Eight training-camp practices are in the books. Here are some observations about the 49ers as they get set for their first exhibition game, against Week 3 opponent Minnesota, on Friday.
1.) Justin Smith has become the 49ers' Indispensable Man, the one player the team can't afford to lose. First, he looks like he did in January when he was throwing New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod aside as if Bushrod weighed 132 pounds. The defensive-line play sets the tone for the rest of the 49ers' sterling unit, and Smith sets the tone for the defensive line. We knew that already, of course. What's different is that he appears to be taking a bigger leadership role than he has in previous seasons. The 11-year veteran understands that the 49ers' window is wide open right now, and he is rallying his troops to seize the day.
2.) Perrish Cox is building on his impressive spring practices and appears more and more likely to be the sole newcomer to make an impact on the 49ers' defense this year. Cox has been playing a lot at nickel, where his aggressive style and hard hitting are put to good use. But he also showed nice speed as a cornerback Saturday in keeping pace with Ted Ginn and knocking away a deep pass down the sideline. Ginn probably isn't up to full speed after a long return from a January leg injury. But he's close, and that play only gave more confidence to Cox, who was the standout at Saturday's physical practice.
3.) The 49ers are going to have to make some very difficult decisions on the defensive line. Last year, they kept seven linemen - a big number for a 3-4 defense. It's only logical that roster space needed at running back and wide receiver this year would be taken from that unit. But who goes? All of last year's linemen are back, and undrafted rookie Tony Jerod-Eddie also shows promise. The 49ers want those players to be able to play both defensive end and nose tackle as top backup Ricky Jean Francois does. I figured that because Ian Williams is mostly a nose tackle, he might be the most at risk. Then Williams goes and has a terrific practice on Saturday. Decisions, decisions.
4.) The undrafted players who have jumped out so far include Jerod-Eddie, receiver Nathan Palmer and safety Michael Thomas. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coached Thomas in 2010, and on more than one occasion Fangio has noted how smart Thomas is. He plays both safety and nickel back, which gives him versatility. Barring injury, it's hard to see Thomas make the 53-man squad this year. But the practice squad is a definite possibility.
5.) I agree with the 49ers brass that Michael Crabtree's seven-practice absence is no big deal ... if he returns soon. Because he was here for most of the spring (he did skip a couple of practices to head to Cabo San Lucas, but who's counting?), he got in more offseason work with Alex Smith than in any previous offseason. A week away from practice won't mar what has been a very good offseason in terms of building chemistry and trust. Crabtree was weaving in and out of cones Saturday and otherwise doing a lot of change-of-direction work with strength coach Mark Uyeyama. That is, it looks like he's very close to returning to practice. It could happen today, in fact.
-- Matt Barrows