The San Francisco 49ers concluded their three-day mandatory minicamp Thursday afternoon with an abbreviated practice lasting about an hour. There's little question the absences of Vernon Davis and Alex Boone were the big stories of the week - as holdouts usually are at this point in the offseason - but there were some other interesting developments from the practice field at 4949 Centennial.
Following the team's abbreviated practice Thursday, Jim Harbaugh issued his usual effusive praise of his players. He nearly named the entire roster when asked about guys that stood out, but there were some notable names mentioned. He also noted a record 59 players received perfect attendance shirts and certificates, a record since becoming head coach in 2011.
"Outstanding. Really pleased," Harbaugh said. "Thought our players are getting better and better at multiple positions on this team. Coming out of this feeling really good, that we improved as a football team this week, over the nine weeks, offseason training. We stayed pretty much completely healthy, coming out of here with no serious injuries. With no ‘keep them out very long' injuries. And I feel good about that, both those things."
—The first name Harbaugh listed as a standout was LaMichael James, who will have significantly more competition at running back this season than last with the additions of rookie Carlos Hyde and the return of Marcus Lattimore.
The 49ers also brought in Bruce Ellington, who could potentially push James for his job as a returner of both kickoffs and punts. James has been the subject of trade rumors all offseason and hasn't shied away from expressing himself on social media about his standing with the team.
But overall, James backed up Harbaugh's praise during the week. He looked very solid during special teams drills, especially handling punts when the wind picked up. James averaged nearly 11 yards per punt return last season after doing it sparingly at best while at Oregon. With the 49ers' loaded backfield, James will certainly be a player to watch during training camp. It's also worth keeping in mind Harbaugh has never had a problem with keeping players solely for their work on special teams, where James has distanced himself from the competition as a returner.
It was a mixed bag for McDonald, who had a rough first day with too many dropped passes before picking it up as the week went along. The second-year player won't be expected to replace Davis and his 13 touchdown catches from last season, but he will be expected to become a viable threat in the passing game after making just eight receptions his rookie year. (More on McDonald later this week).
—Harbaugh also went on to talk about the offensive line that was missing two starters on the right side. Tackle Anthony Davis has missed just about all of the offseason program while recovering from shoulder surgery, allowing Jonathan Martin to get first-team reps at his position during minicamp.
Replacing Boone at right guard was Joe Looney, who appears to be building on the momentum created by playing well during his first and only action last season against the St. Louis Rams when Boone was moved to tackle following an injury to Joe Staley.
And considering the lack of playing time Looney since being drafted in the fourth round in 2012, he has a lot to gain this offseason if Boone continues to hold out. If he's able to repeat his production he showed against the Rams' talented defensive front, the 49ers will feel more and more comfortable standing pat against Boone's demands for a new contract.
—Michael Wilhoite remains the favorite to start alongside Patrick Willis while NaVorro Bowman continues to rehab his knee after tearing two ligaments in the conference title game, but there was a revolving door at inside linebacker working with the first team.
Wilhoite, Chris Borland and Nick Moody all received first-team reps next to Willis during both seven-on-sevens and all 22s. For now, Wilhoite looks like the safe bet to start Week 1, but don't be surprised if the rookie Borland gives him all he can handle for the job during training camp. Borland has continued to impress despite his lack of ideal size and physical gifts. San Francisco wouldn't have drafted him in the third round if they didn't think he could make an impact at some point if given the opportunity.
—There will be a ton of competition at wide receiver in training camp and the 49ers will likely have to part ways with one or two pretty good players that will find roster spots elsewhere. Barring anything completely unforeseen, it's looking like Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington will stick on the 53 behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. But there's far less certainty when it comes to Brandon Lloyd and Kassim Osgood.
Lloyd might have been the 49ers' most consistent receiver during the offseason program despite being out of football last year. Conversely, Osgood remains one of the team's best special teamers but would have a very hard time getting on the field with the offense. The decision on those two players could have a big impact on other "special teams aces" like Bubba Ventrone and Blake Costanzo. For now, having these tough decisions is a good problem to have.
—Harbaugh went out of his way a few different times this week to mentioned the defensive line and the depth the team has built. One player that could have key role this year is Tank Carradine, who had scar tissue removed from his knee this offseason after being shelved for all of 2013.
Carradine has gained weight (good weight) since coming into the program and finally looks healthy after being unable to practice for all but a few weeks last fall. With Justin Smith turning 35 in September, San Francisco might be in line to rotate him out even less than 2013, when he played 79 percent of the snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Carradine will be in the mix with Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs and Quinton Dial to battle in camp next month.
Those are some of the notable story lines from my notepad this week. The 49ers will have over a month off before the start of training camp. In the meantime, they are allowed to workout at the facility but cannot be advised by the coaching or conditioning staffs.
Otherwise, the ribbon cutting ceremony for Levi's Stadium is tentatively scheduled for July 17. Rookies will be reporting for camp July 16, Harbaugh said. Veterans and quarterbacks come July 18 and reporting day for training camp will be July 23. The first practice will be the 24th and the first practice with pads will be the 26th.
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