Camp Confidential: Buying into Singletary

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers haven't come close to declaring a winner in the quarterback race between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith.

The biggest winner to this point in training camp would have to be the oldest linebacker in camp.

Mike Singletary.

"Man, if you can't buy into him about football, about the game, I think you shouldn't play the game," running back Frank Gore said.

From afar, Singletary appears to be a human sound bite and football evangelist, but any honest veteran NFL player will tell you the rah-rah stuff goes only so far. It's obvious from watching 49ers practices and speaking with players that Singletary qualifies as more than just a motivational speaker with Hall of Fame credentials.

"One of the things that I really appreciate about Singletary and something that makes me really buy into what he is doing is, not only does he bring that competitive nature and that enthusiastic nature, he is also a very honest coach," left tackle Joe Staley said.

Singletary patrolled the field prior to the first camp practice, screaming and criticizing players, challenging them to do better. By Monday, when the team met expectations in the morning practice, Singletary was far less demonstrative, letting players know they'd done a good job.

"He will give you honest criticism and honest encouragement," Staley said. "I respect that as a player just knowing that I don't have a coach that is going to be blowing smoke up my butt, telling me something that I want to hear or criticizing me just to hear his own voice.

"He'll tell you exactly what he is thinking about you and I think everyone really responds to that. There is substance behind it. You can see a real passion for what he does. It gets everybody really excited and they want to play that much harder for him."

Key questions

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Hill Smith
The organization wants Smith to prevail for obvious reasons. As the first overall pick in 2005, he's got more physical talent -- more upside, as they say -- than Hill can ever bring to the table.

Through five days of camp, though, Smith hasn't taken command to a degree that would change the perception of Hill as the favorite, an incumbent starter with a 7-3 record and the intangibles Singletary clearly values.

"If you ask me to pick one of them now, I'm guessing," Singletary said. "I don't want to guess."

By not picking a starter and getting behind him, though, the 49ers haven't put either quarterback in position to take charge of the offense. Smith hasn't shown he can do that, with or without an endorsement.

Give the edge to Hill for now, although Smith could be closing the gap.

2. Where will this team get its pass rush?

The 49ers didn't find a pass-rusher in the draft, a su
rprise. They're betting on Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson, players with a combined 16 sacks since entering the league as part of the 49ers' 2006 draft class.

A hip injury has sidelined Haralson through much of camp, giving Singletary's personal project, Ahmad Brooks, a chance to work with the starters at outside linebacker. Brooks looks good, but the 49ers cannot count on him yet.

Lawson, meanwhile, has shown signs he can become an effective rusher on passing downs. He has beaten Staley a few times during pass-rush drills and used his considerable reach to bat down passes. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is keeping the pressure on Lawson.

"He is progressing quite well," Manusky said, "but he still needs to keep on going."

3. Are the 49ers vulnerable in the secondary?

Free safety Dashon Goldson is the key here. He's so much faster and athletic than former starter Mark Roman, who picked off one pass in 43 starts over three seasons with the 49ers. Fifty-eight NFL players had more interceptions last season alone. Four had more in the playoffs.

Strong safety Michael Lewis qualifies as an in-the-box player at this stage of his career, heightening the need for speed at the other safety spot.

"I think the biggest problem San Francisco has on defense is their lack of speed at safety," an opposing coach told me last season. "That is killing them. I think their corners are competitive. I think their front seven is competitive. But the lack of speed at safety -- I mean, those guys have given up some big plays."

The rap on Goldson is he's a terrific practice player who hasn't played as well in games. The reality is that Goldson, a third-year player from the University of Washington, hasn't played even 20 percent of the defensive snaps in either of his first two seasons. He needs to play.

Market watch

First-round choice Michael Crabtree could have a hard time recovering from an offseason spent rehabbing a foot injury and a training camp spent -- so far -- far removed from the action.

The 49ers have better depth at receiver than they've had in recent seasons. That isn't saying much, but veteran Isaac Bruce, newcomer Brandon Jones and an emerging Josh Morgan can make it tough for Crabtree to find a spot in the rotation if the rookie remains unsigned much longer.

"I don't know anymore about Michael Crabtree now than I did when we drafted him, other than what we evaluated him on in college," offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said. "I think you all are probably a little more concerned about him not being here than we are."

Newcomer to watch

Singletary made Jimmy Raye a surprise choice as offensive coordinator after firing Mike Martz following the 2008 season.

Raye, at age 63 and coming off a disappointing season as the Jets' running backs coach, was the antithesis of a hot candidate.

That doesn't by itself make Raye a poor choice, only a curious one.

Singletary lacks coaching experience in general and offensive expertise in particular. That makes his offensive coordinator the most important assistant on his staff.

Singletary needs to be right on this hire.

There's no question Raye will make better use of the 49ers' personnel than Martz ever could. The 49ers have spent the past several years building a power-oriented offense, led by an offensive line with more power than agility.

"It's a totally different scheme," Staley said. "Last year was really heavy in seven-step drops, obviously, and it was real heavy on the quicks and the quarterbacks and the running backs making adjustments.

"This year, we're going to be more of a smashmouth kind of football team. We want to run the ball. We want to control the game by running the ball. Not to say that we're not going to be a balanced offense, because we are, but we want to be able to, fourth quarter, when the game is coming down, break those runs that are going for 3 or 4 yards to 8, 9, 10 -- be a physical team like that."

Observation deck

Gore Davis
Gore has a chance to approach his 2006 form -- 1,695 yards rushing and more than 2,000 total yards -- with Singletary insisting up on a run-oriented attack. "I'm going to go back to 2006," Gore said. "It's the same thing. Like the 2006 coaches, these coaches really put the time in to go over the running game. Last year there was more time put in on the passing game." ... The 49ers were sorry to see veteran corner Walt Harris land on injured reserve, but they think replacement Dre' Bly might provide a more aggressive alternative if Bly beats out Tarell Brown. Harris actually has more picks than Bly over the past three seasons, though. ... Tight end Vernon Davis continues to catch more passes than any other 49ers player in camp practices. Raye says the team is simply installing its offense, not forcing the ball
to Davis. But it's clear 49ers management wants the new staff to make better use of recent draft choices, from Lawson to Davis. Expect Davis to catch more passes this season, even if his route-running ability and feel for the passing game remains a hindrance. ... A bounce-back season from right tackle Marvel Smith, signed from the Steelers, would spare Davis from spending so much time in pass protection. It's just tough to envision Smith holding up for a full season given his age and injury history. The 49ers are limiting him to one practice per day and limited reps within that practice. It's tough to get a feel for him. ... Teammates are pointing to third-year Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis as an outstanding leader. One thing Wills cannot stand is when teammates make small talk during games with friends from other teams. "I don't care if you've known them since you all were in third grade," Willis said. "I just feel like, come on, man, get back to the huddle and don't talk to them. We're trying to destroy them right now." ... The 49ers' practices are dramatically more physical than the ones I saw in Arizona as training camps open. San Francisco might be paying the price, too, with both starting guards suffering injuries in the first five days of camp. Injuries happen and it's misleading to suggest the 49ers would have avoided them by taking another approach. But the situation bears monitoring as camp continues.