NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Michael Crabtree has been a major topic in the first week of the San Francisco 49ers' training camp.

Crabtree
Crabtree looks to be completely recovered from a torn Achilles he suffered in May, 2013. Crabtree returned in December after missing the first 11 games of the season. While he was productive, Crabtree wasn’t all the way back. However, he has been at full speed this summer and teammates have remarked how strong he looks.

San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman took it one step further Thursday. Roman thinks Crabtree, entering his sixth NFL season, is at his best.

“I’m saying he’s better than the old Michael Crabtree,” Roman said. “Why? Just physical conditioning, understanding of the game. I think he played the game last year under less-than-ideal circumstances, and had to adjust his game a little bit to account for that. So, think that maybe just brought a little bit even more experience to his game.”

Roman said Crabtree, who will be a free agent after the season and who the 49ers want to re-sign, is at the top of every aspect of his game.

“I just think he’s in better shape. But he’s playing strong, very quick, explosive,” Roman said. “Really driven to take care of all the little details on things, the technique things, and that’s what’s really stood out to me the most.”

Crabtree didn’t practice Thursday after departing practice early Wednesday. Roman said it does not appear to be serious.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
10:00
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The NFC West had three teams that won at least 10 games last season, two teams in the NFC Championship Game and a team that won the Super Bowl by 35 points.

Consequently, there is no lack of confidence about the 2014 season for the teams in this division. Three of them -- the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals -- can make a legitimate argument for winning the division title.

But until the 49ers or the Cardinals prove otherwise, the Seahawks are the clear favorites, not only to win the division crown but to return to the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks, however, realize the biggest obstacle to repeating as Super Bowl winners lies within their own division. The NFC West is widely regarded as the best division in the NFL. It's also the most physical division in the league, which means the division rivals tend to beat up on each other.

Here's how Seahawks reporter Terry Blount, St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson see each team finishing in 2014:

First Down

What will the 49ers' record be and why?



Terry Blount: 12-4. The 49ers have a shiny new stadium, which I see them taking full advantage of and probably going unbeaten at home. Their home game against the Seahawks comes on Thanksgiving night, which likely will be a frenzied holiday crowd in front of a national TV audience. However, I don't see things going quite as smoothly on the road. I have the 49ers losing at Arizona, Denver, New Orleans and Seattle. The key for San Francisco is how the team performs in a five-game midseason stretch that includes four road games -- St. Louis, Denver, New Orleans and the New York Giants. The 49ers do have a bye week in that stretch, but how they get through the middle part of the schedule will determine their fate.

Nick Wagoner: 11-5. It's awfully tempting to elevate the 49ers above the Seahawks, especially after a productive offseason in which San Francisco bolstered its offense by retaining Anquan Boldin, trading for Stevie Johnson and drafting talented young playmakers Bruce Ellington and Carlos Hyde. Not to mention Michael Crabtree is healthy. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see Colin Kaepernick take a big step forward with all of those weapons at his disposal. However, it's fair to wonder if the Niners' defense can continue its dominance. They'll certainly miss NaVorro Bowman early and they have some pieces to replace in the secondary. Mostly, it's picking nits when it comes to the Niners, and I see no reason to believe this team isn't going to be a serious Super Bowl contender again.

Josh Weinfuss: 10-6. This may be a bit on the nice side, considering the run of injuries to running backs since training camp started, but I think the 49ers' passing game and Colin Kaepernick's feet will make up for at least one game they'll lose because of a depleted running game. San Francisco plays a brutal schedule, facing the Cowboys, Bears, Cardinals, Eagles and Chiefs in its first five games. I don't think the road will be kind to the Niners this year, especially in the NFC West. The magic is running out for Jim Harbaugh one injury at a time.

Bill Williamson: I'm going to say the 49ers will be 12-4. They are a top team. But it's difficult to predict any team finishing higher than 12-4, although it wouldn't shock me if San Francisco finished with a better record. As long as quarterback Colin Kaepernick stays healthy, and there are no more big injuries on defense, San Francisco will win its share of games. It is a very deep and well-coached team. It knows how to win consistently. I fully expect San Francisco to start hot and stay hot.


