The San Francisco 49ers will hold the team’s first training camp practice on July 24. Two days later, the club will hold its first padded practice of camp.
Starting next week, 49ers.com will offer a comprehensive look at the team’s upcoming position battles, along with names and notes on key players for each section the roster.
But before we peel the onion back, let’s set the stage for the upcoming camp by taking a look at some of the top storylines you’ve probably been bantering about around your water cooler or in the backyard at your neighborhood barbecue.
Here are the five things to know before the 49ers go camping.
1. There are three open practices.
You don’t have to wait for a “Fan Fest” event to see the team practice in person. Due to stadium construction taking place during the last two training camps, the 49ers have been unable to accommodate fans. That changes in 2014, as the club announced three open practices will take place at Levi’s® Stadium. A limited number of fans will have the opportunity to view the Aug. 4, Aug. 15 and Aug. 20 sessions by way of a drawing. The club also announced a maximum of 10,000 fans will be able to see the practice sessions.
2. The cornerback battle will be the top competition.
Starters at every major offensive position appear to be settled. On defense, right cornerback and slot cornerback remain open heading into the regular season. For all intents and purposes, Tramaine Brock has locked up the team’s top cornerback role on the left side of the defense. Behind him, however, several players are in the mix to be the team’s second base-down cornerback. The group includes veterans Chris Culliver, Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris, plus rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. As for slot duties, Cox and Morris took the bulk of offseason reps. Don’t forget about first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward. The 30th overall selection should be cleared for camp and was selected to compete right away as a slot defender.
3. The amount of depth at wide receiver and running back is special.
The 49ers have never had this much firepower at wide receiver and running back in the Jim Harbaugh era. San Francisco has numerous play-making options in the passing game, enough to truly complement one of the league’s perennial leaders on the ground. Michael Crabtree has shown 2012-like burst now that he’s fully recovered from the Achilles tear that derailed his ’13 campaign. Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Kassim Osgood return from last year’s receiving corps. Plus, the team added Brandon Lloyd in free agency, traded for Bay Area native Stevie Johnson and drafted Bruce Ellington in the fourth round. Trimming down that group will be a challenge, but a welcomed one at that.
Things don’t get much easier in the running back department. Frank Gore enters year 10 of what has been a Hall of Fame-caliber career for the 49ers. The franchise’s all-time rushing leader has the same question circling him as the past two seasons: Will he play less? The answer, again, remains to be seen. Behind Gore, Kendall Hunter is one of the most productive backup rushers in the NFL. The club could also benefit from the contributions of Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough name-dropping for you, LaMichael James is an option as a change-of-pace back.
4. Second-year pros will get to showcase their skills.
San Francisco’s redshirt system will be put to the test in camp. When Lattimore gets a chance to strut his stuff on the offensive side of the ball, doing so against live contact for the first time since late 2012, a promising member of the defensive line will be in the same boat. Enter second-year pro Tank Carradine, who like Lattimore, did not see the field as a rookie. Carradine was activated to the 53-man roster, but he never saw the field as he was still recovering from an ACL tear that cut short a productive senior year at Florida State.
The team periods and 7-on-7 passing drills are great portions of training camp to evaluate a player’s progress – but there’s nothing quite like a one-on-one drill. In the case of Lattimore, he’ll get a chance to prove the strength of his knee when he’s looking horns with a pass-rushing linebacker in a blitz-pickup drill. He’ll also get to showcase his athleticism and soft hands when running routes against a linebacker’s man coverage. Carradine will have similar opportunities to demonstrate his health and value when lining up as a pass rusher against members of San Francisco’s respected offensive line. The one-on-one pass-rushing drills are always a sought after moment in camp. It was that way when Lawrence Okoye made his football debut last year. It will be the same way when Carradine competes against his teammates in live action.
5. Somebody unexpected could steal the show.
Expect the unexpected at camp. Injuries happen. It’s always the next man up. So when the 49ers lost a slew of receivers last year in camp, or linebackers went down with minor camp injuries, reserve players were given a chance to seize the moment. Case in point: Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta earned the trust of the defensive coaching staff by proving they could rush the passer and play the run as outside linebackers. This offseason, a similar opportunity was presented to young backups on the roster at right guard and tight end. Filling in for their veteran teammates, Joe Looney and Vance McDonald earned praise for making good use of their extra snaps.
It’s true that veterans like Gore and 14-year veteran defensive tackle Justin Smith use training camp to sharpen their tools for another NFL season, but it’s also apparent that San Francisco’s coaches do a good job of mixing and matching young players during competitive scenarios to see how they fit in with the first-team units. It's in these moments, when the team is practicing third-down or red-zone situations, that a less-heralded player could prove worthy of cracking the 53-man roster.