The 49ers just wrapped up seven straight days of practice, the last three of which left their hard-to-please head coach with a warm feeling in his stomach. They have just two more OTA sessions - Monday and Tuesday - before a month and a half break. What has the last few weeks taught us about the 2009 49ers?
Quarterback. The month of June very much belonged to Alex Smith. I'm not saying that he's ahead of Shaun Hill. The competition to be the starting quarterback actually is a secondary concern. The bigger news is that Smith's right shoulder appears fully healed, and that had to have been Smith's primary worry after two surgeries in the last two years. Smith's spirals are tight, his accuracy is good and he is showing a bit of the aggressiveness that's been missing from him since 2005. He's not perfect, of course. Smith still seems to settle for his bail-out option too often and his passes have a tendency to sail. And as Mike Singletary noted yesterday, all of Smith's practice-field gains won't amount to anything if he flounders in games. But the signs of progress are evident. And in June, that's all you can ask for.
Concerns. The 49ers are light at outside linebacker, the position all 3-4 teams lean on for their pass rush. Parys Haralson looks good, but I'm not yet convinced that Manny Lawson is back to his pre-injury form. I remember Lawson looked like he was sprung from a cage early in 2007. I haven't seen that explosion yet, but perhaps he's - wisely - saving himself. I will say that Ahmad Brooks has looked good in practice. Is it a mirage? I can't wait to see him go one-on-one with Joe Staley and Marvel Smith in blocking drills in training camp. ... Where was Isaac Bruce? Sure, Bruce showed up for the mandatory minicamp, but that was about it. Yeah, he's a veteran and a tireless worker, but he's also learning a brand new offense. Moreover, the young receivers on the team absolutely worship him and drink up anything that comes out of his mouth. Watching Bruce stand by himself at practice, you get the feeling that he is more concerned with Isaac Bruce than he is the San Francisco 49ers.
Offense. When Jimmy Raye was hired at the end of January, everyone was worried that the 49ers offense would revert to "Three yards and a cloud of yawn." I'm not allowed to map out specific plays (my greatest fear is being called into Singletary's office) but I can report that the O is not nearly as bland as initially thought. The 49ers have worked on four-receiver packages this past week. There are a lot of passes between 20 and 40 yards. There's even a dash of razzle dazzle thrown in. And most important, they're making progress. Two weeks ago, I watched the offense run a series of ragged red-zone plays in which it could hardly complete a single pass. This past week, they ran the same plays and missed on only one pass.
Defense. In a Thursday column, I wrote that the 49ers in general seem far more willing to take chances under Singletary than they were under Nolan. That's especially true of the defense, which is more aggressive and which, with the additions of Dashon Goldson and Dre' Bly, promises to produce more turnovers. Stat: The 49ers have forced 40 turnovers in the last two seasons, the lowest in the league over that span.
Health. The 49ers offseason was dealt a big blow when cornerback Walt Harris tore his ACL last month. Overall, however, the news is good on the injury front. Though a number of players sat out the most recent OTA session, everyone but Harris and Ray McDonald (knee) is expected to be on the field when training camp begins on July 30 (or thereabouts). Marvel Smith, who did not take part in team drills, is expected to step in as the starter at right tackle. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer and receivers Arnaz Battle and Michael Crabtree also will join their teammates at practice. Battle, by the way, will have to hold off a host of promising youngsters - Dominique Zeigler, Michael Spurlock, Maurice Price - to keep his roster spot this season.
Rookies. Ironically, two most valuable rookies in practice have been seventh rounders, Curtis Taylor and Ricky Jean-Francois because of injuries at safety and at defensive end. Both are athletic but raw, and injuries likely will determine whether they land on the 53-man roster or the practice squad. Tight end Bear Pascoe has looked good and is getting some old-fashioned hard coaching from Pete Hoener. (see below). Quarterback Nate Davis looks good, though practice-field reps have been few and far between. Linebacker Scott McKillop is studying to be Takeo Spikes' eventual replacement at "ted" linebacker. McKillop has shown better-then-expected instincts in the passing game. (You'll recall that Spikes had three INTs last year from the "ted" position.) Glen Coffee is a violent runner. How effective he'll be is hard to tell until the team puts its pads on. And obviously, we don't know a thing about Crabtree other than he's champing at the bit to return to practice. He's been rehabbing alongside three or four other players, and he's turned even that into a competition. That's a good sign.
I had to mute this video for a couple of reasons. One was the colorful language being used. The other is because the 49ers now prohibit reporters (for the first time ever) from quoting assistant coaches. So I'll allow you to use your imagination as you watch Hoener demand better technique from Pascoe as star pupil Vernon Davis looks on. Also, the guy watching in the floppy hat is Jimmy Raye.
-- Matt Barrows