James helps 49ers coverage unit prepare for Sproles

948391.jpg

James helps 49ers coverage unit prepare for Sproles

NEW ORLEANS -- Leon Washington had nowhere to run. Patrick Peterson could not get anything going. Danny Amendola was swarmed. And Devin Hester, one of the top return men in the game, was held to negative yardage.The 49ers' coverage units appear to have things figured out after a rough beginning to the season."I was going in for extra meetings with (special teams coordinator) Brad Seely because I was unhappy with my play in the beginning of the season and I was trying to pick my game up," said Tavares Gooden, one of the team's core special-teamers.
Gooden has picked up his game. And he is not alone.C.J. Spillman is playing at a high level, and so are Tramaine Brock and Bruce Miller, as well as defensive standouts NaVorro Bowman and Dashon Goldson.Gooden credits the 49ers' improved play on special teams to chemistry."Guys have played a few games together," Gooden said. "The special teams units were basically separated due to some things going on in the offseason. We had four of five new guys on the team added, and we had to learn how to play off of each other. And I think we're getting better."The 49ers did not re-sign Blake Costanzo and Reggie Smith, two of the team's top contributors on special teams last season. And the team traded Colin Jones on the day of the final cuts."I knew we had the right coach," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I knew we had the right guys on the teams. And I think that effort, that hard work, that creativity, opportunistic approach and just working together has paid off. Practice has made the guys better."In the past four games, Andy Lee's punts have been covered about as well as possible. Washington had five yards on two returns in the 49ers' win over Seattle. Peterson managed just 15 yards on four returns for Arizona. Amendola had three returns and totaled just 14 yards in the tie against St. Louis, and Hester had minus-1 return yard on three punt returns, as the 49ers blew out Chicago.During that time, the 49ers have allowed an average of just 20.9 yards on returns of David Akers' kickoffs.
The 49ers feel prepared to face explosive New Orleans Saints return man Darren Sproles because of a week of practice that included chasing around rookie running LaMichael James.James, a second-round draft pick, has not suited up for a game this season. At practice he wore No. 43, playing the role of Sproles, who is expected to return to action after missing three games with a hand injury."LaMichael James has been helpful," Gooden said. "If Sproles is playing, we'll be ready for him."He looks the same to me. Both of the guys are short and have those quick movements. He's been working with us all week running routes and getting us prepared."James is also benefiting from the experience, Harbaugh said."He's been a wide receiver a lot of times in practice and running back coming out of the backfield," Harbaugh said. "His hands have improved so much and his route-running ability. I think it was quite a good look for our defense this week with LaMichael."James struggled in training camp and in the exhibition season catching punts. When asked how he is doing in that discipline, Harbaugh answered, "He's still coming along, still coming along ... Kickoffs are a little easier than the punts."

49ers reissue Bryant Young's number

49ers reissue Bryant Young's number

SANTA CLARA -- For the first time since Bryant Young retired following the 2007 season, the 49eres have placed his old number back into service.

Linebacker Dekoda Watson was issued No. 97 for the team’s organized team activities this week.

Young was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and eight-time winner of the Len Eshmont Award as the 49ers’ most inspirational and courageous player. No 49ers player has worn No. 97 in the past nine seasons or offseasons.

Rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas is now wearing No. 94 after being issued No. 96 for the rookie minicamp. Linebacker Reuben Foster is wearing No. 56.

Rookie defensive tackle D.J. Jones now wearing No. 96. Cornerback Rashard Robinson switched back to No. 33 after an earlier change to No. 26. Running back Kapri Bibbs is now 26. Rookie running back Joe Williams is No. 32 after wearing No. 33 at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere in Los Angeles over the weekend. Veteran running back Tim Hightower is wearing No. 22.

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.