First let's start with the absentees. Both expected started corners, Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements, weren't here, same as the last camp. Scuttlebutt has it that Clements is still sore from being benched last year at Indianapolis prior to his season-ending shoulder injury suffered while returning a punt. He's still rehabbing but Head Coach Mike Singletary said he'd spoken to Clements recently and that, "he's really excited about where he's at."
Singletary also confirmed that he knew well ahead of time neither Clements or Spencer would be here, and that he's fine with it. "Obviously as a coach you want to see all of your guys, but I told them, 'You're men, I know what you're doing and I trust you,'" Singletary said.
A fellow the coach hasn't spoken to and may not trust as much as he once did is linebacker Manny Lawson, who like the corners, also missed his second straight camp. Lawson is upset about entering the walk year of his contract without any hints of forthcoming negotiations from the 49ers. Singletary said he still expects Lawson to be on the team this year, but we'll see...
Other absentees included nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who still hasn't signed his franchise tender, end Kentwan Balmer who himself is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, running back Michael Robinson, undrafted rookie receiver Jared Perry, who had travel complications and showed up on Tuesday, and receiver Isaac Bruce, who believe it or not, is technically still on the roster because he hasn't formally announced his retirement.
Singletary made it clear that he does not consider Bruce a part of the team and if anyone needed anymore hints about his situation, third tight end hopeful Tony Curtis has been given Bruce's old number, 88. Supposedly the future Hall-of-Fame wideout is waiting to sign a one-day contract with the Rams before hanging 'em up.
One 49er who was at camp but wasn't participating was linebacker Patrick Willis, who recently signed a five-year, $50 million extension. He's still working his way back from bursa sac surgery on his knee so he was watching the proceedings in full uniform, standing five yards behind Singletary in deep centerfield (or where rookie safety Taylor Mays routinely lined up for USC last year). Matt Wilhelm is on the first team in drills in Willis' place.
As for the practices themselves, one thing that was apparent right away was how confident quarterback Alex Smith looked. I wouldn't say he had a strut or a swagger about him or anything, but his body language and demeanor was noticeably different from a year ago. He's the man on this team right now and he knows it. I'm not saying he's headed toward a Pro-Bowl year or anything, but for the 49ers to have any chance to be a contender in 2010, they'll need the absolute best they can get from Smith, and for that to happen they need him to be assured and resolute. I continue to think the best decision they made on draft weekend, more than any of their actual picks, was not taking Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen. That would've been a disaster and the drama would've thrown the 2010 season into the tank before it even began.
On Tuesday the offense began the day going over some third down plays with Smith in the shotgun and he was animatedly barking out orders to the ten guys around him, calling out blocking assignments, pointing out where the middle linebacker was lining up on any given play, telling the receivers where to line up and so on. It was the most gung-ho and demonstrative that any of us have ever seen of Smith.
"What he has to do in the gun is direct all the blocking packages," explained Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye. "A year ago he couldn't begin to do that. Now he's able to shout out the 'Mike' point, where the pressure's coming from, where our protection is weak, and so on."
Raye also revealed that he and his quarterback had a heart-to-heart recently about what the quarterback liked and didn't like in the playbook. "There were things last year that he didn't particularly care for that surprised me, other things that he liked, but we reached a happy medium," Raye said, while emphasizing that the play-calling still won't be a complete democracy.
Oddly enough, Smith's take-charge attitude was about all he had going for him on Tuesday, as his actual practice, from this perspective, was rather poor. He was off target on just about any throw that wasn't a dumpoff, and most of his attempts were of that nature. On Monday, when the wind was blowing more severely he was far more accurate on the intermediate throws (with good zip on the ball I might add), and really only missed on bomb attempts.
I wasn't impressed by David Carr on either day, and he too struggled mightily on Tuesday. Nate Davis got a few reps here and there and once again showed off the best arm of the bunch, and he had a few impressive mid-range hookups in stride.
