SANTA CLARA — Eight training camp practices down, three to go before the 49ers play preseason game No. 1 and you see this for yourself. Until then, here are my top five takeaways from camp.
1. Colin Kaepernick is improving. It’s his fourth season in this offense and he has it down cold — that’s the first thing you notice. He shouts a million things between plays during the two-minute drill, just takes over, and he seems to know where his receivers will be before they get there. He anticipates openings and throws passes before receivers make their breaks. That’s new. He used to stare down one receiver and then scramble if the receiver wasn’t open. Not so much anymore. You can see Kaepernick cycle through his options, look at one receiver and then another and then another. One, two, three. Boom, boom, boom. That’s new. He completes passes to his second or third read three or four times as often as he scrambles. That’s new. By my count, Kaepernick is completing 68 percent of his passes in team drills. He completed 58 percent of his passes last season.
2. The coaches finally are getting the running backs involved in the passing game. Last Saturday I asked Greg Roman if that was a priority this season. He said, “I for one love throwing to the backs because a lot of the times people forget about them.” I almost choked. You’re the one who forgets about them, Greg. Last season, 49ers running backs were targeted on 17.9 percent of the 49ers’ pass plays, one of the lowest percentages in the league. Part of the reason Kaepernick completed just 58 percent of his passes is he rarely had a check-down option to throw to — Roman hardly ever put one in the pass pattern. Roman made the running backs block most of the time on pass plays. Kaepernick would play-fake, look deep, see no one open and then run for his life because there was no running back in the flat. That’s changing. There’s a running back in the flat on almost every pass play in camp.
3. Stevie Johnson is blowing it. When the 49ers traded a fourth round pick to the Bills for Johnson during the offseason, it seemed he was a lock to be the 49ers’ No. 3 receiver. Only a dreadful training camp performance could jeopardize that. Guess what. He’s been dreadful so far. Quarterbacks have thrown Johnson’s way 28 times in team drills. Johnson has caught 13 passes and dropped four. Dreadful. If he doesn’t start playing better, he will lose the No. 3 receiver job to second-year receiver Quinton Patton, who’s been lights-out in camp. He’s been targeted 35 times and has made 28 catches, including three touchdown catches. And when Michael Crabtree pulled his hamstring this week, Patton replaced him in the starting lineup, not Johnson.
4. Jimmie Ward is not the 49ers’ best young cornerback. Not yet, anyway. The 49ers drafted Ward in the first round a few months ago with the hope that he can be the starting nickel back. He played very well the first few days of camp before the players put on the pads and practices became physical. Then Ward got pushed around a bit. Ward frequently faced Anquan Boldin in the slot last week and Boldin wore him out, caught everything thrown his way when Ward was on him. Darryl Morris, an undrafted free agent last season, is the one nickel back who gives Boldin problems. Morris batted away two passes intended for Boldin this week. Boldin became so frustrated, he punched Morris in the facemask during Friday’s practice, and Jim Harbaugh kicked Boldin off the field. Morris isn’t the only young cornerback who has outplayed Ward. Dontae Johnson has, too. The 49ers drafted him in the fourth round this year. He’s huge, just an inch shorter than Richard Sherman. Quarterbacks have tested Johnson’s coverage 16 times during team drills. He has broken up five passes and intercepted one.
5. Key players keep getting injured. Every day it seems someone goes down. Twenty-one players currently are rehabbing injuries instead of practicing: Michael Crabtree, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore, Trey Millard, Anthony Davis, Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas, Garrett Celek, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Kaleb Ramsey, NaVorro Bowman, Nick Moody, Aaron Lynch, Keith Reaser and Tramaine Brock. Who’s next?
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.