With so much on the line, especially for the fringe guys of the roster, you can bet that Singletary and his assistants will get the absolute best from everybody during training camp. Sure, this year we won't have the headline-grabbing drama of a quarterback competition, but I for one am grateful for that. It's really a distraction for the players and coaches to be asked the same questions about the same two players over and over again. There are still plenty of battles going on if you pay attention, they all involve guys who will have important roles on the team, and for the participants, who wins and who loses will mean everything.
It's important to note what defines a "training camp battle," by the way. For example, while technically David Baas is competing with Mike Iupati for the starting left guard job and Adam Snyder is trying to hold off Anthony Davis at right tackle, they don't really qualify as training camp battles in my mind. In both cases the rookies were drafted specifically to replace the veterans as starters. It's not really a competition because at this point there is nothing Baas or Snyder can do about their situations. How long they start isn't about them, it's about the rooks. They'll get the nod from coaches when they're ready, it's that simple. It's not a matter of "if" with them, but "when."
Here's a look at the top six training camp battles, from my view. We might as well line these guys up in the "Nutcracker" and settle it right then and there.
Regular 2009 starter: Nate Clements
2010 Challenger: Tarell Brown
How We Got Here: Clements, a Pro-Bowler in 2004 back when he was with Buffalo, had by far the worst season of his career in 2009. He got benched after consecutive poor games against Atlanta and Houston (where he had to face two of the best receivers in the league in the Falcons' Roddy White and the Texans' Andre Johnson) and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury the next week at Indianapolis while making an ill-fated cameo appearance as the punt returner. There were whispers that he'd lost a step and now that he's turned 30 and is entering his tenth season in the league, Clements' critics will be watching him even closer. One could argue that he didn't help his cause by sitting out all of the team's voluntary OTA's, choosing to work with a private trainer in Arizona instead, but he didn't look too rusty during minicamp.
Brown, a 5th-round pick out of Texas in 2007, started four games in Clements' place and was up-and-down before giving way to veteran Dre' Bly. He began last season, interestingly enough, in the mix for the left corner job, as he was competing with Bly and Shawntae Spencer for that spot, only to be felled early in camp with a toe injury. Spencer wound up winning the job and played quite well. The coaches are quite high on Brown and he signed a contract extension late in the year, but his physique and playing style seems more suited for a nickel corner.
The edge: Clements. He's on the books for $6 million this year. It's very doubtful the team will be comfortable paying him that to be a backup. Even if he's not as fast as he used to be, Clements is still the superior tackler, and Singletary will value his contributions to the run defense and his skill in not allowing 12-yard gains to turn into 60-yard touchdowns. If Brown is clearly the superior player in camp, then I would expect Clements to be cut.
BACKUP RUNNING BACK
2009 Backup: Glen Coffee
2010 Challenger: Anthony Dixon
How we got here: Coffee was drafted in third round last year out of Alabama after rushing for 1,383 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns as a junior with the Crimson Tide. With the 49ers though, he was largely a disappointment, averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per carry in 83 attempts. He was particularly unimpressive during three starts in relief of an injured Frank Gore early in the season and saw scant action the rest of the way. Coaches weren't confident of his ability to pick up blitzers in the passing game and he just didn't show enough agility or burst to justify being on the field.
Dixon, a sixth round draft pick out of Mississippi State, is the Bulldogs' all-time leader in carries, yards and rushing touchdowns. He also led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,391 yards, adding 12 scores. At 233 pounds, he's built like a power back, but didn't necessarily always run that way in college. Running backs coach Tom Rathman has already been on him plenty about running lower, not dancing behind the line of scrimmage – Dixon won't beat too many defenders to the corner at this level – and on not taking any false steps. The rookie looked a bit awkward early in OTAs, but was showing more explosiveness by the time minicamp rolled around and seemed to be adapting to the one-cut-and-go running style that's being demanded of him.
The edge: Coffee. He's put on about 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season to bulk up to 220, with the theory being that if he can't elude anyone in the pros than his only chance to succeed is by running over them. Time will tell how that'll work out, but what is certain is that Coffee's sharpened up his receiving and blocking skills considerably and looked quite comfortable doing both in camps. He's far ahead in both respects than Dixon and because of that he'll get the first shot this year to be Gore's understudy.
2009 Starter: Moran Norris
2010 Challenger: Brit Miller
How we got here: Norris was recruited back to San Francisco last season and everyone thought it'd be a great fit. Not only is he a close personal friend of Gore, but he was very effective as a lead blocker for his bud during the 2006 season. The reunion didn't work out well at all, however, as Norris had, by all accounts, a very poor season. He struggled to adapt to Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye's offense, missed countless blocks, and his one-dimensionality hurt the Niners quite a bit, as pretty much every time he lined up, opposing defenses stacked the box assuming a run by Gore was in the offing. In most cases they were right and those plays went nowhere.
Miller, a converted linebacker, spent most of last season on the practice squad before being promoted to the roster late in the year. Though he's inexperienced at the fullback position, Miller is more athletic than he looks, nine years Norris' junior, and has some decent hands to boot, as he demonstrated during a preseason game versus Denver. He may not have quite Norris' "oomph" as a blocker, but he's a far more versatile player while also being one of the better special teamers on the roster. Singletary declared during minicamp that special teams will be more emphasized this year and that three or four guys will make the roster solely for their play on those units.
