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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

August 21, 2008
49ers player-by-player analysis

Training camp officially ends tomorrow and the first cut-down day, although a small one, is next week. Thus, it's time for a player-by-player analysis beginning with the offensive skills players. BTW, I satisfied my Chicago deep-dish fix at Gino's last night. Feeling a tad guilty about what we were about to do to our digestive systems, Dan Brown and I ordered a spinach and cheese pizza, which, in hindsight, is a like pouring "light" syrup over the Denny's Grand Slam breakfast. The damage is already done, so you might as well go the whole nine yards ....


#3 Kyle Wright. He's merely been a "camp arm" so far this summer. But that arm is a very good one. Wright seems like a guy worth developing.
Final 53: No.

#11 Alex Smith. Smith has many things going for him. He's bright. He's athletic. He has the best arm on the team. He's tough. And he's not the kind of quarterback who flings the ball around haphazardly. Indeed, that's a big reason why Mike Nolan drafted him No. 1 overall in 2005. But some of his shortcomings, while not as problematic in, say, a Norv Turner offense, are highlighted in Mike Martz's attack. For one, he has a long release, which is exacerbated by his tendency to hold onto the ball. The result in training camp has been throws that are too far behind the receiver or a tendency to pull the ball in and run with it. In Martz's system, none of those results will fly.
The question, of course, is whether the cerebral Smith would have been farther along had he been given the lion's share of the repetitions from Day 1. There is also a sense that while J.T. O'Sullivan may be the best quarterback on opening day, if Smith were the starter he'd be the better player by midseason.
Final 53: Yes.

#13 Shaun Hill. Hill had two things going against him this offseason. Like Smith, he was learning a new and ambitious offense. Unlike Smith, Martz tinkered heavily with his mechanics. A big component of Martz's offense this year is throwing the ball deep downfield. While Hill has excellent touch on short passes and has a knack for getting an offense in rhythm, he has struggled on long throws. That's not a problem that's easy to correct, which is why Hill likely will enter the season No. 3 on the depth chart.
Final 53: Yes

#14 J.T. O'Sullivan. This is playing out a like George W. Bush's VP search in 2000: W asks Dick Cheney to conduct the search and -- lo and behold! -- Cheney ends up picking Cheney. In this case Martz is in charge of picking a quarterback and - lo and behold! - he ends up picking the guy he brought over from Detroit.
And why not? O'Sullivan has the quick-release Martz wants. His passes are accurate. He knows the offense. And best of all, he has a steely and willful determination that Nolan loves. It should be noted that O'Sullivan also is very bright. There's been a lot of ink spilled on how much Smith and Hill have had to learn this offseason. Last year, O'Sullivan landed in Detroit just before training camp and still was able to digest Martz's offense in time to start the third preseason game. Who knows how long it will take for Nolan to name the regular-season starter. But as of right now, you have to believe it will be O'Sullivan.
The one thing that could derail the JT express is the Favre-like tendency to force plays and commit turnovers. Nolan made it very clear on Draft Day '05 that he didn't want a riverboat gambler, that he wanted the quarterback to be the extension of the head coach. And the head coach - in case you haven't noticed - likes control and tends to lean toward caution.
Final 53: Yes.

Running backs:

#21 Frank Gore. You know you're the star of the team when the offensive coaches give you the first two carries in a preseason game and then quickly whisk you safely to the sideline. Gore has been getting the LaDainian Tomlinson treatment this summer because, like Tomlinson, he is the centerpiece of the team's offense. Coaches want him healthy and they want him fresh when the season starts. Wanting to be a better receiver and outside runner, Gore lost weight in the offseason. But he'll still have plenty of opportunities between the tackles, too. Fantasy football owners should be heartened that, despite an intense quarterback competition, the team had more running plays (exactly one more) than passing plays last week against Green Bay.
Final 53: Yes

#24 Michael Robinson. The 49ers see Robinson having a bigger role on special teams than on offense. The former quarterback stood out on coverage units a year ago, and he was given the coveted "Top Gun" award from special teams coordinator Al Everest. Still, there's a good chance Robinson will usurp some of DeShaun Foster's touches. He's an excellent receiver out of the backfield and last year showed a knack for gaining yards after the catch.
Final 53: Yes.

#29 DeShaun Foster. Foster is a just-in-in-case acquisition. Because Martz's offense is built around Gore, the 49ers need a back-up plan should Gore get hurt. Foster is bigger than Gore, but historically has not been as tough an inside runner. He has shown very nice hands and is smooth and fluid out of the backfield. If Gore goes down, the offense should continue to tick with Foster and Robinson.
Final 53: Yes.

