Camp Impressions-San Francisco 49ers

Will the head coaching change prove to be the right decision? Will the offense and defense show significant improvement this season? We're taking a look at these issues and more as well as taking a look inside 49ers' camp.

NAPA, Ca.-- Here's an overview from both sides of the ball from after reviewing the two-day practices with the Oakland Raiders.


•  It's become abundantly clear that Shaun Hill is going to be the starter at this position. What he does best is make the routine throw accurately. This is something Alex Smith has trouble doing. While Smith clearly has the stronger arm, he generally unable to put a string of good passes together consistently. This has been a problem since he was drafted. While excuses have been made as to why he hasn't been a good quarterback, there are no excuses for his inconsistent mechanics.

Another problem that Smith has is he holds on to the ball ball way too long. For the past four years I've been coming to 49er training camp, this trait has shown up each time. Smith, for being as smart as he is intellectually, can't seem to process information quickly enough on the go.

• Hill rarely is asked to throw the ball deep. He's basically a 20-yard and in passer. What you'll see is receivers being asked to run after the catch. But the key here is the accuracy. This is a team that will have a run-first mentality, but when they pass, a lot of it will be off of run-action.

Running Back

• There are two big keys for this offense to take off this season--accuracy at quarterback and the further development running game. Veteran offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will call the plays and his scheme is power rushing based. For it to work, teams have to at least respect the passing game.

Frank Gore is pretty much going to be the engine for Raye's scheme. A healthy Gore could do wonders in Raye's offense and so far, he is. While Raye has been criticized in the past for being vanilla, his offenses have mostly produced good rushing numbers (see Eric Dickerson in 1983-1984, James Wilder in 1985, Stephen Davis in 2001, and LaMont Jordan in 2005 for examples). Gore is the biggest key for this offense to have a chance to be decent.

Head coach Mike Singletary chose Raye because of his success with power rushing offenses. Singletary wants to control the clock on offense and win with defense.

• Rookie Glen Coffee is an inside power runner. But what of the most impressive traits he has is his ability to make yards after contact. He also is able to get to the second level on some runs.

"I think what he has is vision and he has the ability to get fast in the hole. I don't know that in a footrace that he would run that fast, but he has instincts and [a] second-level spurt that is a little bit unusual, uncanny," Raye said after Wednesday's morning practice.

The obvious issue with Coffee is that he runs a bit too high and is a target for defenders to knock down at the point of attack. If Coffee could get his pad level down more consistently, he'll break off more long runs.

• A player that could contribute in the future is rookie Kory Sheets, who has a bit more speed than Coffee. With Thomas Clayton (knee-IR) out for the season, Sheets gives the team some badly needed speed at the position.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

• As has been the case in recent years, this current group of receivers is rather average. It would certainly help if first-round pick Michael Crabtree would sign a contract, but without him, there's no one at that position that commands a double team or that will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

• The one guy that continues to stand out is second-year pro Josh Morgan. While he's not flashy, he's physical and will catch what's thrown to him.

• Veteran Isaac Bruce still runs well for his age. He consistently beat Raider defenders down field during the two days of practices. But lets face it, he's still a possession receiver at this point in his career.

• One player to keep an eye on at this position is second-year pro Dominique Zeigler. You can clearly see veteran receivers coach Jerry Sullivan has worked with him. Zeigler does a nice job of catching the ball away from his body. He also has very good size.

• Because this is going to be an intermediate to short passing game, the tight end should be involved more than last season under Mike Martz. Vernon Davis will be much more than a blocker in Raye's scheme.

Offensive Line

• This group isn't the most athletic, but they are mostly solid and strong. In Raye's power rushing scheme, the linemen will be asked to be physical up front and they have the guys to do it.

• Finally finding a home for veteran Adam Snyder should pay off. Snyder has played at left tackle, guard, and right tackle over his four years of play. Snyder may not have the feet to play left tackle, but he's clearly strong enough to play the right side. LT Joe Staley, Snyder, and LG David Baas should fit in well with the revamped offensive philosophy to run the ball more. The wildcard here is second-year G Chilo Rachal, who started six games as a rookie.

Defensive Line

• The good thing here is veteran DE Justin Smith will be lined up mostly at end. Last year, Smith was moved all over the place. Once they get back third-year DE Ray McDonald from his ACL injury, depth shouldn't be an issue. Between Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, McDonald, and 2008 first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, they should have a good rotation.

• NT Aubrayo Franklin has always had the talent to make an impact and when healthy, he's capable of doing so. Former head coach Mike Nolan brought him to be the center piece of the front-three. Nolan spoke highly of Franklin after coaching him with the Baltimore Ravens.


• Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky must find a way to muster an improved pass rush. This defense only posted a pedestrian 30 sacks in 2008. The problem is that other than OLB Parys Haralson, San Francisco doesn't really have someone on the other side who can rush the passer. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson has been a major disappointment in that area. In a 3-4 scheme, the pass rush is supposed to primarily come from the outside linebackers, so they must find someone else to help Haralson.

•  Inside, they're very strong with perhaps the league's best ILB in Patrick Willis. Veteran Takeo Spikes was on the field last season for roughly 72 percent of the defensive snaps. But with veteran ILB Jeff Ulbrich and rookie Scott McKillop behind them, there's no reason for Spikes to wear down.

Defensive Backs

• The cornerback group is mostly the same except for Walt Harris (knee-IR) who is out for the season. Veteran Dre' Bly is a risk taker and will make big plays, but he'll give up some as well. Expect offenses to go after Bly as Nate Clements, who will line up opposite him, is still one of the better cover players at his position.

A key to this defense handling passing situations is how veteran Shawntae Spencer handles the nickel role. Spencer is coming back from ACL surgery and at one point in his career, he was one of the fastest cornerbacks in the league.

• FS Dashon Goldson has shown during practice in previous seasons that he's capable of making big plays. However, that trait has rarely shown up during games. According to a league source, Goldson only participated in just short of 20 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Now he'll be asked to be on the field for at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps.

What's noticeable about Goldson is his size (6-2, 200). Goldson and SS Michael Lewis have to be one of the biggest safety tandems in the league. But coverage has been an issue at both safety positions the past few seasons. One of the biggest reasons why the Philadelphia Eagles declined to re-sign Lewis after the 2006 season was because he lacked quality cover skills.

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