SEASIDE, Calif. -- Observed while watching the San Francisco 49ers conduct practice on a cool, breezy Thursday under cloudy skies at California State University-Monterey Bay:
The offense is so much more competitive than it used to be. Practices are more fun to watch as a result. This session featured competitive physical battles and frequent jaw-jacking between tight end Vernon Davis and the defensive secondary. Davis repeatedly beat linebackers in coverage, but when cornerback Nate Clements helped break up a pass play, all parties had something to discuss. Davis said something unintelligible from afar. Clements said something about how he was only doing his job. Davis pointed out how he'd been killing the defense throughout camp. It was all in good fun and all part of a healthy competitive atmosphere. Though Davis made several long gains on receptions, he finished practice by dropping an easy pass over the middle. He heard about it, too.
Ted Ginn Jr. does bring a noticeable speed element to the offense. He made a twisting reception over cornerback Tarell Brown for a long gain up the right sideline. He beat Brown again to catch another deep ball. Cornerback Will James was Ginn's victim another time. Speed puts pressure on cornerbacks in coverage. James didn't track the ball very well on the reception he allowed. It's tougher for defensive backs to worry about the ball when they're worried about a receiver's speed. After watching Ginn in practice and speaking to him at length afterward, I'm more receptive to the idea that he can add something valuable to the 49ers' offense. Let's see how Ginn fares over time. A fresh start appears to be helping him for the time being, at least.
James, the corner San Francisco signed after not bringing back Dre Bly or Walt Harris, showed his physical side when he removed Dominique Zeigler from a play by driving the receiver out of bounds during the early stages of a sideline route.
Strong safety Michael Lewis isn't worried about the three concussions he suffered last season. He punishes offensive players during practice, as when fullback Brit Miller ran through the offensive line. The play was pretty much over and Lewis easily could have let Miller drift past him. Instead, the veteran safety popped Miller with enough force to reverse the 243-pound fullback's momentum.
It seems as though the 49ers are making it a priority to coach rookie safety Taylor Mays after just about every play. When Davis beat a linebacker to make a reception in the deep middle, Mays hesitated and Davis ran past him. Head coach Mike Singletary and secondary coach Johnnie Lynn were watching from deep in the secondary and they pulled Mays aside. Later, Singletary said they wanted Mays to know he needs to provide coverage in that situation whether or not its his responsibility.
Veteran pass-rusher Travis LaBoy left practice with what Singletary called a mild concussion. This might stand as a significant development because LaBoy has struggled with injuries in general and concussions in particular. The 49ers are not counting on LaBoy, but they signed him in hopes that he would give them another pass-rush threat.
Undrafted rookie tight end Tony Curtis dropped a pass and didn't stay with the play once he realized the ball had slipped through his hands. Ugly play.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was known as a tough player during his days as an NFL linebacker. He's still tough. Manusky runs around the field even though he's still limping following hip-replacement surgery this offseason.
Linebacker Diyral Briggs made a positive impression in the pass-rush drills I saw (I missed some of the rushes while focusing on Ginn and the offense).
The mild concussion that is keeping left guard David Baas off the field as a precaution should only help rookie Mike Iupati earn the starting job. I could see Singletary reinstating Baas to the first unit out of respect for the veteran once doctors clear Baas, but it'll be a surprise to me if Iupati does not start beginning in Week 1. Iupati looks the part and it just sounds different when he launches into defenders. He locked onto Pro Bowl middle linebacker Patrick Willis on one running play. Iupati did not lose that battle.
Rookie right tackle Anthony Davis is someone I'll watch more closely in the coming days. Briggs beat him to the outside in one pass-rush drill. Davis locked down Briggs when the linebacker rushed right at him on the next play.
Chilo Rachal was back at practice and working at his usual right guard spot two days after suffering from dehydration.
Those are some initial thoughts. Up next: a 60- to 90-minute drive back to Santa Clara. I'm anxious to go through notes and process interviews. The 49ers will not practice this afternoon. They have two scheduled for Friday, with the afternoon practice for special teams.