The San Francisco 49ers open training camp on Aug. 1 at SAP Performance Center in Santa Clara, California. Here’s a closer look at the Niners camp:
Top storyline: General manager Trent Baalke insists his team is in reload mode, rather than rebuilding. Yes, even with his team experiencing an Old Testament-style mass exodus this offseason that involved five retirements, including All-Pros Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and young guns Chris Borland and Anthony Davis. Indeed, the 49ers still have some accomplished players in the likes of tight end Vernon Davis and linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman, and the staff is excited about Bowman returning to form after unexpectedly missing all of last season recovering from a left knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s NFC title game. Plus, there is also a joyful hope, so to speak, that quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s offseason tinkering with his throwing mechanics will result in him taking that next step. But depth, specifically quality depth, is the team’s biggest storyline and thus the biggest question mark entering camp. Well, that, and seeing if the players buy into Jim Tomsula’s magnanimous coaching style, as opposed to Jim Harbaugh’s more manic mien.
Position battles to watch: Kaepernick was sacked a league-high 52 times last season so Davis’ sudden retirement, coupled with three-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati’s departure for the Arizona Cardinals via free agency, set up intriguing battles on the offensive line in general, at right tackle and left guard in particular. Erik Pears, signed for depth, may have to hold off rookie Trent Brown at RT while Alex Boone, a mainstay at right guard the past three seasons, could switch to LG and face Brandon Thomas, which would open up another battle at RG between Marcus Martin and Andrew Tiller. Also, with first-year Niner Darnell Dockett and first-round pick Arik Armstead both left defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme, the likes of Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine could face off for the right defensive end spot.
Veterans to watch: No, Reggie Bush is not expected to be the starting running back -- that designation should belong to Carlos Hyde. But Bush, no mere “gadget” guy, according to Tomsula, is supposed to turn the clock back a few years and be a playmaker for the Niners … in his 10th NFL season. He did, after all, rush for 1,006 yards and four TDs while catching 54 passes for 506 yards and three scores two years ago in Detroit. Also keep an eye on Dockett, whose rookie year was in 2004, and who is expected to pick up the slack on the D-line with Smith’s retirement, despite Dockett missing all of last season with an ACL injury.
Rookies to watch: Armstead missed essentially the entire Niners offseason program due to Oregon being on the quarter system, so he is basically starting from scratch. Still, the Niners don’t want much from the No. 17 overall draft pick because they believe their D-line depth is so strong that anything more is a bonus. Punter Bradley Pinion, though, is an entirely different story, the Niners are going all in with the fifth-rounder and trading away an all-time great at the position in Andy Lee. And former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne’s attempted transition to NFL special teams ace will bear watching as well, likely as a kick returner.
Bubble watch: The emergence of Aaron Lynch at an outside linebacker position, along with purported attitude problems and sideline issues with Ahmad Brooks, seemed to make Brooks expendable. And with Brooks facing potential sexual assault charges stemming from an alleged incident at former 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald’s house, few would be surprised to find Brooks on the bubble in camp in this perfect storm of sorts. Then there’s Bowman, who is working tirelessly to return from the knee injury that sidelined him all of last season. He was “on track” during minicamp, but the inside linebacker also was supposed to return around the midway point last season, though the Niners insisted there was no setback.
What about Kaepernick’s mechanics?: Having spent the early part of the offseason working on said mechanics with two-time league MVP Kurt Warner, who was a pure pocket passer, much was made of the decidedly more mobile Kaepernick’s delivery in OTAs and minicamp. He did seem to get rid of the ball faster -- as evidenced by rookie running back Mike Davis suffering an injured finger on a Kaepernick pass -- but it was hard to tell just how different his delivery was in glorified flag football practices. At least in camp, where temperatures will rise along with tempers and competition, there will be more of a regular season feel and, thus, more of an opportunity to gauge his improvements after regressing last season. (Kaepernick’s Total QBR fell from 68.6 in 2013, which ranked sixth in the NFL, to 55.9 last season, 17th in the league.) And, oh yeah, the man who handpicked him, Harbaugh, is gone from Santa Clara.
For daily updates at camp, check out the San Francisco 49ers clubhouse page.