The edge: Miller. Just a guess, but I think the team is gonna take a chance on the youngster. I believe Singletary's sincerity about his special teams comments, so I just can't see Miller being cut. That doesn't mean, however, that I see the team keeping two fullbacks either. The Niners primarily go with two tight end formations anyway, and if Miller isn't doing the job as a lead blocker on the handful of plays he'd be called upon, then they can always use someone like Nate Byham as an H-Back. I also think the play-action pass would be far more effective with Miller than Norris and overall at this stage of their careers, he just brings more to the table than the veteran.
2009 Starter: Arnaz Battle
How we got here: Let's face it, the return game – especially punt returns – was abysmal last season. The team averaged a pathetic 4.4 yards per punt return, which was dead last in the league, while also dropping an NFL-worst eight fumbles. Quite a combination. Singletary made upgrading the return game his top priority besides beefing up the offensive line. Battle is gone, having signed a free agent deal with Pittsburgh. In his place are three candidates; Ginn, a former first round pick of the Dolphins that the Niners traded a fifth-rounder for this past offseason; receiver Willams, a sixth-rounder out of Arizona State who was Second Team All-Pac 10 as a punt returner in 2009; and Vann, an undrafted rookie from Florida A&M who holds several NCAA records as a return man.
The edge: Williams. Ginn is one of the best kick returners in the league, but he doesn't seem very comfortable with punts. He's too tentative, too worried about taking a big hit. During OTAs he didn't look too enthusiastic during drills and received a stern lecture from Singletary. He was better in minicamp. Vann started out okay, but got progressively worse as practices wore on. The more balls he dropped, the more it got into his head. It turns out that quite a few of his big returns in college came after he scooped the ball up on a bounce. That won't work in the NFL. Williams has the right combination of size and skill for the job, the experience of playing in a respectable conference in the Pac-10 and he's been the steadiest and most sure-handed of the three candidates so far from what I've seen.
BACKUP LEFT TACKLE
2009 Backup: Barry Sims
2010 Challenger: Alex Boone
How we got here: At this time last year Sims' place on the roster was in question, but the then-34-year old surprised his critics by not only making the team but by thriving at left tackle while Joe Staley missed seven games with a knee injury. He was every bit Staley's equal as a pass blocker, while not being too much of a drop off in the running game either. After exploring the market, Sims re-signed with the Niners for one more season mainly due to his comfort level here and the relationships he's built with his linemates.
Boone, an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State last season, spent 2009 on the practice squad. Though he had lots of ability, most teams were scared off by his well-publicized off-field issues. Still struggling with maturity, he came to camp in woeful shape and only his potential, not his practice habits, earned him a ticket on the scout team. The light finally turned on for him this off-season though and Boone has completely remade his body in the off-season. He looks like a completely different guy. All the blubber he's shed has enabled him to regain the quickness in his feet and his lateral mobility was in full display during minicamp, where he performed quite well.
The edge: Sims. Even though Sims and Boone seem to have switched bodies over the span of a few months, I expect the veteran will kick it into gear for training camp now that he knows he's got a legit challenger gunning for his job. Boone still has another season of practice squad eligibility and I'm guessing the coaches will try to stash him there for one more year before giving him a roster spot in 2011. Sims will have to show he's completely lost it to not make the team.
THIRD TIGHT END
2009 Third tight end: None
2010 Challengers: Nate Byham, Tony Curtis, J.J. Finley
How we got here: Bear Pascoe, a sixth-round pick out of Fresno State in 2009, was the star of OTAs. A big lug who steamrolled everyone in his path and gracefully ran patterns down the seam, we thought this guy was headed for big things. Two months later he was cut. Couldn't catch a ball in practice, couldn't handle Tight Ends Coach Pete Hoener's "tough love" approach, couldn't block a stiff breeze. The decision was made to go with only two tight ends on the roster.
Nate Byham, this year's sixth-round pick from Pitt, was labeled as the best blocking tight end of his draft class. He didn't stand out during OTAs, but to his credit he knows what his strengths are and has spoken enthusiastically about his passion for laying someone out. Hoener will ride him hard during camp, just as he did Pascoe. Will Byham be mentally strong enough to take it number one and actually absorb his coach's instructions? Based on what little we know about his background, I would say yes.
Curtis spent the first three years of his career with the Cowboys before hooking on with Baltimore in 2009. His latest stop brings him to San Francisco, and he's got a legit shot to stick here, provided he can learn the offense quickly enough and he can convince the coaches that he's got the best mix of blocking and receiving skills of the three candidates, which I believe he does.
Finley looks like the long shot here, but don't write him off too quickly. He's the only one of the three with experience in Raye's offense, having been on the practice squad last year (he "won" last year's battle with Pascoe in that respect). He's also, similar to Miller, underrated athletically and looked like the smoothest route-runner of the three hopefuls, and the one with the best hands. He got a ton of reps during OTAs.
The Edge: Byham. I believe the coaches are looking for Byham to win the job, just like they were looking for Pascoe to win it last year. He might be the poorest receiver of the three, but the Niners aren't worried about that from a third tight end. If Byham can prove his draft hype as a blocker was accurate, he should win the job. And hey, just in case nobody impresses, there's always rookie tackle Anthony Davis, who lined up at tight end during some goal line plays during minicamp.