Second Down

What will the Cardinals' record be and why?



Blount: 11-5. Yes, by picking the Cardinals to win 11 games, it means I'm picking the highly unusual occurrence of three teams in one division winning 11 or more games. But I believe the NFC West is that good. Arizona won 10 games last season. The offense should be better this season with quarterback Carson Palmer having a full year in the system and an improved offensive line. I actually thought this team could move ahead of the 49ers this year, but losing inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington is a huge blow to the defense. The biggest problem for Arizona is ending the regular season with back-to-back games against Seattle and at San Francisco. The Cardinals also have to play Seattle twice in their last six games. They will need to split those two games, and probably win on the road at Atlanta and St. Louis down the stretch, to reach the 11-win plateau.

Wagoner: 7-9. This is probably the most difficult team to predict in the division. The Cardinals finished 2013 on such a high note that it would be easy to believe they can roll that over after a productive offseason. But it all really comes down to quarterback Carson Palmer and whether he can withstand the inevitable pressure that will come from some outstanding defenses on the schedule. The offensive line looks to be improved but still has to prove it on the field. The Cardinals could be very good defensively again, and they have some exciting pieces in the secondary; however, the loss of linebacker Daryl Washington will hurt, and they haven't gotten much younger upfront, where it might be expecting too much from older guys such as Darnell Dockett and John Abraham to duplicate their success of the recent past. Adding a difficult schedule to the mix leaves Arizona taking a bit of a step back in 2014.

Weinfuss: 10-6. There's a lot that can go right for Arizona this year, but there's a lot that can go wrong. I think the Cardinals will start hot -- building on last season's success -- and win five of their first six. I wouldn't be surprised if they continue to tear through, but their schedule is backloaded. By midseason, offenses will figure out how to exploit the middle of the defense, which was decimated by the losses of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. But Arizona's offense should be potent enough to make up for any issues on defense, which will be few and far between, and simply outscore opponents.

Williamson: I'm going with 10-6. The Cardinals had 10 wins last season and may be better in their second season under coach Bruce Arians. But I still don't think Arizona is an elite team. Saying this team will take the next step and get to 12-4 is a bit of a stretch for me, although I love the Cardinals' defense. I think Carson Palmer is a solid fit for this team. But he's still Carson Palmer. He will still ruin a few games with some untimely interceptions. Arizona is good, not great, and a 10-6 record is a solid showing by a good team.


Third Down

What will the Rams' record be and why?



Blount: 6-10. This is my real shocker pick of the bunch because I'm sure most people see the Rams as a much better team than 6-10. St. Louis has an outstanding young defense, but the problem for the Rams is they play in the NFC West. Going through the division games, I don't see St. Louis doing better than 1-5. If the Rams can go 3-3 in the division, 8-8 or better is a possibility. But St. Louis just isn't on the same tier as the other three teams in the NFC West, not yet anyway. Maybe once the Rams move back to Los Angeles that will change. OK, I'm having a little futuristic fun there.

Weinfuss: 7-9. Welcome back, Sam. You'll be returning to play in the best division in football, plus you get to play a slew of playoff teams, including the reigning AFC champion Broncos. The improvements on St. Louis' defensive line will help the Rams early, but I think it'll take some time for the offense to regain any form under Bradford. The Rams could go 3-5 during the first half of the season and find a rhythm during the final eight games, splitting them 4-4. If the vaunted NFC East plays like the division of old, the Rams could struggle to hit even that record, but their young core of receivers should help ease Bradford's return at least a little.

