Site: SAP Performance Facility, Santa Clara, Calif. The performance center is adjacent to Levi’s Stadium. This used to be a standalone year-round facility. Now the team uses the place for expanded coaches’ offices and meeting space, while the players’ lone locker room is a short walk away inside the stadium.
What I Saw: An afternoon practice on Aug. 21. Not an intense one, with the second preseason game 50 hours away.
Three things you need to know about the 49ers:
1. What’s better about Colin Kaepernick? It’s early, and training camp, when a quarterback knows he’s not going to get hit, is a bad period to judge any quarterback on his decision-making. But those who have watched Kaepernick here say he is going through his progressions more consistently (a weakness in the past) instead of looking at his first option and maybe a second and then taking off. He’s enjoyed working with new quarterback coach Steve Logan—out of football for three years—and make no mistake about it: The Logan-Kaepernick relationship is a key to whatever success this team has. The Kurt Warner work in the offseason also helped Kaepernick be a better student of the game. But we’ll see the real fruits of Kaepernick’s offseason when Mike Zimmer and the Vikings send some weird rushes at him in week one.
2. Look for Carlos Hyde to be the dominant back, and Reggie Bush to get 10 carries a game, max, on average. The Niners are going to be a heavy run team, the way they were with Frank Gore every year of Jim Harbaugh’s reign. Gore (255 carries, 1,106 yards) had the kind of year last year the Niners expect the 235-pound between-the-tackles back Hyde to have this year, with maybe a bit of an uptick from Gore’s 4.3 yards per rush. This camp has been all about getting Bush into the offense but keeping him from stressing his long-problematic knee woes.
3. The Aussie Rugby Leaguer, Jarryd Hayne, has an excellent chance to make the team. The plugged-in beat guys (like Matt Maiocco and Matt Barrows) have Hayne—who played football last spring for the first time in his life—as a likely final-53 roster presence after two preseason games. I think he’ll make it because of his return ability (21.6-yards-per-punt return) and his aggressive play on special teams. What a story, particularly for a neophyte running back on a team that had good running-back depth to start with.
What will determine success or failure for the Niners: I think the defense is going to be good enough. Not great, but good enough, with comebacks by Darnell Dockett and NaVorro Bowman—though the new legal problems of key cog Ahmad Brooks at linebacker put another cloud over the defense, adding to the ones left by so many retirements and firings. But it’s going to be up to Colin Kaepernick to score more than the 19.1 points per game the Niners averaged last year.
Player I saw and really liked: Hayne. Not to make this a Hayne love-fest, but it’s amazing how quickly he’s adjusted to the game. Part of that is because he’s used to making the kind of over-the-shoulder, fingertip catches he’ll have to make as a running back and returner because of his rugby past. Part of it is because of his will. “It’s not about the money for me,’’ said Hayne, a two-time Rugby League MVP (though it’s not called that in Australia), after practice. “It’s about the challenge. It’s wanting to do something totally outside my comfort zone.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Niners: The late Sean Taylor’s cousin, 2014 fifth-round pick Keith Reaser, is an aggressive cover guy vying for the starting spot opposite Tramaine Brock. San Francisco’s very shallow at cornerback … The Niners haven’t been much of a screen team in recent years, but look for that to change on third downs with Reggie Bush on screens, and some wheel routes as well … A news chopper hovered over the stadium for three minutes during practice. “Turf watch,’’ said a Niners PR man, in the wake of new turf having been installed post-Taylor Swift concerts. The turf is always a story, and rightfully so, at Levi’s Stadium. One more detour on the way to a good field now, with a Luke Bryan/Florida Georgia Line concert set for Saturday night (Aug. 29). New turf again will be installed after the concert (it won’t be finished probably till Tuesday, with the final preseason game at home on Thursday), in the hopes it will be in good shape by the time San Francisco opens at home 13 days after the installation, against Minnesota on the opening Monday-nighter, Sept. 14 … Receiver depth is a big issue. With Jerome Simpson banned for the first six games (substance abuse), it’s up to former Ravens Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith to be the prime targets. Quinton Patton and undrafted rookie DeAndrew White—who started opposite Amari Cooper at Alabama—are in line for significant snaps … The players love Jim Tomsula. Whether that wins any games, we’ll see.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about: The tight ends coach, Tony Sparano, who, in this man’s opinion, did a good job with the dysfunctional Raiders last year as interim coach but didn’t get the full-time gig after the season. The Sparano appointment by head coach Jim Tomsula sets up an interesting father-son coaching pairing: While dad coaches the Niner tight ends, son Tony Sparano Jr., coaches tight ends for Rex Ryan with the Bills.
The thing I’ll remember about Santa Clara: There’s significantly more confidence here than the players probably have a right to have. “Every year there’s change everywhere in this league,’’ Anquan Boldin told me. “I don’t think this is any big deal. I really don’t. I’ve had new coaches. I’ve had lots of new teammates. This is just another year.” In truth, of course, there’s been a massive overhaul here, but Tomsula and the staff have players believing it’s just another year with a little tinkering. Will that mean anything when the games start? I doubt it, but it’s interesting to note. Boldin’s not the only one who says that.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town: San Francisco won’t be as bad as the world thinks. I mean, not 3-13 bad. But the Niners have lost too much, and have too many holes (receiver, cornerback, linebacker especially if Brooks is lost, and offensive line) to contend. Tomsula and the braintrust should be happy with a .500 season.