NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Ian Rapoport details his visit with the San Francisco 49ers. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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The team is still officially called the San Francisco 49ers, but everything happens in Santa Clara, Calif. The practice facility consists of two fields smashed into an office park, surrounded by bulldozers and shovels. No, we're not complaining. The Niners' new stadium is being built right next door; the team and any other visitors to Santa Clara get a first-hand look at what's soon to be the NFL's newest home. It's a very cool site. The exciting possibilities of a new stadium more than make up for the media work room being located in a trailer.
1. Can Randy Moss make this team and resurrect his career? Moss was a media darling the day we visited, holding court with reporters for more than 10 minutes. He offered some jokes, soulfully shared his feelings for the game and spoke glowingly of his new team. "Me being around a great group of guys who are young and enthusiastic makes me feel kind of young, too," Moss said. The question is whether he'll be around for the 2012 season. The early signs are incredibly positive for the 35-year-old former star. He burned past two cornerbacks during one-on-one drills, looking like the Moss of old. His blazing speed must be respected; even if he's not quite his old self, opposing defenses might still double-team him. However well he performs, Moss might still draw enough defenders to help key the 49ers' running game. This offense could be more explosive with Moss in the lineup.
2. Are there enough footballs to go around? There's been a lot of hoopla surrounding Moss. However, as coach Jim Harbaugh said, five players could be competing for the role of No. 1 receiver, including Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham. San Francisco, meanwhile, didn't exactly run a pass-heavy offense last season; the 49ers carried the ball 498 times, third-most in the NFL. Is Harbaugh suddenly going to turn quarterback Alex Smith loose? Maybe. But Smith will have to prove he can distribute like a point guard and keep every receiver happy for such an approach to work. Smith wasn't lying when he admitted that hitting Moss deep is slightly intimidating. The quarterback is going to have to air it out in 2012.
3. The 49ers might not have the best defense in football this year ... or will they? Only a handful of teams can counter the strength of San Francisco's front seven. That the 49ers can team up linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman is almost unfair; I was impressed by their willingness to spend time teaching younger players. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith looks bigger and stronger, and defensive end Justin Smith is the same as he always is, meaning San Francisco will be insanely difficult to run against. If the 49ers can bring the kind of pressure they're hoping to, facing San Francisco will be quite unpleasant.
4. Maybe the sky really is the limit. Discussing the team, Moss hesitated and paused, attempting to characterize the 49ers as a work in progress. Then he gave in and revealed what he was really thinking. "The sky is the limit," Moss said, a phrase that Manningham also used. Both receivers are right. Even though the 49ers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC title game last season, the fact that they got that far generated a palpable sense of optimism within the team. And as Alex Smith said, "That feeling is still there." With so much offensive and defensive talent, this might be the year the 49ers return to glory.
THE NEW GUYS
Brandon Jacobs: The aging running back couldn't have landed in a better spot after parting ways with the New York Giants. Jacobs said he liked that the "downhill" approach of the old-school 49ers reminded him of how the Giants used to do things. "When I first came into the league, we went that way," Jacobs said of the Giants' old "run-first" scheme. "Now, I guess, the game there has evolved into something very different." Jacobs looked renewed, and not just with regard to his attitude. He was fast and elusive, showing that when he gets his speed up, he's tough to stop. Between Jacobs, Frank Gore, second-round pick LaMichael James and others, the Niners have a ton of running options.
A.J. Jenkins: Based on a few preseason workouts, some observers are grumbling that the rookie receiver is a bust. Harbaugh lashed out at Jenkins' early critics recently. "They're making themselves look foolish," Harbaugh said. In fact, it's too early to tell if Jenkins has a bright future. In practice, he looked like a fluid athlete who is coming along slowly. One exchange did stand out. "Come on, A.J.," Moss said after Jenkins dropped a pass that had hit his hands. The 49ers' improved receiver depth might keep Jenkins from seeing the field much early on, giving him the time he needs to develop.
Mario Manningham: The New York Giants' Super Bowl hero cashed in on his star turn, though he likely didn't do it to the extent he thought he would. The contract he was given by the 49ers is worth merely $7.4 million over two years -- not the kind of money a true No. 1 receiver receives. The truth is, Manningham wasn't as productive in the regular season as he was while playing with a Super Bowl ring on the line. In fact, he mostly played second fiddle to Victor Cruz. A few months later, Manningham is happy, saying, "I'm glad I came here to play." It sounds like he has embraced the notion that he's one of several options. "Here last year, they didn't really have depth at receiver," Manningham said. "We're deep at receiver right now. You got to come with your hard hat on and compete."
Perrish Cox: Life changed for the former Denver Broncos cornerback this offseason. Acquitted of sexual-assault charges, Cox was snagged by the 49ers, and he's flown under the radar with them ever since. That might be changing for Cox, who has worked himself into position as a second-string cornerback. The day we watched, Cox made a nice tipped interception of quarterback Josh Johnson in team work. He could play inside or outside, giving San Francisco more depth, though if he keeps shining, he could take on a bigger role.
"When I first came into this league, I didn't really understand, really, everything that goes on with the NFL. And now that I'm matured, physically and mentally, my philosophy is, I do not like (thinking about) what the NFL does for me, I want to know what I can do to make the NFL better. And if that's coming out here teaching the young guys and showing my professionalism and being a leader on and off the field, that's what I want to do, because I think that if we get that type of mindset, it'll make it a better league."
-- Randy Moss, showing off his new focus.
- Who's the No. 1 receiver? It's a question that intrigues me, but opposing defensive coordinators will have the final say. If they have a safety over the top of Moss when play begins, that will truly validate his status.
- Gore looks to be in great shape, but he is 29. Accordingly, I like that the 49ers surrounded him with four legitimate options to help take pressure off of the veteran. That's how you keep a back young.
- Man, Harbaugh is feisty. He's never met a question he can't pick apart -- a pastime that he seems to enjoy. That kind of feistiness can be fun for reporters, too. But he can't go after everyone who unfairly criticizes his players, or he'll find himself calling in to talk radio shows. That would be a bad idea.
The 49ers haven't looked this ready to win since, maybe, 1998. Their defense is strong and physical, made for January. Their offense has so many big-name weapons, we managed to make it through the above analysis without even mentioning star tight end Vernon Davis. Harbaugh has proven he can win in the NFL. The follow-up to last season could be fun, especially considering that the 49ers are still smarting from that defeat in the NFC title game. The only question is whether Alex Smith can rise to the occasion and find all of his talented targets. If he continues to progress, San Francisco should get a shot to make up for that disappointing finish to a magical 2011 season.