.
The 49ers have gone away from the more traditional 3-4 scheme they employed when Aubrayo Franklin was their two-gapping nose tackle a few years back. They still run a base 3-4, but the front is more aggressive in getting up the field. Dorsey, who appeared miscast in the 3-4 scheme Kansas City ran after drafting him fifth overall in 2008, should fit better with San Francisco.
"You have a lot more freedom," Dorsey said of the 49ers' scheme relative to the Chiefs' old scheme. "There's not just staying on blocks. It's taking on blocks and you get to penetrate a lot more, go off in gaps and stuff like that and then move around. A lot of stunts and stuff. It's fun."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The 49ers have the front office, coaching staff, quarterback, offensive line, running backs and defensive front seven to contend for a championship. They also have one of the NFL's most dynamic tight ends, Vernon Davis. Just about every team in the league should envy the 49ers' roster even with the injury concerns. Kaepernick appears supremely driven. He should improve given the support system around him. Also, the 49ers have most of their tougher-looking games at home, where they should be expected to win a high percentage of the time. A relatively easy road schedule could help San Francisco gain in the standings against Seattle and St. Louis. Those teams face tougher road schedules.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The injury situation is a concern. Competition within the NFC West will be fierce. The 49ers have more questions to answer this offseason after parting with Delanie Walker, Goldson and a few role players. Change isn't always bad, of course. This organization has consistently found upgrades such as Alex Boone and Bowman when flushing out starters. Still, there is some uncertainty, at least until the 49ers see how the replacements perform. And if the pace of injuries keeps up, the incline could become too steep.
British Olympic discus champion Lawrence Okoye will need time to develop. His musculature stands out even among his fellow defensive linemen, but his football inexperience shows on the practice field. He's still learning technique and how to make his 6-foot-6 frame work for him.
Boone, listed at 6-8 and 300 pounds, is about as impressive looking as Okoye. He had the other linemen laughing and shaking their heads when he ended a post-practice soak in a ground-level ice tub by launching his body upright from a lying position in one violent motion, sending water and ice flying. He stuck the landing, too.
Strong safeties and fullbacks tend to relish contact. I enjoyed watching Whitner and Bruce Miller cross paths at speed during drills featuring only minimal contact. They clipped one another hard enough to pop their pads without putting themselves at risk for injury or attracting heat from coaches.
One of the traits separating Frank Gore from other running backs is his ability to maneuver amid heavy traffic on inside runs. Left tackle Joe Staley: "I've never seen a better runner in NFL history between the 'A' gaps. He finds that tiniest crease. One of the other things that sets him apart is that he can make cuts in the 'A' gaps, too. You see other runners go through the 'A' gaps and they just try to smash into someone and it's a 3-yard gain. Frank gets to that 'A' gap and he makes a quick cut and all of a sudden a 3-yard run turns into a 12-, 14-yard run."
Back in March, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had high praise for Lockette, a receiver the team signed from the Seattle Seahawks last season. I took note when Harbaugh appeared to be offering forcefully delivered corrections to Lockette during practice. The head coach probably wouldn't bother if he thought the player wasn't worth the trouble. Harbaugh obviously sees something in Lockette, but how will that translate?
Left guard Joe Looney and center Daniel Kilgore worked together with the starting offensive line Friday while starters Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin sat out (Goodwin is recovering from injury, while Iupati sat out a few plays after limping off). Seeing Looney and Kilgore work together with the starters brought into focus the line's longer-term future. Will the team work out a contract extension for Iupati? Players such as Kaepernick and Aldon Smith could become higher priorities to re-sign after this season. Just a thought.
Change-of-pace running back LaMichael James is catching the ball well at this point.
It's not yet clear how quickly second-round pick Vance McDonald will develop as a reliable blocker. Boldin's ability in that area provides flexibility.
Players off-limits to contact typically wear black jerseys so teammates know to avoid hitting them. Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick, was in another category. He was running pass routes as usual, but the coaching staff told him to let the quartebacks' passes sail past him. The team wants Patton to get reps without risking further injury to a finger. Patton caught one pass anyway. I saw him catch another ball with one hand. Patton was the only player wearing a blue jersey, making him particularly easy to spot.
Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, 37, recently said one of the team's rookies confessed to mistaking Feely for an assistant coach all offseason. I'll admit to briefly mistaking the 49ers' 38-year-old kicker, Phil Dawson, for a team staffer when he arrived at the post-practice interview tent wearing running shoes with no socks and a pullover on his 5-foot-11 frame. Dawson, who is new to the 49ers, said he obsesses over weather conditions, to the point that he is constantly checking them using an app whose manufacturer he wouldn't reveal. Although Candlestick Park is known for rough conditions, the winds blow almost constantly at team headquarters -- something to keep in mind when the 49ers move into their new stadium across the street in 2014.
Linebacker Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick, has stood out early, but he's transitioning from safety and will need time to develop. Fangio put it best: "I think he’s got a lot of good tools in his toolbox. He just isn’t a union carpenter yet."
The talk of tight end Davis taking reps at wide receiver was pretty much just that: talk. Davis will remain a tight end. However, I did see him line up outside the yard-line numbers a couple times in one practice. He has the speed to do that on occasion. His route-running has improved over the years as well. A third season in the same offense is another important factor for expanding Davis' game. Still, he's going to be a tight end.