49ers minicamp: Sights, sounds and scrutiny

The first thing you notice about the 2007 49ers at the team's May minicamp is that they're - in a word - better. At virtually every position. This year, finally, it's going to take good - and only good - NFL players to make it with the Niners, and there's a lot of them running around with the team this weekend. Here are our observations and insights on the action taking place at team headquarters.

--- It's no exaggeration. The 49ers have improved their roster depth so much during the offseason that there is going to be a few players lopped off in the final cut come September that would have been roster mainstays even last season - and quite possibly starting talent on the 2004 and 2005 rosters. Mike Nolan talks over and over again about pushing out the bottom of the roster, but this team really has put that approach into effect.

--- Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson have been going up against each other virtually since the day both were selected in the first round of last year's draft. But Saturday's morning team drills was a classic confrontation. Davis was faced-up with Lawson during pass-rushing drills, and the lithe linebacker just couldn't seem to get around the muscle-bound tight end. Finally, Lawson got so frustrated that he pulled off his jersey and threw it at Davis' feet. It seems that Lawson felt Davis was doing so much holding on his jersey that he might as well have it.

--- Not so, said Davis. "Well, he threw it down and said I was grabbing, but I wasn't really grabbing," Davis said. "I think he was a little mad because I beat him in pass protection. It was no biggie. He just got mad because I beat him."

--- Quite an impressive chest, by the way, that Lawson revealed without his jersey. He has put on a little more defined muscle on an upper body that already was pretty well chiseled to begin with. And he can use the extra muscle when he brings the heat this year on passing downs.

--- Lawson is one of several San Francisco youngsters who has dedicated himself to getting better and being the best he can be. Niners personnel chief Scot McCloughan - who says Lawson is destined to be, at the very least, a good NFL player - recently relayed a story of how he was at the team facility one Friday night and, when looking out onto the practice field, saw Lawson working on his coverage drops in the dark. This is one guy who definitely wants it.

--- The 49ers are moving around Davis and shifting him in a multitude of formations to create mismatches with the powerful speedster. That includes putting him in the slot, where opposing defenses will have to decide whether to use a linebacker, safety or cornerback to cover him. That ought to be fun. Davis was a raw product last season as a rookie, but the rough edges of his game are looking a lot smoother.

--- One of the new sounds that can't be missed at 49ers practices is the bellowing roar of first-year defensive line coach Jim Tomsula cajoling his forces to higher performance. That's quite a change over Tomsula's predecessor, and it seems to be making an impression on all the young players the team has at the position.

--- That includes a quartet of nose tackle possibilities, a group that was fortified by the offseason additions of free-agent Aubrayo Franklin and rookie fourth-round draft pick Joe Cohen. They join incumbents Isaac Sopoaga and Ronnie Fields to give the 49ers some good beef on the hoof in the defensive interior, where Franklin - the free-agent addition from Baltimore - appears to have taken the lead for the starting role.

--- "I have known him for a while," Nolan said of Franklin, whom he coached two seasons in Baltimore when both were with the Ravens. "He has matured. He is better now than he was when I left him, no question. I had him for his first two years in the league, then Rex Ryan had him for the next two. He can go to the ball and he has very good initial quickness. He understands blocking schemes well and he is a good tough guy. Aubrayo is a good player and he is going to help us inside."

--- Frank Gore and running backs coach Bishop Harris seem almost linked together. On Friday, during team drills, they were off on the edge of a separate field, with Harris flipping the ball at Gore at different angles while Gore ran toward him. Saturday, they were in deep conversation on the sidelines, oblivious to the action taking place on the field. There is a real connection there, and to say Gore has become the coach's pet would be something of an understatement.

--- The Damane Duckett experiment - moving him from the defensive line to offensive tackle - is intriguing, but it's going to take a lot of work.

--- Nate Clements looks to be all that at cornerback. He already has made it clear that he can stick to any receiver on the San Francisco roster. Well, maybe that's not fair, because potential No. 1 wideout Darrell Jackson isn't taking part in this minicamp as he nurses his toe injury. Clements can open his hips in a millisecond to break on the ball, and he flies to it once it's in the air. The 49ers aren't going to have to worry about his side of the field a whole lot for a while.

--- Clements also has been fielding punts during minicamp, along with Brandon Williams and Arnaz Battle, who shared the duty last year until Williams assumed the role with mixed results. Don't expect to see Clements doing any of that once the games start, but it's interesting the team has him back there instead of auditioning a lot of receiver types like it has in the past.

--- Williams looks like a gnat out there as he weaves in and out of traffic, but he is finding a way to get open and he's catching everything consistently. With the team's sudden wealth at receiver, it would seem Williams' roster spot is in jeopardy this summer, particularly since he failed to distinguish himself as a returner as a rookie last year - the primary reason he was drafted in the third round.

--- One theory of thought has Battle - last year's leading receiver among wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions - moving into the No. 3 receiver role this year while Jackson and Ashley Lelie take over as the starters. Then Battle could be fresh enough to take over as the team's primary punt returner, which he has done quite well in his career and also last year, when he averaged 15 yards on six early-season returns.

--- But after getting a gander of Lelie's act this weekend, we're not so sure anybody should be giving away Battle's starting role to the newcomer. Lelie hurt his left quad early in the first day, then limped around the rest of minicamp, looking pretty fragile and not taking part in much interaction with his new teammates.

--- The other new face factoring into the picture at receiver is third-round pick Jason Hill, who ran some crisp patterns but showed a propensity for the dropsies. He pretty much has looked like the rookie he is so far, but there's some talent there.

--- Marcus Hudson and fourth-round draft pick Dashon Goldson look like the same player. Both are tall, rangy types who can play both safety and cornerback. Hudson, one of the rawest of San Francisco's rookies last year, is displaying considerable improvement. But Goldson has caught everybody's eyes this weekend and could give Hudson a run for his roster spot. In fact, in a suddenly crowded secondary, those two players may be competing for the same roster spot.

--- Like Michael Robinson as a rookie last year, sixth-round running back Michael Clayton is being showcased in minicamp and is getting extra repetitions in the backfield. The guy looks like The Hulk and runs like Bambi, slicing through holes decisively. He has been one of the more impressive youngsters in minicamp.

--- Jay Moore is another impressive youngster who passes the eye test. He looks quite well assembled at 6-foot-4 and 274 pounds without even trace evidence of fat. Even more impressively, he moved very well on the right edge, where he could provide some real competition for Tully Banta-Cain without having to slim down 10 or so pounds like some thought he might have to.

--- Are Moore and Banta-Cain really linebackers or defensive ends? You never really can tell - and that's the beauty of the 3-4 scheme and what each of them can do in it.

--- He goes a bit unnoticed with all the flash that's currently going on around him, but Brandon Moore is quietly becoming a centerpiece of the San Francisco defense.

--- Adam Snyder clearly looks like the 49ers' best offensive tackle right now, particularly with Jonas Jennings on the sidelines. The power and quickness with which Snyder drives off the ball is impressive. He's simply a natural. With David Baas next to him on the left side - Larry Allen is excused from minicamp for personal reasons - the 49ers could do a lot worse for backups. That pair next to each other is looking awfully good for seasons down the road.

--- Now that he's signed on as the 49ers' punter for life, Andy Lee is happily banging and booming away, with the ball exploding off his foot with a lot of "big" kicks as they call them - deep, high and hanging. His first punt of minicamp traveled some 80 yards with the wind at his back Friday - and that wind was working in his favor again Saturday.


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