Competition in passing game highlights 49ers' OTAs

Competition in passing game highlights 49ers' OTAs
May 27, 2014, 7:45 am
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Draft picks Jimmie Ward and Keith Reaser will try to work their way up the depth chart into training camp. (USATSI)

The 49ers begin organized team activities on Tuesday. Finally, that means the offense can compete against the defense.

Because there is no live contact during the four-week period that concludes the offseason program, the real competition at inside linebacker -- as NaVorro Bowman continues his rehab -- will not kick into high gear until the pads go on in training camp.

But the next four weeks will be critical toward setting the table in the passing game. And that goes for both sides of the ball.

The 49ers’ pass defense has been outstanding the past three seasons. The club ranked in the top-six in opponent passer rating in each of those seasons: fifth in 2011 (73.6), sixth in 2012 (78.0) and fourth last season at 76.4.

But the defensive backfield is where the 49ers have undergone the most change this offseason. Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, as well as strong safety Donte Whitner, are gone.

Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, both of whom are slated to open the season as starters for the first times in their careers, are atop the depth chart at the cornerback positions.

Eric Wright has 81 starts in his seven-year NFL career, but did not distinguish himself in his half-season with the 49ers in 2013. Chris Cook started 11 games last season with the Minnesota Vikings. He experienced problems on and off the field during his four seasons in Minnesota after being the No. 34 overall pick in 2010. Perrish Cox is back after moving ahead of Wright on the depth chart to be the nickel corner for the 49ers’ first two playoff games when Rogers was out with an injury.

Rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker will get plenty of opportunities to work themselves into the mix, too. However, first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward will not get on the field as the nickel corner as he recovers from pre-draft foot surgery.

What will make the competition at cornerback even more intriguing is that the level of wide receivers against they’ll be covering has experienced a significant upgrade.

Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are set as the 49ers' starters, but Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin and rookie Bruce Ellington will provide daily tests for the 49ers’ defense while competing for roles of their own.

And the level of quarterbacks making those throws is probably the strongest the 49ers have had in camp with Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson, McLeod Bethel-Thompson and a rookie, Kory Faulkner, behind Colin Kaepernick.

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As noted earlier, it’s difficult to imagine one of the inside linebackers taking a huge step toward earning a spot alongside Patrick Willis during this phase of the offseason program. Veteran Michael Wilhoite has a large advantage because of his knowledge of the system. He figures to hold onto his lead heading into training camp. This time of year is all about learning for rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov, so when they get to camp they can play fast.

And the same goes for the competition at center. Daniel Kilgore has a significant edge over rookie Marcus Martin based on his three previous seasons under offensive line coach Mike Solari. Coach Jim Harbaugh said Martin is serving as an “understudy,” but Martin made it clear he is not be satisfied to be a spectator in his first NFL season.

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The 49ers have OTAs scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, as well as June 2-3, June 5, June 9-10 and June 12-13. Typically, one practice per week is open to the media. This week, the 49ers will open the Wednesday practice.

All these workouts are termed “voluntary.” The 49ers mandatory, full-squad minicamp is scheduled for June 17-19 to conclude the offseason program. The workouts are not open to the general public.