Wagoner: 8-8. This is the season the Rams have targeted for a breakthrough since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over in 2012. They've gone through a massive roster makeover in that time and have built this team into one that is bursting with potential, but still lacking in production. This is the season the Rams hope upside makes the transition to something more tangible, namely more wins. But it's still hard to see this team making the leap this particular year against an imposing schedule and the league's toughest division. Quarterback Sam Bradford returns from a knee injury, which should help but to what extent remains to be seen. The defensive line is probably the best and deepest in the NFL, and with Gregg Williams at coordinator, the defense should be able to keep the Rams in games. Once again, the onus to get the Rams to the next level falls on the offense. Beyond Bradford, the Rams have a talented offensive line but one that is dotted with injury questions at nearly every position. They should be able to run the ball effectively, but at some point the passing game will have to do its part. The receivers and tight ends won't be asked to carry too much freight, but that mostly young group has to be better and more consistent for the Rams to have success. Fisher has a history of getting teams to right at or around the .500 mark, as he's done his first two seasons in St. Louis. There is enough talent in place for this team to take the next step, but until we see it actually coalesce, it's hard to predict more than mediocrity.

Williamson: I'm saying 7-9. Look, the Rams' defense -- especially the defensive line -- is nasty good. St. Louis will win games on defense. But I worry about the offense. Yes, the Rams went 7-9 in 2013 with quarterback Sam Bradford hurt for much of the season. So, a healthy Bradford could make a difference. But I just don't see Bradford as a major difference-maker, anyway. Plus, the truth is, the Rams are the worst team in a very strong division. It is going to be tough piling up wins in the NFC West, and the Rams could suffer.


Fourth Down

What will the Seahawks' record be and why?



Blount: 13-3. It's been a while since any NFL team was coming off a Super Bowl and could realistically say it might be in better position to win it all now than they were a season ago, but that's the case for the Seahawks. This still is a young and deeply talented team that probably hasn't peaked yet. The receiving corps will be better this season with a healthy Percy Harvin, and the sky is the limit for quarterback Russell Wilson, who is starting only his third NFL season. The final seven games are as difficult as I've ever seen for a defending Super Bowl champ. Seattle closes with five NFC West games in the final seven, including two against the 49ers and two with the Cardinals. The Seahawks also have road games at Kansas City and Philadelphia in that stretch. How they close it out will determine whether they win the division title, and it's almost mandatory if they hope to get back to the Super Bowl.

Weinfuss: 9-7. I think the Super Bowl hangover will hit the Seahawks immediately this season, especially with Green Bay and Denver bookending their first three games. That stretch, in which I think they start 1-2, will set the tone for the rest of the season. Seattle will undoubtedly string together some wins -- I have them winning five of six in the middle of the season -- but the final seven games feature five against NFC West teams. The other two? Just against Philadelphia and Kansas City, both of whom made the playoffs a year ago. Seattle will be a different team without its free-agent departures.

Wagoner: 12-4. On paper, the defending champions remain the class of the division. They handled their business in the offseason, prioritizing their own and keeping the ones they deemed most important. The defense should be dominant again with most of the key pieces returning and the Legion of Boom largely intact. Offensively, it's probably safe to assume quarterback Russell Wilson will continue to get better and the passing game to expand. Marshawn Lynch still has plenty in the tank and the Seahawks have some good young alternatives behind him. Seattle was able to get it done without Percy Harvin for almost all of last season, but with Golden Tate gone to Detroit, the Seahawks will need Harvin to be available and contribute consistently. The team's biggest weakness, the offensive line, will need to be better and could be with some improved health, but the Seahawks got it done behind a similar line in 2013. As with any team, injuries could severely hamper Seattle's run, especially after it lost some of its better depth players in the offseason. But all things considered, this was one of the youngest teams in the league a year ago and went on to win the Super Bowl. There's little reason to think that talent will regress with the experience and confidence that comes from the run it made in 2013.

