SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – The San Francisco 49ers are eager to move forward from a forgettable offseason.
They made nearly as much news off the field as in free agency and the draft, although they accomplished their top priority by re-signing quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of the franchise.
Distractions were everywhere in the days, weeks and months after San Francisco’s season ended in the NFC Championship Game against biggest rival Seattle, the eventual Super Bowl champion.
Two key faces have been absent as they seek new contracts, right guard Alex Boone and tight end Vernon Davis. On the defensive side, linebacker Aldon Smith and cornerback Chris Culliver each dealt with offseason arrests and court appearances.
There was also news that the Browns inquired about trading for coach Jim Harbaugh in January. Instead, the coach enters the fourth season of his $25 million, five-year contract in San Francisco.
Now, the Niners kick off training camp eager to recapture the NFC West that Seattle stole away in 2013.
Some things to watch as the team opens camp:
Kaepernick’s new deal: Kaepernick is rich with a new contract that got done before training camp, as everybody hoped. He’s ready to prove he’s worth being paid among the best QBs in the league and can carry this team to a championship the way Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young did.
“To me it’s something that I feel like I’m always striving to be in that group, in the elite group in the NFL. Not necessarily pay, but as far as a player,” Kaepernick said. “And whatever comes along with that, comes along with it.
“But, for me, I’m worried about trying to be the best player I can and try to help this organization win as many games as we can.”
No Bowman and Smith?: The 49ers are bracing to be without two of their best linebackers, injured NaVorro Bowman (a devastating left knee injury sustained in the NFC Championship Game) and perhaps Smith if he’s suspended by the NFL.
There’s depth in this unit, and Patrick Willis will be called upon to handle even greater leadership duties.
“For us, it’s not something we worry about,” Willis said when asked about Smith. “He’s out here working. He’s practicing every day. He’s working out every day. He’s been a great teammate. That’s our focus right now: worrying about the present.”
Martin’s transition: Jonathan Martin is out West getting a fresh start following the bullying scandal in Miami. He gets to play for his old college coach at Stanford, Harbaugh.
Slowed by mononucleosis during the offseason program, Martin is prepared to fit in wherever needed to land a spot on the team.
Martin was traded from the Dolphins to the Niners in mid-March, providing him with a new start after his departure from Miami last October. He accused teammate Richie Incognito of bullying.
Martin said not once did he consider leaving the sport for good.
“I’ve always been a football player. I couldn’t ask for a better career,” he said. “It was a childhood dream to make it to the NFL. It’s been great so far. It’ll be great to be on the field.”
New home: The 49ers know the pressure is on to begin a special new era in their $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium.
After celebrating the storied tradition at Candlestick Park in its final season, 2014 begins a new era for the franchise — and the 49ers want to get it started the right way.
The secondary: Safety Donte Whitner departed for his hometown Cleveland Browns. Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown wound up across the bay with the Oakland Raiders.
Eric Reid is coming off a stellar rookie season at safety and will begin working with newcomer Antoine Bethea to keep a good thing going on one of the NFL’s most accomplished defenses.
“He has a very similar demeanor to Donte as far as he’s pretty quiet, pretty reserved,” Kaepernick said. “But when he steps on the field he’s about business. That’s something that our defense kind of has about them.”