#33 Thomas Clayton. Clayton is smart, quick and has one of the best physiques in the locker room. He's also altered his form from last year, running with a lower pad level and a more forward-leaning style than last season. But he doesn't run with enough power and goes to the ground too easily. Another year on the practice squad is a possibility, but he doesn't make the 53-man unless someone else gets hurt.
Final 53: No

#44 Moran Norris. Norris is one of the strongest guys on the team and is a powerful short-range blocker. What he lacks, however, is the ability to get out in front of Gore on outside runs and to get through traffic to deliver blocks. He also isn't a nimble pass catcher. That combination seemed to spell doom for Norris, Gore's lead blocker the last two seasons, through much of the offseason. He only played with the second-team defense while Zak Keasey worked with the first. On Tuesday, however, Norris got a few repetitions with the first stringers, and tonight's game against the Bears will be telling.
Final 53: Iffy but chances improving

#45 Zak Keasey. Keasey is everything that Norris isn't. He can stay ahead of Gore on sweeps and he can deliver blocks downfield. He's also a better receiver out of the backfield, although he could stand to improve in that area. (Lots of practice drops). But he isn't a devastating blocker and you wonder if Norris might be needed for short-yardage and goal-line situations. Keasey's value on special teams helps his chances at making the final cut.
Final 53: Yes.

Wide Receivers:

#15 Robert Ortiz. Ortiz's greatest asset this summer: durability. He's not particular big, not particularly fast and he doesn't have particularly good hands. He was signed to be a camp body and he's performed that role admirably.
Final 53: No.

#17 Dominique Zeigler. It's a rare occasion when you see Zeigler drop a ball. He's one of the most natural pass catchers on the team and has long and lithe body that allows him to reach passes that are off-target. All of the receivers who have made it through camp uninjured, like Zeigler, deserve praise because of the demanding work load this summer. Tall and wiry, Zeigler is by no means powerful and he doesn't have a lot of speed. However, he's shown enough consistency that if the 49ers suffer a spate of WR injuries, he could come in and perform well. Practice squad is a possibility but the risk of cutting Zeigler and losing him to another team is minimal.
Final 53: No.

#18 Ashley Lelie. Lelie would give Martz something he doesn't have on the team: an experienced receiver who can put downfield pressure on defenses. When the 49ers dispatched Darrell Jackson but not Lelie in the offseason, it was a signal that they thought he had potential in the offense. But Lelie has not been able to stay healthy, and that usually is the kiss of death on a Nolan-led team.
Final 53: No.

#19 Jerard Rabb. He's built like Zeigler but doesn't have the hands or the consistency.
Final 53: No.

#81 Cam Colvin. Once Martz's offense started to click with Colvin, the rookie started to come on. He's the type of big-bodied receiver the 49ers love but he's not as natural a pass catcher as Zeigler. Still, the 49ers know what they have in Zeigler and might be curious to see how much Colvin could develop on the practice squad.
Final 53: No.

#80 Isaac Bruce. See #88.

#81 Bryant Johnson. Through Aug. 4, Johnson was one of the two most consistent receivers in camp. He suffered a hamstring injury in the practice against the Raiders and hasn't played or practiced since. In the meantime, rookie Josh Morgan has taken his spot in the starting lineup and has looked like the 2008 version of Marques Colston. Veterans like Johnson never lose their jobs to rookies on Nolan-led teams, but Morgan's potential may be too bright to ignore.
Final 53: Yes.

#83 Arnaz Battle. The team's best receiver last year, Battle has been lightly used this summer due to a chronic knee injury and, lately, with a pulled hamstring. No matter. Neither ailment is considered serious and the 49ers know that Battle is just about the most consistent player on the team. He'll see plenty of action as the "Z" receiver behind Isaac Bruce and in three-receiver sets.
Final 53: Yes.

#84 Josh Morgan. The most pleasant surprise of the offseason, Morgan has been playing like a first-round draft pick who's already been in the league for four years. He's big, fast and, perhaps most impressive, he has been undaunted by Martz's voluminous playbook. Morgan came out of Virginia Tech with a reputation for having an attitude and for dropping too many passes. There hasn't been a hint of either in 49ers' camp. Morgan is a lock to make the team. The question is whether he cracks the starting lineup Sept. 7.
Final 53: Yes

#88 Isaac Bruce. Like Battle, Bruce has played sparingly this summer, but no one is concerned. As expected, Bruce has pinpoint accuracy on his pass routes, a real asset when breaking in three new quarterbacks. He certainly doesn't have the downfield explosion he once had, and it remains to be seen how effective he'll be with most of his games are on grass instead of artificial surfaces. Still, he's an excellent role model (on the field) for young receivers and would be the perfect compliment for Morgan.
Final 53: Yes.

#89 Jason Hill. Poor Jason Hill has been eclipsed by Morgan. But that's not to say that Hill isn't having a good camp. He's playing the more crowded "Z" position but has seen plenty of repetitions due to injuries elsewhere. Hill's biggest achievement this summer has been staying healthy, a problem that hampered his development last season. Hill had a ridiculously fast 40-yard time at the 2007 combine, but he doesn't play as fast in pads. He's not a leaper and he seems to get tripped up too easily while running routes.
Final 53: Yes.

NEXT: Tight ends and O-line

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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