Williamson: I'm going with 12-4. Would I be surprised if the Seahawks went 14-2? No, but a 12-4 season is a great effort and I will start there, much like the 49ers. The Seahawks could easily go 8-0, or stumble once, at most, in the first half of the season. But Seattle isn't a great road team. It can be beaten on the road, especially by teams such as the 49ers, Panthers, Chargers, Chiefs, Panthers, Eagles and Cardinals. My guess is the Seahawks go 7-1 at home and 5-3 on the road.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Blaine Gabbert became a 49er to learn behind fellow 2011 quarterback draftee Colin Kaepernick.

Gabbert
Gabbert
The San Francisco 49ers traded for Gabbert this offseason with the idea of having a reliable backup for Kaepernick and an opportunity to work with Gabbert, who flopped as Jacksonville’s quarterback after being the No. 10 overall pick in the draft.

Part of Gabbert’s job will be to pick up some of Kaepernick’s ability to learn the 49ers’ offense quickly. Coach Jim Harbaugh believes it’s working, but Gabbert still has a ways to go to catch up to Kaepernick.

“He’s showing all the signs of developing quite rapidly and executing very well, sharp in all mental facets in terms of knowing all the plays, and he’s come along,” Harbaugh said. “Colin is farther ahead by an amount where I would say it like this -- Blaine is very smart and he knows the plays, he already has picked up many of the nuances. But Kaep’s at a different level.

"Where Colin’s at a level of the highest level where he can auto correct, as you know, auto correcting in the texting or whatever. Even if a coach makes a mistake, it's wrong in the script, the play is called into him wrong, he just auto corrects it and doesn’t ask, ‘Hey, is that right or is that wrong?’ It’s at the highest level. You just have never seen it, in my experience, like the way he does it right now. It’s great with a capital g, at the highest level, and Blaine’s coming along.”

Harbaugh said he has talked to Gabbert about the process and let him know it will take time. Kaepernick, the No. 36 overall pick in 2011, has taken time to master it.

“I’ve always said, six months later you’re going to be very far along in this system, but not as far along as you will be after a year, and after two years you’ll most likely be an expert in this system,” Harbaugh said.

49ers Camp Report: Day 6

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
9:20
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the San Francisco 49ers training camp:


  • 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said running back LaMichael James is confident he can come back quickly from a dislocated elbow. This is James’ third dislocated elbow since high school. He returned quickly both times. He was injured Sunday and is estimated to be out four weeks.
  • Second-year outside linebacker Corey Lemonier is noticeably stronger in the upper body this training camp. Lemonier said he put on about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason to get up to 253 pounds. Lemonier worked out with 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith in the offseason. Lemonier has been impressive in camp, showing a great burst. Lemonier played well when he and Dan Skuta filled in for Aldon Smith when Smith was in a treatment center for five games last season. Lemonier will surely be part of the mix if Smith is suspended by the NFL. Skuta worked with the first team while Lemonier worked with the second unit Wednesday while Smith was in Los Angeles tending to a legal matter.
  • It was a good day for the defense, especially the secondary. Lots of strong play by the backups, including Perrish Cox and first-round pick Jimmie Ward. Starters Tramaine Brock (ankle) and Chris Culliver (knee) have been sitting out the past few practices, and the youngsters are taking advantage. There have been plenty of questions about the 49ers’ cornerbacks, but they’ve shown well in camp. I look forward to seeing them in the preseason.
  • Receiver Michael Crabtree departed practice early for an undisclosed reason. If it was injury related, it didn't appear serious. Fellow receiver Jonathan Baldwin didn’t appear on the practice field Wednesday.
  • Second-year defensive tackle Quinton Dial continued to have a great camp. He is always around the ball. The fifth-round pick could be a steal.
  • Rookie running back Carlos Hyde was returning kicks with James out. I have a feeling the 49ers will deem Hyde too valuable on offense to use him on kick returns, at least early in the season.
  • Harbaugh said he offered a scholarship to tackle Michael Philipp, who the 49ers claimed on waivers Tuesday from Miami, several years ago. However, Philipp went to Oregon State instead. Now, the two unite.
  • Harbaugh said running back Alfonso Smith didn’t have to finish his full workout Monday before the team decided to sign him. Harbaugh is excited the way Smith is approaching the opportunity, but I'd still deem him a long-shot to make the 53-man roster.
  • Injured undrafted rookie offensive lineman Fou Fonoti cleared waivers and is now on the 49ers’ injured reserve.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This will be Colin Kaepernick's second full season as an NFL starting quarterback. He is showing the leadership of a quarterback in charge of his offense.

