The biggest question the 49ers face (Who besides Anquan Boldin is going to play wide receiver when the games count?) was not answered on Tuesday morning. It probably won’t be answered for quite some time, as the 49ers’ receiving corps is full of players dealing with major (Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham) and minor (Quentin Patton, A.J. Jenkins, Kassim Osgood, Kyle Williams) injuries at the moment.
Jenkins and Osgood started practice healthy, but both limped off midway through, which makes me think Chad Hall could slide into the No. 2 spot just by showing up and not pulling/spraining/tearing anything (although Marlon Moore probably has a better shot at starting than the diminutive Hall).
The 49ers may not be deep at every position these days, but they have plenty of stars. And several of the players whose jerseys will fill the racks at your local sporting good store this winter showed why they’re considered elite today, starting with Colin Kaepernick. Reports on Kaepernick over the first week of training camp were positive. Glowing, even. He took the world by surprise in the middle of last season partly because he was mostly mediocre during Training Camp 2012, but these days he’s an excellent player during practice as well.
Kaepernick doesn’t have an incredible stable of wide receivers to choose from, but he has Boldin and Vernon Davis. While the 49ers defense generally outperformed their offensive counterparts throughout most of today’s session, Kaepernick avoided throwing any interceptions and ended his day with three consecutive completions. The first, to Hall (who’s not a star by any stretch but surpasses most 49ers receivers in the durability category), went about 15 yards over the middle. Have I mentioned that I like Hall? He’s little, but he sure seems to get open frequently.
Kaepernick’s next two completions made everyone forget the one to Hall (story of Hall’s life, probably). On his next throw, Kaepernick heaved a bomb to the left corner of the end zone to Anquan Boldin, who was five yards past C.J. Spillman as he caught the pass over his shoulder about 45 yards downfield.
Then came the play of the day, an even longer throw to the other side of the field that Vernon Davis caught with his fingertips. It was a connection that was nothing short of spectacular, even when considering that it came during a non-contact practice in late July.
Afterward, Kaepernick removed his helmet and walked to the right sideline, intent on meeting Davis as the latter trotted back toward the original line of scrimmage.
With so much being made about Kaepernick’s on- and off-field relationships with his receivers, the gesture seemed to mean more than the average words of encouragement one might hear during practice. Kaepernick knows he needs Davis and Boldin to have phenomenal seasons if he wants to lead his team on another run to the Super Bowl, and Davis in particular gives Kaepernick the best opportunities to show off his arm.
Patrick Willis, who was in coverage and had as close a view as anyone to the Kaepernick-to-Davis connection, described the play after practice.
“I’ve known for a while now, when I see Vernon go outside the hash and I see him cut back in, as a defender you know that the ball should be somewhere in the middle of the hashes,” said Willis, who was surprised to see Kaepernick’s pass soar toward the sideline instead.
“When Kap threw the ball and Vernon was able to turn it to another gear and go get it on the other side of the field,” said Willis, who laughed and shook his head.
“That’s just not even fair. It’s good when you see stuff like that. Even though as a defense you never want a deep throw to be caught on you, that’s just one of those plays where you say, ‘That was a heck of a throw and catch.’”
Aldon Smith, whose hair looks radically different every time I’ve seen him this offseason (during OTAs he sported both cornrows and a fantastic jheri curl), looked like a man primed to have his best season yet … based on today’s practice, anyway. Yeah, yeah, small sample size. But even without the ability to tackle he can still be an imposing presence.
In early 11-on-11 drills, Smith went up against the starting offensive line (minus Jonathan Goodwin, who didn’t practice) and shot past Mike Iupati to “sack” Kaepernick. Without contact, what that means is he was in the backfield less than 1.5 seconds after the snap and screamed something that sounded like, “Ay yayayayayayayayaya” before giving Kaepernick a swift pat to the chest while running by. Two plays later, Smith was in the backfield harassing Kaepernick again, forcing another premature whistle before a throw could be made.
Justin Smith is also back practicing (he and Aldon were a fixture near the weight room, chatting and rehabbing their respective injuries together during OTAs). While Justin’s game doesn’t translate during non-contact drills quite like Aldon’s, it’s good to see him back in action as opposed to the conditioning area. I’m pretty sure Justin is the most talkative guy on the team during practices — too bad we don’t get to stand all that close to the team during drills because I’d be interested to hear what kind of trash he talks.
And Willis, despite being an up-close spectator during Davis’ long catch, led a starting defensive unit that played pretty well up until the end of the session. I asked Vic Fangio about Willis after practice, and here’s how that brief back-and-forth went.
LB Patrick Willis has always been known as an elite player, but how has his game maybe evolved since you’ve been here for the last few years?
“Well, he always has been an elite player. He’s got elite talent and he’s an elite person and worker. I just think he’s become a better player overall. I think he has a better understanding of the game now. I think he accepts challenges. He knows we rely on him and put him in some tough positions and he cherishes that and relishes in it. I just think he’s become a much better mental football player than he was earlier in his career.”
You say he accepts challenges, is that mostly maybe in coverage?
“Yes, in coverage and both in run too. But, mainly in coverage.”
The other middle linebacking star, NaVorro Bowman, missed practice with a minor ailment but should be fine. Maybe he was doing his best No. 2 wide receiver impression.