Since the New Orleans Saints were crowned champs the schedule has been one constant whirlwind of draft speculation, then the event itself, then rookie camps, OTAs, more OTA’s and finally the mandatory minicamp.
However, now that Head Coach Mike Singletary announced the cancelling of tomorrow’s practices, there is officially nothing on the team docket between now and when rookies have to report on July 30th, six weeks of rest and relaxation (but not too much relaxation if they know what’s good for them) for everyone affiliated with the team. The only way any news breaks between now and then is if someone does something awfully stupid or gets really unlucky.
As has been the running – or perhaps passing would be more appropriate – theme all throughout the OTAs and minicamps, quarterback Alex Smith was once again excellent these past two days, completing well over 80 percent of his passes during 11-on-11 drills and hitting a staggering number of receivers on all kinds of throws. On the short stuff he has been beyond reproach, as really the defense has no answer for any quick hitters to the tight ends or flares to the backs. However, when the line is protecting Smith like they were on Friday and he’s got time to throw, then the fireworks really started.
Whether it was a 25-yarder over the seam to tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker or a long post to Ted Ginn or just a fly pattern down the sidelines to Michael Crabtree, Smith has been uncanny with his accuracy, leaving frustrated defensive backs in his wake. This is what 49ers executives envisioned when they drafted him first overall six years ago.
Taking all these practices in, three things have become readily apparent:
1. The 49ers have dramatically more talent at receiver than they did a year ago. Crabtree looks leaps and bounds better than he was last year, perhaps the only player in camp who can legitimately claim to be more improved than Smith. Simply put no one can cover him on the practice field, and he’s caught everything thrown his way. We thought maybe it was a bit of a fluke, the way he was getting so open during OTAs because he never had to face starting corners Shawntae Spencer or Nate Clements, but once they checked in for minicamps, nothing changed. No one can stay with Crabtree. Josh Morgan, the other starter, has shown great hands as well and has been running more intermediate routes than last year. Ted Ginn’s been hot-and-cold with his catching (more cold on Friday), but his speed is opening up a lot of underneath stuff for the others and watching him accelerate with the ball in his hands is a sight to behold. Jason Hill and the rookie, Kyle Williams, continue to make one acrobatic grab after another and constantly find themselves open in the middle of the field.
2. The team will at some point release a receiver – maybe two – that will catch on somewhere else in the league. It’s gotten to the point where there’s almost too much depth, which is impossible in the NFL. Usually when Wide Receivers Coach Jerry Sullivan wants to drive a point home to his guys about how to run a route properly he tells them to watch Dominique Zeigler, because he’s a guy who does everything right, but Singletary plainly admitted that Ziegler will have to “fight like hell” to make this team. Last year if Brandon Jones missed a week of practice with a bum ankle, people would be worried and shaking their heads. Now, nobody even notices that he’s not out there. No one cares. It’s out of sight, out of mind.
3. The offense knows it’s gonna be good. There’s just an attitude these guys have, a strut, that’s noticeable from the sidelines. It emanates from Smith to Davis and Crabtree, from Frank Gore to everyone else. They’re just kicking too much butt every day in practice – against a damn good defense from last year – for them to not notice it or gain confidence from it. Obviously things will be different when the pads go on. Maybe the receivers won’t be running down the middle quite as carefree when they’ve got Dashon Goldson or Michael Lewis bearing down on them, but I’m positive that practice wasn’t this sharp at any point last season, and surely not during training camp, where the “quarterback competition” between Smith and Shaun Hill was a daily tally of who was screwing up the least rather than who was making more head-turning plays.
Really, it’s all going to come down to the offensive line. If they can find five solid, consistent performers from their pool of seven potential starters, then the team’s going to move the ball this year. I’m certain of it. At this point I’m pretty sure rookie Mike Iupati will leapfrog David Baas and be fast-tracked to be the guy on opening day. Anthony Davis at right tackle I’m not as sure about. He’s still got a ways to go, at a far more demanding position. The Niners are by no means enamored with incumbent Adam Snyder, but for the moment, he remains the safer option there.