Jones
Kaepernick
Tuesday, Brandon Lloyd told reporters Kaepernick watches film with the receivers, pointing out target spots and expressing his thoughts on specific plays. Kaepernick said it is part of the growing process at his position.

"The coaches have a lot more confidence in me doing that," Kaepernick said. "I think I have a lot more confidence doing that now as far as making sure that we're on the same page and we're seeing the same thing when we're on the field. Because, ultimately when we step out there there's not going to be a coach out there telling you to run the route like this. It's going to be you and the receiver. So, you have to have that communication."

Here are some other topics Kaepernick touched on in his media session Tuesday:

On connecting with his new teammate Lloyd: "He has pretty easy body language to read and for the most part normally, he's open by a step or two. So, that makes it a lot easier, too."

On having a healthy Michael Crabtree this season: "Even the end of last season he wasn't 100 percent and he was making plays for us. I'm excited to see what he's going to do now that he's 100 percent. ... He's a step or two quicker now. He has burst out of his routes. He has burst when he catches the ball. He looks really good out there."

On rookie receiver Bruce Ellington: "He's looked great when he's been out there. He's been on top of it mentally, which is a huge thing as a rookie. He doesn't play like a rookie. He's not out there thinking about things or worried about making mistakes. He's playing fast, he's making plays, so we're excited about him."

49ers Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of San Francisco 49ers training camp:


  • San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is an honest guy. Ask his opinion and he gives it. Some of the 49ers' defensive players may not have enjoyed what Fangio had to say Tuesday in his media session, in which he mentioned things young players have to work on.On linebacker Chris Borland, a third-round pick: "He's got really good instincts. And sometimes he thinks his instincts are taking him to a play and he's aborting his own assignment, and he's gotten burned on that a few times. So he's got to learn that the quarterbacks in this league can be looking here and quickly come back here. And, he's been burned on that a few times."

    On fourth-rounder Dontae Johnson: "He's doing fine. Like a lot of rookies, he's got a little tentativeness in his play right now, not always sure exactly what to do. But I think he'll get there. He's got good size. We feel he's got good enough speed. Just keep waiting for him to feel the urgency and really turn it up. And I don't think he's quite there yet. I think he's still feeling his way through knowing what to do, the NFL game, etc. But hopefully he'll kick it up a notch here in the next three weeks at some point."

    On second-year linebacker Nick Moody: "Well, he's looked a whole lot better than he did as a rookie, just from an assignments standpoint. But he's still got to fight to be more consistent. He's got to get the inconsistency out of his play."

    But don't get too caught up on what Fangio is saying. It's camp and all of the above issues are correctable.
  • Cornerback Chris Cook snared an interception Tuesday. That's a good sign. He had none in four years with the Minnesota Vikings after being a first-round pick. The coaching staff has been working with Cook on his ball skills.
  • Linebacker Ahmad Brooks restructured his contract. He got some salary converted into a signing bonus and saved the team $2 million in salary-cap room. The 49ers have about $10 million in cap room and now have the money to extend some players. The top candidates include receiver Michael Crabtree and guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone. Crabtree and Iupati are in the final year of their contracts and Boone is holding out for a new deal.
  • Starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver (knee) and Tramaine Brock (ankle) and defensive lineman Ray McDonald (leg) were among those not practicing Tuesday.
  • Tuesday's practice went two-and-a half hours. It was the longest of camp so far.
  • Former 49ers defensive lineman Cedric Hardman was visiting camp. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula asked him to address the unit after practice.
  • As expected, the 49ers signed former Arizona Cardinals running back Alfonso Smith because of injuries in the backfield. Smith will help in practice and in the preseason. They waived guard Fou Fonoti, an undrafted free agent.
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Kendall Hunter tore his ACL Friday and is out for the season. That means James has a better chance of making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.

