With the 49ers’ full squad reporting Friday and the first practice Saturday, here are five questions the team hopes to answer during training camp:
Q: Can a retooled Colin Kaepernick master a retooled offense?
A: Everything 49ers fans complained was missing from the team’s previous offenses will be added to this years’ version.
Not enough screen passes? The 49ers brought in the king of screens, Reggie Bush, in the offseason and plan on making high-percentage tosses to the running back part of the offense.
No speedy wide receivers to stretch the field? Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson were signed to do exactly that.
A more multidimensional offense sounds good, but it is mere theory at this point. Someone needs to make it work and that person is Kaepernick, the quarterback coming off a humbling 2014 season.
To his credit, Kaepernick dedicated the offseason to working on his shortcomings. He spent nearly three months in Phoenix, where he changed his stance, shortened his delivery and worked on becoming a better pocket quarterback – both in terms of mechanics and reading defenses. Significantly, he also concentrated on his deep passes, something the offense didn’t emphasize in previous seasons. The fruits of that labor were evident at times during the spring session, including on long throws to Smith, but will be tested in training camp and the preseason.
Q: Who will protect the quarterback?
A: Since 2010, the 49ers’ offensive line has had at least three first-round draft picks. Two of them – Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis – are gone. The third, left tackle Joe Staley, may be the only offensive lineman who lines up in the first training camp practice at the spot at which he ended the 2014 season.
With the exception of cornerback, no group will have more new, or at least unfamiliar, faces than the offensive line. Veteran newcomer Erik Pears could take over for Davis at right tackle. Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas are vying for spots at guard.
How quickly the 49ers settle on a starting five and how well the group comes together will be a key to the team’s early success. The goal is to create an offensive line that handles power-blocking and – new this season – zone-blocking techniques equally well – and, of course, protects the passer.
Last year, Kaepernick was sacked 52 times, second only to Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles’ 55.
Q: What does inside linebacker look like without Patrick Willis?
A: The 49ers’ defense was unique and effective in recent years because it had two of the best – perhaps the two best – inside linebackers in the NFL. Willis and NaVorro Bowman were as swift as defensive backs and struck ball carriers like cannonballs.
Willis retired in March and his would-be replacement, Chris Borland, did the same. What’s more, Bowman is working back from a severe knee injury that wiped away his 2014 season and there is no guarantee he will return to his previous form.
All of which means the 49ers’ defense is no longer able to hinge on inside linebackers. San Francisco’s defensive strength now may be at safety, and it will be interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini uses high-round draft picks Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. At 220 pounds, Tartt is nearly the size of a linebacker and could essentially be a quasi linebacker in passing situations.
Q: How will a rebuilt secondary perform in 2015?
A: The 49ers’ defensive backfield lost its two most important members in the offseason. No, not starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, who landed in Washington and Tennessee, respectively, during free agency. Rather, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell were not retained and both ended up in Chicago.
Over the past four seasons, the well-coached secondary was consistently strong despite dealing with new components each offseason. In 2011, for example, the 49ers led the league in takeaways; last year they led the league in interceptions.
Starting safeties Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid provide stability, but for the second consecutive season the team will have new starting cornerbacks. Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright are the likely first-string combination, but a slew of young players will jockey for prominent roles.
That includes Dontae Johnson, who had a solid rookie season in 2014, and Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser. Reaser is one of several examples of general manager Trent Baalke’s bargain-bin draft theory. He fell to the fifth round a year ago due to an ACL injury, but Baalke believes he has the potential – including top-end speed – to have an impact at the position.
Q: What will a Jim Tomsula-led training camp look like?
A: Training camps take on the personality of their head coaches. Mike Nolan’s was feisty – hardly a day went by without a practice-field dust-up. Mike Singletary’s was hard-nosed. His controversial “nutcracker drill” injured several prominent players. Jim Harbaugh’s? They were demanding, with Harbaugh blowing his whistle like a midtown traffic cop.
Tomsula has not run an NFL training camp. His practices will start later than Harbaugh’s, with most of the early-August sessions beginning at 4:15 p.m. That schedule shifts the training camp meetings to the middle of the day when, so the theory goes, the players are less apt to doze off.
Tomsula will hold the first eight practices at Levi’s Stadium to increase the comfort level inside the facility. The team went 4-4 at home last season, its first at Levi’s.
49ers’ summer schedule
Friday: Full squad reports to training camp
Saturday: First full-squad practice
Tuesday: First padded practice
Aug. 9: Practice open to 10,000 fans who received tickets through an online drawing
Aug. 15: Preseason opener at Houston, 5 p.m.
Aug. 23: Preseason home opener vs. Dallas Cowboys, 5 p.m.
Aug. 26-27: Joint practices with Denver Broncos in Englewood, Colo.
Aug. 29: Preseason game at Denver, 6 p.m.
Sept. 1: Roster cut to 75 players
Sept. 3: Preseason finale vs. San Diego, 7 p.m.
Sept. 5: Roster reduced to 53 players
Sept. 6: Teams can begin building 10-man practice squad