What we're learning about 49ers during OBPTAs

As an assorted group of 49ers work their way through Organized By Players Team Activities this week at San Jose State University's Spartan Stadium, here are 10 things we are learning about the team as it functions during structured-but-informal sessions without any coaches around to provide leadership or direction.

Alex taking charge, taking ownership: You really have to appreciate Alex Smith sticking his chest out and sticking to his guns when a few reporters insisted on sitting in on the 49ers' first workout Monday. Smith first sent two San Jose State employees over to usher out the small group of observing media and, when that didn't work, sauntered over to do it himself. Smith, with a definite edge according to those who were there, made it clear that, "This workout is closed." And so it was. Smith is taking this role as Team Leader of the Spring to the hilt.

Alex the guardian: Most took Smith's stance as simply an indication he didn't want the distraction of media in the organized-but-unsanctioned workout, and he didn't want the team's first organized workout of the spring to be viewed – and judged – in public. But Smith's intentions probably went much deeper than that. He was also playing the role of Protector, considering he is one of the few 49ers with a copy of coach Jim Harbaugh's new playbook. The 49ers are practicing those plays during workouts this week. Who says Harbaugh agrees to having his playbook exposed on the field before he even has a chance to show it and teach it to all his players? Smith is smart enough to realize this. Surely, Smith must have some kind of approval from Harbaugh to be doing this, but the safest way to hedge bets is to not let anybody but San Francisco's players seeing these plays being actualized on the field.

Crabtree the hard worker: Clearing up any misconceptions about his work ethic upon his arrival at workouts on Monday, we can all now rest assured that enigmatic wide receiver Michael Crabtree is working hard to prepare for the season. Because he says so. Crabtree's work habits have come into question by his absence from workouts with Smith and other teammates so far this spring, but Crabtree assured he has been putting in the hours on his own. "I work out hard. I'm one of the hardest workers on the team," Crabtree said. "You can write that down – I work out hard, man. That's just what I do." So there. Everybody can now breathe easy. In fact, Crabtree works out so hard that his feet were too darn sore to take part in Tuesday's second on-field workouts.

Crabtree the loner: After all, Crabtree says he is much better working out on his own. He has actually been in the San Francisco Bay Area most of the past few months, he said, but has opted to work out on his own at an undisclosed South Bay hills location, with a few "college" quarterbacks throwing to him every now and then. "I can see the mountains from there," Crabtree said. "It's just me and the mountains."

Crabtree-QB cohesion: Well, sadly, that doesn't seem to be getting any better, at least if you believe Smith will again be San Francisco's starting quarterback this year. Crabtree let it be known he wasn't sold on that suggestion the moment he arrived in camp. When asked why he'd been absent from throwing sessions between Smith and other San Francisco wide receivers during the lockout, and it was implied that it would be beneficial for a supposed No. 1 receiver to establish offseason chemistry with his quarterback, Crabtree responded, "Who's the quarterback?" When Smith's name was shot back at him, Crabtree responded, "He's the quarterback? I'm just asking." Later, when it was noted that Harbaugh already has all but handed the QB job to Smith, Crabtree didn't necessarily go along with that premise. "I wish I could tell you that," he said. "I know that you're all scratching at it. I wish I could tell you who is going to be the quarterback. I don't know. I don't know. Whoever the quarterback is, I'm 100 percent down with it and I'm ready to go. That's it." Which was Crabtree's way of leaving us all still scratching at it.

Dedicated defenders: Though these workouts are primarily for offensive players to develop offensive plays, five defenders have been on hand for the "camp." It's not surprising to see Justin Smith leading the group, since the sturdy defensive lineman never has shied away from being a leader or putting in the work. Also on hand are defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald, linebacker Parys Haralson and safety Curtis Taylor. McDonald's appearance is particularly impressive, considering he's unsigned and will be a free agent when the lockout ends, and he's risking possible injury while not being under contract. Offensive linemen David Baas and Tony Wragge are in the same situation as McDonald, and while these workouts are about offense and a majority of the team's offensive players are taking part, Baas and Wragge are conspicuously absent.

Staley's emergence: Now in his fifth season with the team, offensive tackle Joe Staley continues to emerge as one of the team's front-and-center leaders. Not only is he taking a prominent role in the workouts, he also took part in contacting and rounding up the other offensive linemen while Smith took care of contacting other offensive players. Staley also is serving as host to rookie offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Michael Person, who both hail from the Midwest and are staying at Staley's home this week during the workouts.

Receivers looking settled: With Crabtree's appearance, San Francisco's receiver group is at least looking settled for the eventuality of when real practices actually begin – you know, the kind with coaches in charge. Morgan has been working out with Smith for months and appears ready to go. WRs Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn, Kevin Jurovich and sixth-round draft pick Ronald Johnson also are hand this week, with Johnson making an impression with his size, skills and commitment to making an impact right away. Dominique Zeigler also is on hand, but he's not taking part in drills while he continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered last November. It looks like there will be keen competition this year for the top two spots in the receiver rotation behind presumptive starters Crabtree and Morgan.

Double pleasure for tight ends: When Vernon Davis was asked what he likes most about San Francisco's new offensive playbook, the Pro Bowl tight end responded with a broad smile, "Tight-end friendly. I like that, and I'm sure the coaches are going to ad-lib a little bit and throw some more things in there for us, me and Delanie (Walker)." Walker, who also is on hand this week, echoed the same sentiments and is expecting an expanded role in the offense this year. "We haven't even opened up the playbook a lot," Walker said, "but it looks like it will be a lot of two tight-end sets."

Alex the coach: If it doesn't work out for Smith at quarterback – and it's easy to suggest it hasn't worked out for him there so far during his first six NFL seasons – he might always have a future as a coach. Several 49ers echoed how they've been impressed with the way Smith has guided players through the workout sessions just like a coach would. "He's the coach. He's Jim Harbaugh," Morgan said. "Then he's the wide receiver coach, then he's the quarterbacks coach… Then he's the lineman coach. He's got everything, man. He's like the player-coach on the field." And also before players even step on the field. Smith began this "camp" Monday at the whiteboard during a classroom session in which he explained plays and terminology to his teammates, who sat and watched while Smith was at the projector. "He really is showing a lot of leadership," Staley said. "He's done a great job handling everything," Davis said. "This is the Alex we need to see right here… someone who is taking his job serious. He wants to make sure all the guys around him are getting their job done." Said Morgan: "Yeah, Alex is in total control. I don't know why people don't believe that Alex is the leader that he is. He's a true leader. I'm like his assistant, but he's like the player-coach on the field. He's like the Bill Russell of our era."

Now, wouldn't that be something.


Niners Digest Top Stories