49ers Camp Report: Day 4

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
9:50
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the San Francisco 49ers training camp:
  • Running back LaMichael James' dislocated left elbow (he will likely miss a month) was the injury issue for the 49ers on Sunday. But there were minor scrapes and bruises. Special teamer Kassim Osgood was getting worked on for leg issue, but he seemed fine by the end of practice. Rookie offensive lineman Fouimalo Fonoti left practice with an undisclosed leg issue.
  • Starting cornerbacks Tramaine Brock (ankle) and Chris Culliver (recovering from a torn ACL) ended practice early Sunday. But it appears to be simply precautionary for both players. The young cornerbacks got plenty of work in the practice.
  • Second-year receiver Quinton Patton had a nice day Sunday. He was very active. Patton has a chance to develop after he finished last season strong.
  • Receiver Michael Crabtree and second-year tight end Vance McDonald continued their strong training camps Sunday.
  • 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said guard Joe Looney has had some “wow moments.” Looney is working with the first team at right guard with Alex Boone holding out. Looney will very likely start Aug. 7 at Baltimore in the first preseason game unless Boone ends his holdout soon. That, by the way, appears unlikely.
  • Harbaugh likes the way all five of his quarterbacks are looking in camp. If I had to guess I’d say McLeod Bethel-Thompson is back on the practice squad with Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert on the active roster. That would leave out Josh Johnson and Kory Faulkner. Things can change, but that’s the guess four days into training camp.
  • Harbaugh said young linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas are both looking good. That makes Harbaugh happy. He coached them both at Stanford.
  • The 49ers activated rookies, center Marcus Martin (third round) and linebacker Aaron Lynch (fifth). They are now ready to practice.
  • Nickname of the day: Osgood called massive English defensive tackle Lawrence Okoye “Big London.”

49ers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
11:20
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the San Francisco 49ers training camp:
  • The 49ers practiced Saturday in full pads for the first time in camp. It was a crisp, good practice, although it wasn’t overly physical. Yet, that is by design. The 49ers lost running back Kendall Hunter for the year to a torn ACL in a non-contact drill Friday.
  • Raw defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye, who has no previous football experience, crushed Jonathan Martin in a drill. But Okoye, who is both huge and supremely athletic, showed how green he is in other drills. He’s a promising work in progress.
  • Receiver Michael Crabtree looks great. Hard to believe he had a torn Achilles last season.
  • Fellow receiver Stevie Johnson continues to make big plays.
  • Tramaine Brock is the 49ers’ top cornerback and he looks very confident and smooth. Can you believe this guy was just a special teams player a year ago?
  • Rookie running back Carlos Hyde looked very explosive in pads.
  • First-round pick, defensive back Jimmie Ward, had a reputation at North Illinois as a ballhawk. I know why. He gets his hands on everything.
  • Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a very nice day. Accurate, crisp, in command.
  • The 49ers’ five quarterbacks did a drill in which they tried to hit inside a net from about 40 yards. Undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner got the closest. Harbaugh, an ex-NFL quarterback, even gave it a whirl. He missed.
  • Cornerback Chris Culliver said he is feeling great in his comeback from a torn ACL he suffered in training camp last year. He is a favorite to win a starting cornerback job. He was previously a nickel cornerback. He said it is an adjustment playing on both passing and running downs. Culliver is facing charges from a March hit-and-run arrest. He said Saturday he cannot speak about it because the case is pending, but he said he is focusing on the football field.
  • Fullback Bruce Miller said venerable running back Frank Gore looks to be in midseason shape. Gore is 31. General manager Trent Baalke agreed, “Father Time is having a hard time catching up to him.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – One of the reasons why the San Francisco 49ers should be able to withstand the season-ending ACL injury to running back Kendall Hunter is the presence of rookie Carlos Hyde.

