At the end of the week, a seven-week offseason program will come to an end for the 49ers rookie class. The NFL newcomers have been consistent in their approach to learning the professional game and it's been a positive development for San Francisco's coaching staff.
Defensively, coordinator Vic Fangio has noticed the hard work from his rookies. At last week's veteran minicamp, the respected defensive coach outlined the purpose of the workouts: Teach the assignments, fundamentals, techniques and concepts of the 49ers defense that will be relied on throughout a 16-game regular season.
"We're not in the game planning, or playing any particular type of offense," Fangio said. "It's just installing and inserting all of our concepts."
For first-round pick Eric Reid, a commitment to studying hasn't been a problem. The two-time All-SEC Academic Honor Roll selection out of LSU has proved his rapidly growing knowledge of Fangio's system by rotating in with the first-team defense at free safety.
"He's coming along fine, like most rookies are," said Fangio, before explaining that Reid's understanding of the defense has sharpened over the course of the offseason.
"He's in the struggles of learning what to do," Fangio continued. "The first step is a rookie's got to learn what to do to where he can actually tell you what he's supposed to do. And then he's got to be able to show you he knows how to do it. And then he's got to be able to make the adjustments on the run that come within those different assignments and techniques."
Reid has a strong base of knowledge in San Francisco's defensive system. Still, Fangio feels that Reid isn't always on top of the proper adjustments that need to be made on the field.
"I think he knows what to do," Fangio said. "He doesn't always know how to do it."
Reid continues to master the defensive playbook and will continue calling out checks at rookie minicamp this week. It's the perfect opportunity to showcase his understanding to San Francisco's coaching staff.
"I think you make a mistake to evaluate any rookie at this point," Fangio said. "They're all learning right now. This is the learning stage of how to play. And the true evaluation won't come until the middle of training camp and into the preseason games."
Fangio believes Reid's mental capacity will allow him to fully digest the entire defensive playbook in a short amount of time. The 49ers coordinator made a unique comparison on the subject. Fangio explained that the learning process in the NFL for a young safety is similar to a receiving an upgrade in a home entertainment system.
"Right now it's just the screen is blurry a lot of times," Fangio said. "Then one day that TV screen will be fixed and it'll be like a new HD. So, it will just happen at some point."
Reid rotated in with the first-team defense during OTAs and will compete for the starting free safety role with the likes of Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson when training camp begins. All four players took first-team reps during offseason team periods.
Reid has the best opportunity to see significant action from the 2013 rookie class. Fangio explained that defensive line draft picks Garrett Celek and Quinton Dial are not expected to be fully healthy before the start of training camp in late July.
"Not anytime soon," the defensive coordinator said when asked if he knew of the return date of the second- and fifth-round selections. "I don't know the exact date."
Both rookie linemen have been actively rehabbing their respective injuries with team doctors this offseason and will look to compete for playing time when they're cleared to play. Should they be healthy in time for the regular season, Fangio wants them to earn snaps in a competitive defensive line group.
Playing opportunities will not be handed out. The rookies will have to prove their run stopping and pass rushing ability is worth taking Justin Smith and Ray McDonald off the field.
"Those guys have to earn the right to be allowed to be put in the game," Fangio said. "You just don't platoon guys just for the sake of platooning them. You don't want to go down in the quality of your play just for the sake of playing guys."
Fangio hasn't seen his rookie draft picks on the defensive line this offseason, but he does have a sense of Olympic discus thrower Lawrence Okoye's development.
The 6-foot-6, 304-pound defensive tackle has never played football on any level, but has flashed his potential to the 49ers coaching staff.
"I don't think we'll get a true picture of him for a while," Fangio admitted.
"It's going to be a matter of how quickly he learns how to play. He hasn't had anybody hit him yet. He hasn't had a double team yet. He hasn't figured out if it's a run or pass whether he should rush, or play the run. So, it'll probably be a very slow process with him much more than a normal rookie."
The development of Okoye and the entire rookie class will be fully on display when training camp rolls around.