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NFL San Francisco 49ers

5 Storylines to Follow During San Francisco 49ers Preseason

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Five Storylines to Follow During San Francisco 49ers Preseason

Five Storylines to Follow During San Francisco 49ers Preseason
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of two excellent seasons and their first Super Bowl loss in franchise history, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves ranked atop the AP preseason power poll and offer no shortage of storylines.

With the departure of All-Pro FS Dashon Goldson, the 49ers quickly went out and signed the former St. Louis Rams' Craig Dahl and drafted the play-making Eric Reid Jr. out of LSU. However, the answer may have already been on the roster before these moves.

Colin Kaepernick steps into his first full season starting and showed that he has the ability to shine on the big stage last year. That said, with the notorious jinx of the “sophomore slump” looming over his head, how will the gifted QB respond?

Injuries have hit the skill positions hard on offense between last season and OTAs, who will take advantage of the voids left?

Can LaMichael James improve his pass blocking ability and ball security deficiencies in order to stay on the field? Will A.J. Jenkins justify his first round draft pick in 2012 by filling the enormous shoes of Michael Crabtree? Or will talented fourth-year players finally make their names known at wideout?

It’s always interesting to examine which late-round draft pick will earn his way onto the final roster through hard work and raw ability. Even though the 49ers appear completely set at most positions, there is one late-round draftee that’s making some noise early on in camp.

What about former All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha? Can he fill the void left by Chris Culliver suffering a season-ending ACL injury – or is his career over?

Let’s examine.

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The Battle at Free Safety

Free Saftey
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Dashon Goldson was a hard-hitting solid safety that understood and fit well into the 49ers scheme – but he wasn’t the most gifted athlete.

Both recently acquired Craig Dahl and first-round draft pick Eric Reid boast much better combine numbers and top-end speed. Goldson ran a 4.65 40-yard-dash compared to Dahl’s 4.55, and Reid was even quicker with a 4.53 and an impressive 40-inch vertical leap.

Dahl was originally listed as the backup strong safety, but has earned the start at free safety against the Denver Broncos Thursday night, which lends credence to the fact that this is very much a fluid situation during the preseason.

Given Reid’s draft number and raw talent, many feel he will be the starting free safety by the beginning of the year. However, playing as a deep safety at the NFL level is as much about communication and understanding where you’re supposed to be on certain plays, than it is anything else – which is where C.J. Spillman comes in.

The fifth-year player out of Marshall knows this defense inside and out, but has played primarily on special teams since joining the squad in 2010. He’s quick – as evidenced by his 4.45 40-yard-dash – and is still very much in the running for the starting spot according to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

This is definitely a battle to keep an eye on as the preseason progresses.

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How Will Colin Kaepernick Fair in His First Full Year?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

After watching Colin Kaepernick break records by shredding the Green Bay Packers for 181 yards on the ground – and throw for 300 yards in the Super Bowl as a second-year player – I told my family that it was like “watching Superman being born.”

That’s an act that will be hard to follow up, but the expectations for the 25-year-old are through the roof, and why wouldn’t they be?

Some do feel that defenses will pick up on the pistol offense and that may hamper what Kaepernick does the best, but don’t count on it.

Kaepernick does possess great athleticism, but he also has what Tim Tebow doesn’t have: the ability to beat you from the pocket. He displayed unbelievable throwing ability down the field from the pocket in many games last year, and has been working hard in training camp on touch passes as well.

Rookie Quinton Patton, who fractured a finger trying to catch a Kaepernick pass, will be glad to hear that.

Not only do I expect Kaepernick to not fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, I expect him to be a much improved all-around quarterback.

It will be exciting to watch him play this preseason because of his raw athletic ability, but also just as interesting to see what new wrinkles he has added to his game since last year. Look for “Kap” to have a top-five year in total QBR in his first full season at the helm of the 49ers.

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Which Young Player Will Step Up?

LaMichael James
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

LaMichael James possesses the type of speed that many coaches drool over. However, he put the ball on the ground too often, and had a hard time picking up rushers for his quarterback much of last year.

So far in camp, it appears that James has improved in both areas. With Kendall Hunter still recovering from a leg injury, James has the opportunity to step in as Frank Gore’s backup this preseason and will have the full attention of offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

The biggest issue for this team in the preseason is filling the void left behind by the injuries to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. So far this training camp, several players have had their days in the sun.

The 27-year-old Ricardo Lockette turned heads Tuesday, catching six passes and making three huge plays. Lockette possesses blazing speed and looks primed to make a run this preseason at a starting job.

Second-year player A.J. Jenkins has had a standout week, making big touchdown plays and difficult contested catches. If he keeps up the pace he’s set for himself since returning from a hamstring injury this preseason, Jenkins could be the starter opposite Anquan Boldin week one.

Fourth-year speedster Kyle Williams has also had some spectacular diving catches that caught head coach Jim Harbaugh’s attention. Williams was listed as the starter opposite Boldin on last Friday’s depth chart, but that doesn’t mean it’s his job to lose per se.

This preseason will determine a lot for this team, and for the future of many young players.

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Nick Moody
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Sixth-round draft pick Nick Moody is an inside linebacker out of Florida State that has turned heads in camp.

Regularly, Moody has blown up running backs and has been seen eagerly seeking, and soaking up, the advice of veterans every day. A hard worker, Moody played mostly skill positions growing up – and safety in college up until his final season – so his speed and athleticism made him a natural pickup for the 49ers with the 180th pick.

While the 49ers do boast the two best ILB’s in the NFL in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, Moody will get ample playing time this preseason because of Willis’ fractured hand and Bowman’s tender hamstring.

While Moody is currently listed behind the likes of Nate Stupar and Michael Wilhoite, don’t be surprised to see him leapfrog both players with a strong preseason showing.

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Anything Left in the Tank for Nnambdi Asomugha?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Once considered the next best corner in the league to Darrelle Revis, now we find ourselves wondering if Nnambdi Asomugha can make an NFL roster.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is not one to mince words, has publicly questioned whether or not Asomugha has anything left in the tank.

“He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren't sure if he was going to still have it,” Fangio said via the Associated Press late last week.

With the season-ending injury to Chris Culliver, a roster spot is likely there for Asomugha if he can perform at a decent level, however, it doesn’t look likely he will be the third corner. With the top two spots locked up by Carlos Rogers and Taralle Brown, third-year player Tramaine Brock has been seeing action in that role.

Brock, who lost his job to Culliver due to injury, is a fourth-year player that possesses much better speed than Asomugha at this stage of his career. This preseason is a make-or-break one for the one-time superstar.

Will Reeve is a San Francisco 49ers writer for Follow him on Twitter @willreevejr, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.