The truth is regardless of Hunter’s health. Hyde was going to get a lot of opportunities as a rookie.

While the venerable Frank Gore will start, it appears Hyde, who the 49ers took advantage of an unexpected draft tumble by taking him with the No. 57 overall pick, will play quite a bit.

Hyde is getting extensive work in training camp. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was highly complementary of Hyde. Roman said Hyde has done everything asked of him.

A key for playing time for running backs is in pass protection and picking up blitzes. Roman said Hyde, who played at Ohio State, is coming along well in that area. Hyde said NFL pass protection was coming “naturally” to him.

The reason, of course, why Hyde is in San Francisco is because he is a power runner who has star potential. 49ers fullback Bruce Miller is impressed what he has seen from the youngster.

“He does what we want running backs in our system to do,” Miller said. "He’s a vertical runner."
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Thursday, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh noted the cheerful nature of his team as they began training camp.

James
It didn’t take long for the reality of an NFL camp to dampen the mood of the team. Saturday, the 49ers were coming to grips with the season-ending loss of popular and valuable reserve running back Kendall Hunter, who tore the ACL in his right knee Friday in the team’s second camp practice.

Players and coaches lamented the loss and had a similar theme.

"You've got to try to play for him,” said fellow running back LaMichael James, who counts Hunter as one of his best friends on the team. “Give a little extra.”

James will be one of the players the 49ers look to fill Hunter’s void as a valuable change-of-pace back. Like Hunter, James is a smallish player who the 49ers can do multiple things with. In 2012, when James was a rookie, he played well after Hunter was lost for the season in November with a torn left Achilles.

In the twisted world of the NFL, Hunter’s injury gives James a much better chance of making the 53-man roster in a crowded backfield.

“I know everyone is looking at me,” James said.

Earlier in the voluntary part of the year, James worked out on his own and was not adverse to the 49ers trading him. However, he started working out with the team. Had Hunter stayed healthy, there was a possibility James could have been trade-or-release material.

Now, James, who will battle rookie Bruce Ellington for return duties, has a clearer path to the field. Rookie Carlos Hyde will also have a bigger role and 2013 fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore should also get opportunities once he starts practicing.

“Does it get any better than [Hunter] as a person or contributor? No. But next man up is not a cliché,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roma said. “It’s a way of life.”

 
ESPN Insider Mike Sando recently ranked the potential 2015 receiver free-agent class, which could be very strong.

After polling coaches and general managers, Sando ranked San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree as the No. 3 potential free-agent receiver after this season. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson was No. 4. Scratch Nelson off the list. He has reportedly agreed to a four-year, $39 million deal with an $11.5 million signing bonus.

Since Sando’s poll suggests the league prefers Crabtree to Nelson, you would have to think Crabtree will get, at least, what Nelson has agreed to.

The 49ers want to keep Crabtree and perhaps this deal will give both sides some inspiration to get a deal done now. Even if Crabtree doesn’t extend, there is a chance the 49ers could give him the franchise tag next offseason.

In other 49ers news:

There have been some reports the 49ers are concerned about the knee injury Kendall Hunter suffered Friday in practice. He left the field on his own power. But there is worry because of the way the injury occurred. He is undergoing further examinations.

 
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Vic Fangio had high praise for two of his key San Francisco 49ers defensive players, both of whom have dealt with major adversity.

The 49ers' defensive coordinator has been impressed with what he has seen from cornerback Chris Culliver and linebackers Aldon Smith in the early going of training camp. Culliver missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and Smith is trying to put a myriad of off-field issues behind him.

Fangio said Culliver, who suffered the injury in last season's training camp, looked completely recovered from his injury in Thursday's first training camp practice.

"I was really pleased with the way he looked physically," Fangio said of Culliver. "Kudos to our medical staff and everyone that's worked with him. Kudos to him for the work he's put into his rehab. He looked fine to me yesterday. I didn't see any indication that this was a guy that just came off a year-long rehab."