One of the reasons the quarterbacks in general fared worse on the second day of practices was because the offensive line, as a whole, didn't hold their blocks for very long. Remember, there are no pads on for these OTAs, and I'm not sure if these guys actually broke down in protection or were "coached" to make the passers feel pressure, but on numerous occasions the QBs had to scramble away from the rush or were otherwise hurried. Anthony Dixon and Mike Iupati were both on the second team, at right tackle and left guard respectively. They'll have to earn their way to play with the big boys. Interestingly, guards David Baas and Tony Wragge both took some snaps at center, with the former struggling in shotgun situations. Alex Boone, who has remade his body in the off-season got some looks at second team left tackle while swing tackle Barry Sims has a ways to go work on his conditioning.
As far as the running backs go, rookie Anthony Dixon looked a bit faster and more explosive to my eye than he did during the rookie camp, but Tom Rathman, his position coach wasn't anywhere close to satisfied with him in drills, chastising the rookie for taking "false steps." Dixon did look fairly comfortable as a receiver, though he hesitates a bit from catching the ball to turning it upfield. He doesn't do it all in one smooth motion. Glen Coffee, last year's third round pick is bigger now, about 220 pounds, but doesn't seem to have lost any speed. His receiving has improved some as well.
Perhaps the best two players in camp so far have been the starting receivers, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. Crabtree seems to have really benefited from being in the off-season program and no one here can stay with him on routes. He's also catching the ball cleanly and looking like the "YAC" guy he was in college. Morgan, meanwhile, has shown good hands and is getting a lot more work on intermediate routes than he did during the season last year. He looks pretty good. The first team guys have gotten the lion's share of the reps and all the other guys have been up and down so far. Jason Hill made a couple of nice leaping grabs, but there were a few drops on Monday that left Singletary stewing. "We have some guys that have to get used to catching the ball again," he said. "For some guys it's natural, and for others it's not."
And yes, that was Ted Ginn who he was referring to.
In the tight end group Vernon Davis has been surprisingly mellow so far, but Curtis has been the busy man, hauling in a lot of short and intermediate passes. He looks faster than I expected. Delanie Walker is also getting a lot of work. The team is practicing mostly in their "12" package, meaning one running back and two tight ends, so all the guys are getting a ton of reps. Rookie Nate Byham has mainly been a blocker, from what I could see.
Defensively no one really gets to stand out during these practices because hitting isn't allowed and the defensive backs have been instructed to pull up and let receivers catch any ball that's close to them. Singletary was livid after Crabtree and Tarell Brown collided on a jump ball during Monday's practice (with Brown definitely the worse for wear on that one), yelling, "Let's take care of each other out here!"
Afterward he told the writers, "We told them if the receivers have a chance to catch the ball, let them catch the ball, but I guess it didn't sink in."
On the passes wayward enough for them to make plays on however, the secondary has been excellent. Reserve corner Keith Smith did his best impersonation of Giants Super Bowl hero David Tyree, pining a ball against his helmet to secure an interception, while safety Reggie Smith made a couple of fine grabs of his own. Newly-signed seventh round pick Phillip Adams showed good concentration plucking a ball out of the air that bounced off Ginn's hands on Monday.
Finally there were the special teams drills where Ginn, rookies Kyle Williams and LeRoy Vann and receiver Brandon Jones were all taking turns fielding punts. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that Jones was just there for show and he will not be in the mix once the season starts. Williams looked the smoothest catching the ball from the beginning of the drill to the end, while Vann calmed down after some initial nerves and looked good as well. Ginn looked rather bored and disinterested by the whole thing and it's worth noting that he didn't really return punts for the Dolphins much outside of his rookie year. He's more of a kickoff return guy. I wonder what the coaches think about his practice habits so far...
There's still two days of these practices to go, and so far the only real news, as well as the best news, is that no one's gotten hurt. In May, that's all you can ask for.