After a devastating loss in Super Bowl XLVII, the San Francisco 49ers have to pick up the pieces this preseason. A lot of Super Bowl losers decline in the season following, but this is the 49ers we’re talking about.
They will bounce back, but they still have a few parts of their roster that have questions remaining. That’s why I’ve found five players this preseason you should keep tabs on, and how well they develop will decide if the 49ers can take a step forward, or take a step back.
Now let’s start with Cornellius Carradine.
1. Cornellius Carradine: #95
Carradine’s development will be very important this preseason, because of Justin Smith’s age. Smith will turn 34 this season, and he showed wear and tear with a torn triceps injury late in 2012. No one knows how much longer Justin Smith will play, but his successor could be Carradine. Key things to watch from Carradine in preseason are how well he maintains leverage at the point of attack, how well he uses his hands to keep himself clean from linemen, and the kind of pass rusher he can become. Does he beat linemen with his speed or strength?
These questions will determine how fast he can transition into a starting role, and how he can be used in the future. I liked Carradine a lot at Florida State, but preseason will be a step in seeing if what I saw in college will translate to the NFL.
2. Eric Reid
Dashon Goldson leaving in free agency to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hurt 49er fans, but Eric Reid could make you forget about Goldson. Reid is a very athletic and physical talent who needs to improve in understanding angles and leverage in pass coverage. Assignment football in the most basic sense is what Reid needs to improve, in being where he needs to be to prevent the big play from happening. The 49ers coaching staff can coach him into playing with better angles and leverage, but this preseason will tell a lot about his development. I won’t make this too complicated, but what you want to see out of Reid is that he doesn’t give up big plays.
If you see big, long touchdowns occur in Reid’s vicinity, then he has a long way to go. Tackling is not something Reid has issues with, but giving up the big play, because he’s out of position in pass coverage is a big issue he had in college at LSU. Reid is the starting safety, and if he isn’t playing good assignment football now, then this 49ers defense will have a big hole to fill during the season.
3. A.J. Jenkins: #17
You remember A.J. Jenkins from last season right? He was the wide receiver who didn’t catch a single pass during the regular season or postseason in 2012, and he was the 49ers first-round pick in the 2012 draft. Jenkins is still struggling to stand out so far, and this could be his last season with the 49ers if he can’t shape up. However, the preseason has a way of bringing the best out of players who struggle in camp, but Jenkins will need to show significant improvement. What you want to see out of Jenkins is that he starts to be less timid.
Every time I’ve watched Jenkins, he looks timid and not confident in his abilities. He needs to show some courage and take the bull by the horns. I’m not sure he will ever make that transition, but his development is still very important. The 49ers need receivers with Michael Crabtree’s injury and Mario Manningham too. Jenkins must step up now, or he may never step up.
4. Quinton Patton: #11
Now that I have Jenkins out of my system, it’s time to introduce you to Quinton Patton. One of my most favorite wide receivers out of the 2013 draft class was Patton, and the 49ers got a steal in the fourth-round. Patton’s ability to adjust to the football and win 50-50 balls is impressive, but Patton does have some aspects of his game that need to improve in preseason and beyond. How he beats press coverage, sideline awareness and his hand placement when hauling in a pass against a defender are the main things to look for improvement from him in preseason. Patton needs to work on refining his game in those areas, but if he does, then he will have a big year in 2013.
5. Vance McDonald: #89
With all of the wide receiver depth issues the 49ers have and the possibility of Vernon Davis being used more as a wide receiver, means Vance McDonald will need to have a strong preseason to make the passing game and running game work. McDonald is often portrayed as just a receiving tight end, but he was good in about every aspect of what a tight end is supposed to be in the NFL. His pass protection and run blocking were solid at Rice, but how well his solid blocking translates to the NFL is what you want to see out of him. Look for how well McDonald does in run blocking and pass blocking to see his impact in 2013. And yes, McDonald is a gifted pass catcher for the tight end position, but the 49ers are a run first team.
You earn your keep on a run first team in how well you can block, before you ever get graded on your pass catching. McDonald can have a big impact in 2013 from what I saw at Rice, but this preseason is the real evaluation on where he’s really at in terms of being a NFL tight end.
James Cobern is a NFC West Division Leader for TPF and can be contacted at JCobern@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com or follow him on Twitter @Jmcobern1