The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Ian Rapoport visits the San Francisco 49ers.
Where is NFL Media?
The 49ers are holding training camp at their newly built Levi's Stadium, practicing on the actual game field more than ever to try to build a home-field advantage. And for the coaches, fully renovated and spacious offices are a nice touch.
1) The 49ers lost one of the winningest coaches in NFL history in Jim Harbaugh this offseason, but there is a breath of fresh air inside the building under new coach Jim Tomsula. Everyone seems a bit happier, but only time will tell if that leads to more wins. At the least, players appear to enjoy their jobs more, compared with feeling like they were in a morgue by the end of last season. Veterans will receive fewer reps in camp, but that's not to say it's a country club. Players were given strict weights to hit when they arrived, and they all hit them.
2) It's time for the draft picks to play. For years, thanks in part to the Alex Smith trade, the 49ers seemingly have had endless draft picks. They stockpiled them. Well, losing veterans such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore and Anthony Davis to retirement or free agency makes it a necessity to get those young guys on the field. They already view 2015 first-rounder Arik Armstead as someone who belongs. Linebacker Aaron Lynch will play, and so will linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who has worked his way up. Oh, and it's time to see Carlos Hyde be the bell cow. The well-known names are gone. But inside the building, they don't believe the talent is.
3)Aldon Smith has had, it seems, five different careers, as he's battled off-the-field issues for the past few years. It's dangerous to say "now he's turning his life around," and the Niners have been cautious with their Pro Bowl outside backer. But they have seen a different player. Thanks to a re-worked contract, he'll have to earn every penny. Can Smith return to the form that's made him one of the league's best while staying out of trouble? Time will tell. But his coaches view him as a more serious, hungrier player. They think this is the last they'll have to worry about him.
A lot has been written about the loss of Justin Smith, but the "Cowboy" on the field last year clearly wasn't the same from his prime -- playing 60 percent of his snaps, with mostly one arm. Thus, replacing him with former Cardinals stalwart Darnell Dockett is considered an upgrade. Dockett brings the personality (and then some), but also the playmaking creativity rarely seen in a lineman. That is a net win. Meanwhile, a name that's already impressing the coaching staff is rookie tight end Blake Bell. They drafted him 117th overall, and they already have Vernon Davis. But Bell, the former-college quarterback who is still learning the position, could be the future there. One more name to watch: Jaquiski Tartt, a 225-pound safety who'll slide down in the box and cover on third down.
"It looks like he's moving around great." -- Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, on linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Simple, but important. The loss of Patrick Willis isn't quite as bad when you consider Bowman -- the Robin to his Batman -- didn't play at all last year. It's like we all forgot how good he is. Nearing 100 percent, Bowman's comeback is almost complete.