SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dominique Zeigler has been with the team for four seasons but it hasn’t been easy for him to make a permanent mark on the team.
When he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007, he spent time on the practice squad on a couple occasions and since then, has seen limited action on an NFL field. Last year, his season was cut short by an ACL injury in November. He’s been rehabbing throughout the off-season and was finally back on the practice field last week after being taken off the PUP list.
For Zeigler, the 26-year old Kalamazoo, Michigan native, he’s anxious to get back into the swing of things, but said he doesn’t want risk injury by returning too quickly.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t really rush seeing that’s an ACL injury,” Zeigler explained. “We’ve (the training staff) just been going day by day, adding reps each reps more and more.”
Coming back from an ACL injury is a tough process and usually nearly a year’s worth of rehab isn’t enough to get a player back to full strength. Zeigler understands that his body is still healing.
“You’re never going to be 100-percent until probably a year out of surgery,” said Zeigler. So what percentage would you give yourself? “I don’t know. We’ll have to open it up and see.”
The current wide receivers group is starting to take shape and it’s a long shot for Zeigler to make the roster. The team signed veteran Braylon Edwards a few weeks ago and Michael Crabtree was just taken off the PUP list on Tuesday. Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn both have had solid camps and the team is looking to possibly keep Kyle Williams on the roster for his special teams value. The 49ers also drafted a wide receiver this year in Ronald Johnson.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh knows that Zeigler is at a disadvantage after missing out on a lot of early training camp practices.
“Other players have had much more practice time,” Harbaugh said the day following Zeigler’s return to the practice field. “People who practice more have been better at first. You don’t get to Carnegie Hall without practicing.”
Zeigler has been working hard since he returned to the practice field. Before every drill, he’s seen running around on the side testing his knees with high hurdles and sprints. He’s been involved in as many receiving drills as possible.
It’s going to be a tough mountain to climb for the receiver, but he knows that he already has a good connection with quarterback Alex Smith. Having been teammates with Smith for four seasons, that is one advantage that some of the receivers don’t have yet.
“I’ve been here for four years now with Alex,” said Zeigler. “I feel like I can go in there and run routes for him and be where I need be when I need to be there and catch the ball. That hasn’t changed.”
The biggest concern for Zeigler is how he is going to handle being back on the field after all the rehab. Having been a spectator throughout the off-season, it’s still a challenge for him to get mentally back into football mode.
“It’s just when you come back from a knee injury, it’s all a mental thing after rehab,” he explained. “It’s kind of like ‘Do you trust yourself?’. Going through all that rehab, do you trust yourself with what you did strength-wise and just getting that mental block out of there? Once that mental block is out of there, you’re good to go.”
Getting over that mental block isn’t the only hurdle that Zeigler has to overcome. Having been inactive with the team continues to be the biggest speed bump on his hopes of making the roster.
He’s been in all of the meetings, trying to absorb the new playbook. While on the PUP list, he was away from teammates on the other side of the practice field rehabbing. Knowing the playbook is still not the same until it gets put into action.
“Of course if you’re not out there practicing, it’s hard to do things,” Zeigler said of the quick learning he has to do with the short period of time he has. “It’s mainly just staying in the books so when you do get out on the field you‘re going to get limited reps. So you’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
Since joining the team in 2007, Zeigler has only been in 19 games. He’s collected 14 catches for 195 yards without a touchdown in his short career. Those aren’t very impressive numbers for a player that hasn’t seen consistent playing time throughout his career.
But for Zeigler, his focus right now is to just get himself as ready as possible for Thursday’s preseason finale. It’s the only thing that’s on his mind.
“I feel comfortable,” he said of his abilities on the field. “I could definitely work out some stuff – just coming back from it. But I definitely feel comfortable running routes, running around and catching the ball.”
The staff has been monitoring his recovery and so far, he has looked good. It’s still hard to determine whether or not he could do enough to show the coaches that he has value to the team. Zeigler is just waiting to get his chance to show the coaches that he can contribute.
“(The preseason) is always a big game,” Zeigler said. “It leads you into that first game. I’m just playing, going out there whenever my number’s called to make a play.”
We’ll get a chance to see how he does this Thursday in the 49ers’ final preseason game. It is likely going to be his last opportunity to make a lasting impression on the team.
And he’s ready to accept whatever the team decides on his future.
“Where ever the chips fall, let them fall.”