Camp Impressions-San Francisco 49ers

Santa Clara, CA--Is this the year Alex Smith takes hold of the quarterback position?...How will Vernon Davis be used in Mike Martz's offensive scheme?...Will Justin Smith be an impact player on defense?...How is the free safety job shaping up?..Those stories and a lot more including insider notes and analysis inside...

The San Francisco 49ers play in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL so there's a good opportunity for the team to take a significant step in their development.

Here's an overview from the offensive and defensive side of the ball after reviewing practices on Monday and Wednesday along with some selected insider notes.


• When head coach Mike Nolan said last week that the quarterback competition was between the three veterans on the roster, it seems he was telling the truth.

Alex Smith, while he clearly has the strongest arm of the three, still doesn't seem totally comfortable in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's timing based scheme.

Smith does a little too much thinking out there and when things break down, he doesn't have the improvisational ability to make a play. He seems almost robotic in his movements.

But when things go right, he can make throws that the other two signal callers can't deliver.

Smith was exceptional during a two-minute drill in Monday night's scrimmage against the Oakland Raiders. He seems to have a sense of urgency in his play--something that he hasn't always displayed in the past.

The bottom line is Smith needs more time in the new scheme (his fourth scheme in four years) and he's a bit away from being proficient in it.

As pointed out several weeks ago, Smith had his contract adjusted back in March and has three years left.

Smith's cap number is over $12 million for 2009 so unless he plays significantly better this season, he'll be playing elsewhere in the future.

•  J.T. O'Sullivan's experience in Martz's offense last year with the Detroit Lions shows on the field.

O'Sullivan seems much more comfortable than Smith and while he doesn't have a very strong arm, he knows where to go with the football. He also seems to have very good command and seems to be a calming influence for the younger players on offense.

•  Shaun Hill played well last year in limited playing time but he wasn't asked to throw the ball deep much. There's nothing that Hill does that's outstanding and while Nolan says he's in the mix for the top job, he seems destined to be a backup with this team.

Running Back

• Just watching this scheme over the years, the backs will catch the ball so it won't come to a surprise that Frank Gore could set a career high in touches.

Gore looks fluid running the ball and runs with great balance and he always runs with good pad level.

• DeShaun Foster adds value to Martz's offense because he can catch the ball. He has almost no explosiveness but he's a smart player who can be effective in specific role.

If needed, he could take some of the third-down load from Gore.

• Thomas Clayton clearly has the most speed at the position but is a long shot to make the team as long as Michael Robinson is back before the regular season starts.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

• Watching receivers coach/senior assistant Jerry Sullivan, who is arguably the best receivers coach in the NFL, work with his group of receivers has been one of the best parts of this training camp tour.

Sullivan is a master teacher who commands respect from his players.

If his players have talent and have a desire to get better, Sullivan will bring it out of them.

In a league that continues to cut down practice time and on the field coaching, Sullivan still is teaching all the time.

Bryant Johnson unfortunately is nursing a hamstring injury but he runs well for his size (around 6'2").

Johnson probably isn't a prototype No. 1 receiver but he can make plays down field. 

Isaac Bruce is clearly nearing the end of his career but he's had several years in Martz's scheme so he'll be able to help whoever starts at quarterback.

Arnaz Battle is the perfect possession/No. 3 receiver in this offense. He has good hands and has decent short area quickness.

• Rookie Josh Morgan has decent size and strong hands but he lacks suddenness in his movement.

Morgan looked good in early workouts but he'll have to show he can beat coverage consistently.

• There are two noticeable things about this group of receivers.

While the group is much deeper than in year's past, none of them have great speed or the ability to make big plays consistently. With that said, it will be interesting to see how Martz calls plays this season.

• It will be very interesting to see how Martz uses his two very athletic tight ends.

While the tight ends haven't done much in Martz's system over the years, he really hasn't had much to work with--until now.

The sense I get from watching practices this week is Vernon Davis will rarely line up in the same place. That will give the defense something to think about all the time.

Davis is a matchup nightmare for any linebacker or defensive back.

If Martz sticks to what looks to be a three-receiver/two-tight end scheme, Davis will get single coverage almost all the time.

Delanie Walker, who also is athletic for a player at his position, could also put pressure on defenses.

Offensive Line

• The move of Jonas Jennings from left to right tackle could prove to be a smart decision.

Jennings, who has short arms, seemed out of place on the left side.

• Moving Joe Staley from right to left tackle seems to be the correct move.

The decision last year to start him on the right side may have been so they could ease him in.

Staley showed that he's ready to protect the right handed quarterback's blind side.

• The absence of RG David Baas was somewhat noticeable. Baas has the strength to push the pile in the running game. Baas is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season but will likely miss all of the pre-season after suffering a torn biceps in April.

Defensive Line

• Watching Justin Smith run and move around makes you believe he's going to be a great fit in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme. Expect defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to mix up his fronts so don't expect Smith to play with his hand down unless they're in a 4-3 look.

Smith is a high-effort player who never takes a play off. He'll set a good example for their younger players.

• Moving Isaac Sopoaga to end from the nose should prove to be a wise move. The fifth-year player is a good run stopper and stopping the run is what's expected by a 3-4 end.

• First-round pick Kentwan Balmer adds badly needed athleticism to their scheme. Balmer may not be a true 3-4 end but because they'll mix up their fronts, he could make an impact in a backup role.


• It will be very interesting to see if Brandon Moore will take snaps away from veteran ILB Jeff Ulbrich. While Ulbrich is one of the leaders of their defense, he lacks the playmaking ability of Moore.

•  In just his second year, Patrick Willis is amongst the best inside linebacker's in the game. Willis plays down hill all the time and never seems to be out of place.

• Between OLBs Manny Lawson, Tully Banta-Cain, Parys Haralson, and Justin Smith, the pass rush should be improved.

Banta-Cain's weight seems to be down a little from last season.

Defensive Backs

• Nickel CB Shawntae Spencer, who has put together a very solid camp, looks to play with more confidence. He also hasn't given up many big plays. Spencer did a nice job of deflecting passes in Monday night's practice with the Raiders.

Spencer's role is important in the nickel defense since he plays outside and Walt Harris plays the slot receiver.

• The free safety job remains one of the most interesting camp battles. While Mark Roman has a small edge, second-year pro Dashon Goldson is pushing the veteran. Goldson has picked off a bunch of passes in team drills and looks to be the best playmaker of the two.

Will the coaches go with the experience with Roman or the younger and more talented Goldson?

That decision is perhaps the toughest one that remain on the defensive side of the ball.

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