The San Francisco 49ers begin voluntary Organized Team Activities on Tuesday.
The non-contact OTA sessions will take place for the rest of the week, including a Wednesday session open to the media. In addition, the 49ers will hold OTAs over the course of the next three weeks, leading up to a mandatory minicamp June 17-19.
The OTAs represent valuable time for San Francisco’s coaching staff. Players are permitted to compete in pass-heavy 7-on-7 work, plus mix in the running game during 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.
Such competitive periods were not allowed in phase two of the offseason program, dubbed “Football School” by Jim Harbaugh.
But now that the competition is starting to ratchet up, let’s take a look at five key storylines for the upcoming workouts.
1. Kap with New Targets
Colin Kaepernick has weapons galore. When I was asked last week to pick out the top position battle of the summer, I went with wide receiver. There are plenty of notable battles set to take place, but the most notable one for OTAs will be between the receivers. For starters, there’s no contact taking place. No press coverage, no bump and run. That means the offense has a distinct advantage and Kaepernick can use this time to get a good feel for his new pass-catchers. The group now includes veterans Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, plus fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington.
2. Cornerback Competitors
All eyes are on Tramaine Brock to start the OTAs. He’s surely a lock to start at cornerback in 2014. The only questions now: Who will be the other starter and who will be the team’s nickel and dime defensive backs? San Francisco selected three cornerbacks in the draft, two of which appear to be healthy for the upcoming season, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. It’s too early to tell how the newcomers stack up in the competition, but if they’re able to make interceptions in upcoming practices they could move up the depth chart past veterans like Chris Culliver, Eric Wright and Perrish Cox.
3. Rookies with the Vets
The rookie receivers and defensive backs have an opportunity to shine amongst their veterans peers in OTAs. It’s worth noting that first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward is still recovering from a foot injury and is expected to be healthy for training camp. The upcoming OTAs will feature more mental reps than physical reps for incoming rookies. When second- and third-team opportunities are presented, however, the newcomers must make the most of those chances. Take undrafted rookie free agent quarterback Kory Faulkner for example. With four other signal-callers on the roster, any chance the Southern Illinois gets to be under center is a prime moment to complete passes and earn more reps throughout the summer. Veterans, too, are looking to earn more playing time and the only way to dethrone a mainstay is to continuously compete when opportunities are presented.
4. Middle of the Field
Two other openings worth watching will be at center and inside linebacker. With Jonathan Goodwin no longer on the roster, fourth-year lineman Daniel Kilgore could be next in line to snap the ball to Kaepernick. The job, however, won’t be given away. Kilgore will have to earn it and third-round draft pick Marcus Martin comes highly touted as one of the best incoming rookie centers. Martin, 20, would be the youngest 49ers starter if he’s able to win the job outright. As for inside ‘backer, Michael Wilhoite is the likely replacement for NaVorro Bowman to start the 2014 campaign. Wilhoite, like Kilgore, will face competition from a rookie. Only in this case, Wilhoite will have to fend off two newcomers (third-round pick Chris Borland and undrafted free agent Shayne Skov), plus second-year linebacker Nick Moody. We all know what Patrick Willis can do at linebacker - the veteran will use his reps to get ready for his eighth season - but perhaps Willis takes less reps this summer to allow the coaches to evaluate the overall depth of the group.
5. More Lattimore
He didn’t mean to do it, but Marcus Lattimore slightly overshadowed his rookie teammates last weekend. It was supposed to be a three-day rookie minicamp, but it was most newsworthy for its Lattimore inclusion. The second-year running back was eligible to join the workout and flashed some play-making ability while competing against his new teammates. Although Harbaugh said the promising runner was “working through something” and wouldn’t be full-speed for the rookie camp, Lattimore still showcased the skills that have many 49ers fan salivating over his future in San Francisco. Will Lattimore be sidelined during the open media sessions? Or will he be given a heavy workload along with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Jewel Hampton? We’ll know soon enough.