I love training camp, and as a former NFL scout there is just so much you can take away from every practice. I was a little tough on the Raiders my first visit but I came away much more impressed with my second trip to Napa. While the 49ers continue to look the part despite some injuries, they are built and equipped to handle some setbacks because of roster depth. Here were some of my takeaways:
Offensive Line: I was very impressed when watching the group play. Being with the Eagles the last several years – I didn’t realize that Raiders LT Jared Veldheer is a very good player. I’m usually not a huge fan of OT’s that tall (6-8), but he bends well enough showing very good functional strength. Another OL who should transition perfectly in running the power scheme is former Penn State standout Stefan Wisniewski. A natural tough guy that just moves bodies on contact at center. With Tony Sparano now coaching the unit, I am very confident this group will be a force in 2013 with Valdheer and Wisniewski leading the way.
Darren McFadden: The one Oakland Raider who looks like a true blue chip difference maker in my eyes. A natural downhill runner that needs the slightest of creases to break big runs. McFadden not only looks healthy, but his explosive burst is truly something only a few possess even in the NFL. When he gets into the open field, there will not be many defenders that can run with him. For the Raiders to have a legitimate chance to be competitive in 2013 – they will need the former fourth overall pick to stay healthy, because he looks like he’s poised for a BIG year.
Explosive Players: I think any good scout has some Al Davis in them when it comes to speed, all good talent evaluators have a soft spot for players who can run. The Raiders have no shortage of explosive play-makers beside McFadden. A couple guys on defense that just jump out are rookies DJ Hayden and Sio Moore. I have touched on DJ Hayden’s physical gifts, but his ability to recover from his pedal, and explode downhill is special. My only knock on him would be his height, but he has all the talent to be an elite corner. Watching Sio Moore in the (1 on 1) pass rush drills – I see a special up the field rusher, with a burst that you can’t teach. Even rookie Brice Butler from San Diego State (former USC transfer) looks very good in practice. He ran a 4.40 at his pro day and has been playing fast in practice. He could be a major steal if he continues his progress in preseason games.
TE Group: My personal favorite unit on the team. I think the upside with David Ausberry, Nick Kasa, and Mychal Rivera is very HIGH. David Ausberry has put on weight to try and become a complete TE, but still plays fast showing his former WR skills. He has a natural feel for playing in space, gets open with ease – he just needs to do a better job of coming down with the ball. Kasa has the most potential of the group as a blocker because of his frame. A converted DE who is still learning the position, but because he is such a good athlete he could become a starter down the road. I think Mychal Rivera can lead the team in catches this season. He consistently got open vs. SEC defenses in college, and the coaching staff is very pleased with his development as a pro. Rivera is just a football player, and should excel on Sundays.
San Francisco 49ers
Chris Culliver: While the 49ers are deep at this position – replacing Culliver will be possible in the short term, but more challenging in the long term. Culliver is one of the most talented young players on the team. He has all the physical attributes you look for in a corner, and the organization was expecting him to take the next step in 2013. I can imagine GM Trent Baalke was hoping to build around Culliver and Reid in the defensive backfield. Playing corner is so dependent on a players speed, recovery quickness, and ability to accelerate in the open field – you just never know how guys will respond from an ACL tear. With guys like Nnamdi and Tramaine Brock on the roster the 49ers can still win this season. It’s the future that has to be keeping the front office up at night.
WR Position: This group may not remind you of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, I still think they are going to be more than serviceable in 2013. One player people keep talking about at 49er practice is Marlon Moore. While he is not an ideal route runner, he does have the speed to stretch the field vertically. He can potentially give them a deep threat if he can just catch the football, an area in which he struggled with in the past. Anquan Boldin just gets open – plain and simple. He’s not fast, yet still can’t be covered. Colin looks to already have a very good connection with his new target. Despite having a broken finger, Quinton Patton is still running routes, just not catching the football. I think when the dust settles he will become a major contributor for this offense. As Sonny Dykes told me, this is one of the most competitive kids he has ever been around, and I don’t see a broken finger derailing his 2013.
Versatility: It’s all I can think about when I watch this team practice. They have so many guys who do so many different things. Baalke and Harbaugh obviously are not into one dimensional players. Colin Kaepernick can run the option, beat defenders with his speed, or act like he is Tom Brady picking defenses apart in the pocket. Frank Gore is a three down back. LaMichael James can run, catch, and excel in the return game. Vernon Davis is not just a dominant blocker, but a legitimate NFL deep threat. The Smith Brothers can line up just about anywhere. Both Willis and Bowman can play the run, cover TE/RBs out of the backfield, and have the closing speed to land any QB on blitzes. The 49ers players allow their coaches to do so much and make them so hard to game plan against. There might not be a more unique roster in terms of versatility in the NFL.
BJ Daniels: The 7th round QB from South Florida has really been a standout at training camp. He is built like Russell Wilson, just never had the ideal accuracy, until meeting the 49ers coaching staff. Harbaugh said he just gets better every practice. I have seen him line up at QB, RB, WR, and as a punt returner. Going with my point above about versatility, he just fits the culture of this team. The most eye opening aspect of his game are his hands, he catches the ball naturally. Daniels is a 53 man player in my eyes, I just don’t see the 49ers sneaking him on their practice squad – because Daniels would last all but two minutes on waivers. Especially if he does what I think he will do in preseason games – play and excel at multiple spots.
Harbaugh: I have been at practice two different days and seen two ACL injuries. Both times the player went down I saw the head coach react the same way. While Culliver was a potential starter and has contributed in the 49ers recent success, Darius Flemming would have struggled to make the team. Yet Harbaugh went over and spent time with both players as they laid on the ground, like he truly cared and appreciated there efforts. Players notice this because I know I did. It’s obvious why 49er players will run through a wall for Harbaugh, it’s the little things he does that endear them to their leader.