This off-season, I have had the opportunity to write about draft steals, team depth, the offensive line, rookies, free agents, quarterbacks and the team’s biggest needs heading into training camp. No longer are these just ideas on paper; we can look at them on the field in live action. Here are some observations and thoughts after the first six practices.
By the end of the 2017 season, the 49ers were getting regular contributions from most of the draft class, and based on the first week of camp, several members of this year’s class look poised to make contributions as well.
Dante Pettis: The last of the team’s rookies to sign his contract had a slow start to camp but has come on the last couple of days. Pettis has shown uncommon ability to separate from defenders and good hands. Pettis ended the practice session on Wednesday catching a 40-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Garoppolo. Something to watch for in the preseason opener against Dallas will be how Pettis fares against press coverage. If Pettis shows that he can handle being pressed at the line of scrimmage, he could be an under the radar weapon in the redzone.
D.J. Reed: The first piece I wrote for the 49ers hub was about why I thought Reed would be a draft steal for the 49ers. One of the things that stood out to me was his versatility and he has shown that versatility early in camp. Reed, an All-American cornerback at Kansas State has been getting reps as the second team free safety in addition to reps at slot cornerback. Reed showed good range and athleticism making a sideline interception during practice on day four. Something to watch for is where Reed lines up in the preseason opener? Slot corner? Free safety? Reed might take over the roll envisioned for Jimmie Ward, by being the primary back up at free safety and slot cornerback.
Fred Warner: Warner has been working with the second team defense and he has been showing excellent coverage ability downfield. Something to watch in the preseason opener is where does Warner get his reps? Does he line up at middle or weakside linebacker? Where he lines up could give some clues as to how a Foster/Warner duo might look at inside linebacker.
Also, of note from the first week of camp are seventh round picks, defensive end Jullian Taylor and wide receiver Richie James. Taylor has been getting first team reps at “big end” with Arik Armstead out due to a hamstring injury and James is making a name for himself by showing an ability to separate and make tough catches. Both players will be worth paying attention to in the preseason opener.
The Duality of Training Camp:
The Chinese philosophy of Yin Yang describes how seemingly opposite forces, such as light and dark, may be interconnected and interdependent. The same is true when assessing defensive and offensive play during training camp, and that may be most applicable to the offensive and defensive lines.
In the first week of camp, the pass rush has been praised by head coach Kyle Shanahan. To no one’s surprise DeForest Buckner has been a problem for the offensive line, and Jeremiah Attoachu has been a pleasant surprise generating consistent pressure and getting a couple of sacks. Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead (at least until he got hurt) have also been able to mount a pass rush from their interior line positions. Heading in to camp, I identified pass rusher as the biggest need for the 49ers and thus far the pass rush has been one of the positive story lines in camp.
On the offensive line, the right guard spot, the most hotly contested position battle on the team, was supposed to be a two-way fight between former first round picks Joshua Garnett and Jonathan Cooper. Both have been limited by injuries, which has opened the door for Mike Person. To this point it is difficult to say just how much the pass rush in camp is a function of the unsettled offensive line or improvement by the defensive line; how the two units fare against another team will be something to watch for in the preseason opener.
Odds and Ends:
The wide receiver group is going to make it difficult on the coaching staff to get down to six players. With Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis and Kendrick Bourne virtual locks for the 53-man roster, only one spot is available unless the team decides to keep seven players. Richie James is playing well enough that it might be difficult to put him on the practice squad. Aaron Burbridge, who is known for his prowess on special teams, has been impressive as a wide receiver garnering praise from Kyle Shanahan during his August 1 press conference.
The speed at running back is something that has been on display during the first week of training camp. Jerick McKinnon’s speed has shown up in both the running game and the passing game and Joe Williams has flashed his speed with a long touchdown run. Seeing this group’s speed translate to a game situation is a good reason to tune in to the preseason.
Richard Sherman has been a topic of discussion in the first week of camp after video of him getting beat by Goodwin during a one-on-one drill. Sherman bounced back later in the week by getting an interception and not allowing a completion on three targets in the redzone during drills. As Sherman continues to work his way back to form it will be worth keeping an eye on how much he plays during the preseason.
Availability is the Best Ability
Teams have until September 1 to cut their rosters down from 90 players to 53 players, so it is a little early to say that someone is on the bubble but some guys are not helping themselves. Joshua Garnett has missed four consecutive practices after banging knees with another player. The injury is considered to be minor, at worst, prompting Kyle Shanahan to express his surprise that Garnett was not available during his August 1 press conference. Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward may also find their roster spots in jeopardy due to their inability to stay healthy (both are currently nursing soft tissue injuries), although Ward’s $8.5 million guaranteed salary for this year may give him a longer leash.
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