Grant Cohn: Five key questions for the 49ers
For the 49ers, training camp is about becoming the best.
Second place isn’t good enough anymore. Enough with second place. Win the Super Bowl before the window of opportunity closes.
With that in mind, here are five key questions the 49ers will face in training camp.
1. Will Carlos Hyde rejuvenate the 49ers’ running game?
Frank Gore is slowing down. In the 49ers’ final 10 games last season, Gore averaged just 3.65 yards per rush. The 49ers need more from their top running back - this is a run-first team. That’s why this year the 49ers spent their second-round pick on Hyde, a running back. Hyde is much bigger than Gore. Faster than Gore, too. Hyde has power. He punches through the hole and pushes the pile and picks up yards after contact. At least that’s what he did in the Big Ten. If he can do that in the NFL his rookie season, he will push the 49ers over the top.
2. Will George Whitfield make Colin Kaepernick better?
Give credit to Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff for teaching Kaepernick how to take snaps from under center - Kaepernick didn’t do that in college. But he has not improved significantly since his first start in 2012. He still is inaccurate. His footwork still is remedial. His red-zone passing still is substandard. That’s where George Whitfield comes in. Technically, he’s a summer intern for 49ers, part of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship. Don’t be fooled. Whitfield is a star, not an extra. He has tutored Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel, and now Whitfield will tutor Kaepernick. No quarterback guru is more in demand than Whitfield. If he can’t turn Kaepernick into a polished pocket passer, who can?
3. Will the 49ers change the formula on offense if Vernon Davis holds out?
The 49ers’ passing game revolves around Vernon Davis. He draws the most attention from opposing defenses. He draws double-teams and leaves one-on-one matchups for Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. If Davis holds out, will Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman change the offense during training camp? Will they create a new passing attack, one that doesn’t depend on Davis? Or will Harbaugh and Roman change nothing and hope Davis comes back to the team before the season starts? Harbaugh and Roman have to choose. There is no way to know which the right choice is, but if they choose incorrectly, they could jeopardize the season.
4. Which cornerbacks can cover?
Tramaine Brock can cover, although he’s short - 5-foot-9-and-a-half - and inexperienced, having started just 10 games during his NFL career. If he wins the No.1 cornerback job in training camp - he probably will; there isn’t much competition - he will cover Dez Bryant Week 1, Brandon Marshall Week 2 and Larry Fitzgerald Week 3. Go get ’em, Tramaine. Behind him, the 49ers have zero proven cornerbacks. Chris Culliver and Chris Cook will compete for the No. 2 job. Culliver and Cook are big and athletic, but neither guy has developed the ability to turn and find the ball when it’s in the air. What good is a cornerback who can’t turn and find the ball?
5. Will Stevie Johnson add anything to the 49ers’ passing game?
The Bills traded Johnson to the 49ers this offseason. Johnson was the Bills’ No. 1 receiver the past four seasons. Now, he’s competing with Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington to be the 49ers’ No. 3 wide receiver. Johnson may lose that competition. He is a possession receiver, like Crabtree and Boldin. Johnson gives the 49ers more of what they already have. When the 49ers use three-wide-receiver formations next season, the coaches may want a receiver who complements Crabtree and Boldin. Someone fast. Someone other than Johnson.