• Nicholas McGee

Five storylines to watch at 49ers minicamp

Image Credit: Associated Press

The 49ers will begin the next phase of preparations for the 2019 NFL season when they start minicamp practices on Tuesday.

Having made numerous big-ticket acquisitions during a busy offseason and with their starting quarterback poised to return, the Niners are expected to improve significantly on last year's 4-12 finish.

Yet between concerns over injuries and positional battles, there are still plenty of questions to be answered about this team, and minicamp will provide the latest indication as to what the answers will be.

Here we look at the storylines to watch over the coming days.

Jimmy Garoppolo's progress

How the 49ers' starting quarterback looks as he works his way back to full practice after tearing his ACL will continue to be the main storyline of San Francisco's offseason.

Garoppolo was restricted to 7-on-7 work during OTAs and that will remain the case until training camp.

His decision to wear a knee brace going forward may limited the former Patriot's mobility somewhat, but Garoppolo received rave reviews from Richard Sherman during OTAs.

"Obviously he's been limited in the things he can do. Today, he had a lot of reps and he looked really good," Sherman said after one OTA practice, per The Sacramento Bee.

"He was putting the ball in some risky spots – where it seem risky. (He's making) real confident throws. He completed every single one of them. It just shows where he's at in his progress and what he's able to do and how hard he’s been working."

Contactless practice carries little weight but further impressive performances in minicamp will only help Garoppolo as he aims to get back to his 2017 form when he makes his return.

Can Witherspoon make an early case?

Speaking of Sherman, one the big issues for the Niners ahead of the season is who plays across from him at cornerback.

Sherman was effusive in his praise of Ahkello Witherspoon after the former Seahawk signed with San Francisco last year. However, after a strong rookie season in 2017, Witherspoon took as step back and was in and out of the starting line-up.

He'll have competition for a starting spot, namely from oft-injured veteran Jason Verrett, who the 49ers took a gamble on in free agency.

Verrett will not be participating at minicamp, though, with the Niners easing him back from a torn Achilles. Second-year player Tarvarius Moore is more likely to see work at safety than at corner after Jimmie Ward broke his collarbone in OTAs, meaning Witherspoon should see a lot of starters reps.

Position battles aren't decided in minicamp, but Witherspoon has a clear opportunity to build his case.

Which safeties stand out?

Moore's presence adds another wrinkle to a crowded competition at safety. Free safety is the former third-round pick's natural position and he undoubtedly has the athleticism to make that spot his own with strong performances in Ward's absence.

However, with defensive backs coach Joe Woods revealing the free and strong safeties will be more interchangeable in 2019, Moore will have to prove he can be just as effective in the box to earn a starting role.

Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt and Marcell Harris also have eyes on one of the two starting spots having all shown flashes of promise.

The competition will not truly ignite until Ward returns in training camp. However, the members of that quartet who can show some duplicity in minicamp will likely have a better shot of winning a job.

Which receivers gain separation?

There is perhaps no position room in the 49ers building more cramped than that of the wide receivers. Recent draft picks Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd are locks to make the roster but the competition beyond that pair is fierce.

Marquise Goodwin should be safe given the downfield threat he offers the Niners, though he comes with some durability concerns. Where it gets interesting is in the fight for those fifth and sixth spots.

Free-agent acquisition Jordan Matthews caught the eye in OTAs and offers inside-out versatility and the size to make him a red zone weapon, which is something Kendrick Bourne – whose route-running has continued to improve – was for the Niners last year.

There may only be room for one of that pair to make the roster and the same can be said of slot receivers Trent Taylor and Richie James. Taylor endured a difficult second season as he struggled with injuries and does not have the same upside in the return game as James.

They will be very keen to stand out from the crowd in minicamp. Every position battle on the roster has a long way to go, but, for players fighting to stay on the 53, making a strong early impression is important, especially for those jockeying to catch passes from Garoppolo in 2019.

Can Brown fill Gould void?

It's not often a kicker controversy is a primary offseason narrative but, seemingly desperate to force his way out and avoid playing on the franchise tag,

Robbie Gould's absence continues to attract headlines.

He will not be at minicamp and, though the Niners insist Gould will not be going anywhere, they would surely prefer to avoid having such a discontented player on the roster.

But kickers of Gould's calibre are not easily replaced and, before they can even think about rescinding his tag and trading him, the 49ers need to know they have a kicker capable of replicating his 96 percent success rate on field goals through two years with San Francisco.

Jonathan Brown is the only other kicker on the roster and, with Gould missing, he has the chance to prove he is up to the task. If he does, the Niners might at least start to consider parting with Gould.

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