49ers release CB Smith, LB Long
In a bit of a surprise the 49ers waived a couple of players prior to their afternoon practice on Friday. Corner Keith Smith participated in three games last season, mostly on special teams, before spending the previous five seasons with the Detroit Lions. The Niners had re-signed him in February, but he became expendable with the free agent signings of William James and Karl Paymah. It should probably be taken as a good sign for seventh round pick Phillip Adams as well that Smith was jettisoned even before training camp.
Brandon Long, meanwhile, never really was going to have a shot here as the 12th or 13th linebacker on a team that’s going to keep eight or nine guys at that position. An undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, Long last played competitively in 2008, sitting out his senior season with an injury. He got a few reps here and there during the OTAs and showed some good awareness and ball skills, but physically he didn’t stand out.
Return Engagement of “The Nutcracker” in August
The biggest news of the day was Singletary announcing between practices that he fully intends to bring back the “Nutcracker” drill next training camp. The drill, which is basically a takeoff of the “Oklahoma” drill still prevalent on high school and college teams across the land, called for two players of similar size to square off against one another and seeing which man can drive the other backward. It’s fun to watch (and easy to write about) but the drill itself carries a high injury risk. Several 49ers, including linebacker Patrick Willis, corner Tarell Brown, guard David Baas and running back Michael Robinson got dinged up doing the drill last year, with Brown and Baas missing almost all of training camp.
Still, Singletary wasn’t swayed, insisting that the importance of the drill is worth the risk, because the “Nutcracker” teaches players about leverage, which is essential to winning football.
“When you do the nutcracker, a player has a chance to understand [leverage] firsthand,” explained Singletary. “You can tell them a million times, but until they actually do it and go through it, you can’t really see it. It’s like taking golf lessons and you tell a guy you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that and you’ve got to do this. He’s saying, ‘Well, I’m doing that.’ You put on the film and you see that. Obviously, you’re head is not down, it’s up. If you don’t get it on tape, it’s not going to happen. I think the nutcracker has been very beneficial for us. Yes, there were a couple of guys that got hurt, but that’s going to happen in training camp.”
We’ll see. I just don’t want to see any 49ers get cracked. Or their… helmets.
Rookie safety Taylor Mays, like the rest of the defensive backs, has been getting torched plenty in drills. That’s to be expected. However, he’s also shown surprisingly good hands, which definitely wasn’t his reputation coming out of USC. He had two interceptions on Friday and a couple more, earlier in the week as well. If the ball’s in his area, he knows what to do with it. What he and the coaches have to work on is making sure he’s in the right spot more often, and if it doesn’t happen right away with Mays, it won’t be for lack of trying.
“He’s a breath of fresh air in terms of his work ethic and mindset,” shared Singletary. “He’s driving [secondary coach] V.J. [Vance Joseph] and [special assistant to head coach/secondary coach] Johnnie [Lynn] crazy. He’s called me a few times. He’s called them a few times, ‘Hey coach, what about this? Hey coach, what about that? Can we get together tomorrow? Can we do this? Can I come in on Sunday?’ I know V.J. is like, ‘Man, are you kidding me?’ That’s the kind of kid he is and I’m excited about him.”
Singletary also revealed that all the one-on-one tutorials between Mays and the coaches when he’s not taking reps are the rookie’s doing, and not lectures being shoved down his throat for mistakes made in coverage.
“That’s him,” Singletary said. “That’s all Taylor Mays. We’re not saying, ‘Hey, come over here with us.’ No, that’s on him. But that’s his personality. I knew that before we drafted him. I had a chance to talk to a number of different people about him and they all talked about his work ethic. It’s nice to see that he’s following through.”
Now we’ll see how many of the guys follow through on their training during their vacation and how many slack off. By the first week of August, it’ll be pretty easy to figure out.