Fangio was also effusive about Smith's approach to the game.

"I think everything's good for him right now," Fangio said. "I think he's in a really great spot. Both physically, like he said, and I think he's in a great spot mentally, emotionally."

Smith could face suspension from the NFL because of his off-field issues. The 49ers are already likely to play without star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for about half the season, as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in January.

Fangio said it will be "challenging" if the 49ers have to play a stretch without both key linebackers. But he noted the 49ers were 5-0 when Smith missed five games when he was in a substance abuse treatment center and star linebackers Patrick Willis missed two games due to an injury.

"We will find a way," Fangio said.

Fangio is completely flexible when it comes to who replaces Bowman during the first half of the season. Michael Wilhoite, who played for Willis last year, and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov are all vying for the job. Fangio said the 49ers could even use a platoon system.

The team will likely decide after the preseason on what approach to take.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This is what Colin Kaepernick had to say about his limited offseason work with new receiver Stevie Johnson: "It was pretty easy. He's another guy that's easy to throw to because he creates so much separation. Very quick, very deceptive, and I'm happy he's on our side of the ball."

Johnson
Thursday, in the 49ers' first training camp practice, we could see why Kaepernick was so pleased that the 49ers' traded a mid-round pick next year to Buffalo for Johnson. He was all over the field and he was one of the bright lights of Day 1 of the 49ers' training camp.

Johnson was limited in the offseason by a minor injury. He looked in mid-season form Thursday.

Johnson could be a huge key for the 49ers as Kaepernick tries to take their offense to the next level in 2014. Johnson is set to be the No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. We recently looked how Johnson's addition could change the 49ers' offense.

No matter what Johnson's effect will be on this offense, this receiver group is much deeper in 2014. And the depth starts with Johnson. That is already obvious.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jimmie Ward didn't waste any time making his presence felt as a San Francisco 49er.

The 49ers' first-round pick intercepted a pass from standout quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the third play of 7-on-7 scrimmage in the team's first practice Thursday. Ward took a tipped ball easily into his hands.

"If I keep making plays like that I will be seen (by the coaches,)" Ward said after practice.

He already has been. Earlier Thursday, 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh said this of Ward: "Good player, good football player. Lots of things that we saw on tape."

One of the reasons why the 49ers took Ward with the No. 30 overall pick was his playmaking ability. It had to be encouraging to the coaches and front office that the kid was in the right place so early in his first practice.

Ward's strong first impression is also important because he missed much of the offseason work with a broken foot he suffered while preparing for the draft. Ward seems like a humble kid, who is hungry to learn. He seems like a player who knows he belongs where he is. Thursday's events didn't hurt his confidence.

In other notes from the 49ers' first day of training camp:
  • The 49ers want to see strides from second-year tight end Vance McDonald. Thursday was a good sign. He made a nice sideline catch on a deep ball. The 2013 second-round pick had trouble catching the ball at times as a rookie. If he makes improvements there, it will bode well for the 49ers now and in the future.
  • Defensive lineman Justin Smith and offensive tackle Anthony Davis didn't practice. They are coming back from offseason shoulder surgeries. It doesn't appear either player will miss much time. Newly acquired Jonathan Martin worked at right tackle for Davis.
  • Cornerback Chris Culliver looked fluid in his first practice since tearing his ACL last August. Culliver is expected to start this season.
  • In addition to Ward, linebacker Aldon Smith had an interception of a Kaepernick pass.
  • Second-year cornerback Darryl Morris looked strong. He is trying to make an impact on defense after playing well on special teams as a rookie.
  • Backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert hit reserve receiver Brandon Lloyd on a long pass. These two key backups will be fun to watch this summer.
  • Rookie running back Carlos Hyde, a second-round pick, had two dropped passes Thursday. His hands out of the backfield were a highlight in the offseason workouts.

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