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June 15, 2012
Five observations from 49ers spring practices

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1.) The NFL spring practices - no pads, no contact, no tackling - catered to the passing game. So it's only natural that the standouts of the spring session were the receivers and the defensive players assigned to cover them.

A number of pass catchers jumped out for the 49ers. Vernon Davis may have been the most prolific during the recent three-day minicamp, an indication that the tight end is picking up where he left off at the end of last season. On Tuesday, Davis had a leaping back-shoulder catch in the back of the end zone that required him to get his feet in bounds as his momentum was carrying past the end line.

It was a fantastic catch in itself. But it's downright astounding if you had seen Davis as a rookie in 2006. He was so raw, so muscle-bound, so inept when it came to any throw in which he wasn't squared to the ball. The degree to which he's improved over that span can't be overstated.

Overall this spring - counting OTAs and minicamps - the two biggest standouts may have been a pair of newcomers, Randy Moss and cornerback Perrish Cox. Everyone knows that Moss is tall and lean. But his physique still grabs your attention when you see him up close, and with his long arms and leaping ability you understand why he's such a favorite target for quarterbacks. Moss took part in every practice since arriving April 30. That speaks toward the veteran's motivation and dedication, which have been his biggest question marks in recent years.

Cox, meanwhile, jumped out for his aggressiveness, which promises to be even more pronounced when the pads come on next month. He's playing three positions - cornerback, nickel back and punt returner - a trifecta that bodes well for his making the 53-man squad. Others who distinguished themselves include Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams on offense, and Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock on defense.

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2.) The quarterbacks spent the spring working on their weaknesses. For Colin Kaepernick, that meant short, touch passes when throwing out of the pocket. Many of those throws went wide or high of their targets, while other attempts whistled in too quickly and glanced off a receiver's hands.

Kaepernick is much better on the run - rolling left or right -- and much better when the bullets are live. Spring ball not a time to make predictions about who's surpassing whom on the quarterback depth chart. Preseason games will be a much better indicator.

3.) Jim Harbaugh on Thursday was full of praise for first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. "Very gung-ho. Very fast, fast, fast. He's got excellent hands," Harbaugh said. "He's got the ability to get in and out of cuts with his foot speed. And the turnover, he doesn't get stuck in routes. He doesn't get stuck at the top of the routes. He's able to get out of those cuts. And he's right on track. A.J. Jenkins is going to be just fine."

That's vintage Harbaugh, and you would not expect anything but positives and praise from him when it comes to his young players. The truth, however, is that Jenkins had a rough spring. He had a hard time staying on his feet, fighting for position and often - very often -- was on the ground after the play. And this was in non-contact practices.

On draft day, GM Trent Baalke acknowledged that Jenkins needed to hit the weight room, and that need for improved strength was evident. To his credit, Jenkins didn't have any of the ticky tacky injuries that often befall wide receivers, especially young ones, in the offseason. And he continued to fight throughout the spring sessions. It will be interesting to look for progress from him when the pads come on in training camp.

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4.) Davis and Delanie Walker are the top two tight ends. But there's a nice battle behind them among blocking specialist Nate Byham, who is coming back from a torn ACL, Konrad Reuland and the dark horse of the bunch, Kyle Nelson.

Reuland has picked up where he left off in the 2011 training camp insofar as catching everything thrown in his direction. I've nicknamed him "The Garbage Man" for his gritty ability to scoop up even the ugliest throws. Nelson, meanwhile, seems to be a nice blocker-pass catcher hybrid. He's more athletic than Reuland, and he stood out with a few nice catches in recent practices. He also has added value as a backup long-snapper.

(The 49ers today released another longsnapper, Ryan Pontbriand. He and Brian Jennings had been taking all of the snaps in spring drills, an indication that Jennings' job is safe.)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that Byham didn't appear to be at full strength. He looked much better in recent days, and it may be that he is adjusting to the bulky brace that's protecting his left knee.

5.) It's hard to see anyone displacing Alex Boone at right guard. For one, Boone has been a man on mission to win a starting spot since he arrived in 2009. He's embraced his new position and has directed his razor-sharp focus to mastering it.

There's also a practical matter. He's never played guard before, he must develop cohesion with tackle Anthony Davis and center Jonathan Goodwin, and he needs all the practice reps he can handle. With that in mind, it's unlikely the 49ers will platoon other potential right guards - Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney - in with the first-string unit during training camp.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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