SANTA CLARA -- Here are the standouts -- both good and bad -- from the 49ers' spring sessions, which wrapped up last week. As is usually the case when it comes to non-padded, no-hitting OTA and minicamp practices, the more rough and tumble the position you play, the more difficult it is to stand apart. After all, it's hard to tell how well a running back breaks tackles if there are no tackles to break.
WR Torrey Smith
The 49ers offense steadily got faster and more efficient as the sessions went on, and Smith seemed to stand out a little more with each practice. He caught the long balls you would expect from someone with his speed. But really, he caught passes all over the field, nearly all of them from first-string quarterback Blaine Gabbert. It's worth noting that the similarly sized and similarly speedy Jeremy Maclin had a career year -- 10 touchdowns, 1,318 receiving yards -- under Chip Kelly with the Eagles in 2014. With Anquan Boldin not on the 49ers roster, Smith not only is the only receiver with a significant resume, he also inherits the role of position-group leader, which he seems eager to embrace. In sum, it was a strong spring for Smith.
WR Bruce Ellington
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Kelly has been bullish on Ellington since he arrived in Santa Clara and Ellington has not disappointed thus far. The knock on him the last two seasons was that he kept getting sidelined by minor injuries -- an ankle sprain here, a hamstring strain there -- and never was fully integrated into the offense. He appears to be a major component this year and is in an excellent position to be the 49ers' break-out player on offense. After all, the slot receiver is on the field a lot in Kelly's system. And Ellington appears to be developing chemistry with Gabbert, who showed last season that he prefers safer, shorter throws.
WR Dres Anderson
Given the inexperience of the 49ers' receiving corps, at least one relatively unknown pass catcher is bound to emerge this season. (And that that doesn't happen, the 49ers are in trouble). A number of players, from CFL newcomer Eric Rogers to second-year player DiAndre Cambell, flashed at different times during the spring drills. Anderson was perhaps the most prominent, especially in the recent minicamp. Remember, he was the 49ers' most prized undrafted free agent a year ago. He's the son of ex-Rams great Flipper Anderson and he put up big numbers at Utah in 2013. His rookie season, however, was washed out by a knee injury. It's noteworthy that his emergence coincided with an injury to second-string cornerback Dontae Johnson (he injured his quadriceps in the final OTA practice; the injury is not considered serious). When Johnson was sidelined, rookie Rashard Robinson took his place. Robinson and Anderson battled throughout last week with Anderson winning more matchups than he lost. It also was notable that Colin Kaepernick usually was throwing the ball to Anderson in the 7-on-7 drills and that he wasn't hesitant about targeting the young wideout.
G Joshua Garnett
Like every other 49ers rookie, Garnett started out on the third-string offensive line. During his first-ever team-wide practice, he began the day at left guard, which is what he played most recently at Stanford. By the end of the day, he had moved to the right, which is where he lined up the next two days. Which is to say, the 49ers threw him into the mix despite the fact that he missed the first month of practice and he didn't struggle. That underscores his preparation. "I think the biggest thing is he didn’t stand out," Kelly said after Garnett's first day. "So usually you stand out in those situations because you’re going the wrong way or the right guard’s going right and everybody else is going left. I think he fit in really well."
S Antoine Bethea
Bethea is the only defender who played in the type of defense the 49ers are using this season, which gave him real value this spring. The defense allows the cornerbacks to play aggressively and make plays on the ball. Because of that, the safety group must be smart and in control, which is what the team has in Bethea and Eric Reid. Along with other respected veterans on the team, Bethea set a professional, uncomplaining and workmanlike tone this spring. There's no overstating how important that was in terms of getting Kelly and the 49ers off to a fast start.
CB Jimmie Ward
What began in OTAs as an experiment -- using heretofore nickel back Jimmie Ward as an outside cornerback -- seemed to become etched a little deeper with every practice. Ward wasn't perfect this spring. But he showed enough potential that he is the favorite to start training camp in one of the starting cornerback spots. And why not? He's athletic, confident, aggressive and strong enough to play press coverage. Which is just what the 49ers want in their cornerbacks and what they have on the other side in Tramaine Brock. Ever since college, Ward’s coaches have wanted him to play cornerback; 2016 finally may be his chance to make the switch.
OLB Eli Harold
As the 2015 season ended, Eli Harold told reporters that he was going come back in 2016 bigger and more powerful than he'd been as a rookie. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's a common declaration from young players, especially pass rushers, who stand out with quickness and slick spin moves in college but often can't pair it with power in the NFL. Harold, however, had the most apparent transformation of any 49er, adding nearly 30 pounds of muscle for the new season. What's more, with Ahmad Brooks nursing an injury for much of the spring, Harold got a lot of quality snaps at right outside linebacker with the first-team unit, most of them against left tackle Joe Staley. Is Harold merely puffed up or is his newfound bulk legitimate? We'll find out during the summer sessions. But he certainly appears ready to make a big leap in his second NFL season.
On the other hand …
T Trent Brown
Erik Pears struggled at right tackle in 2015 while Anthony Davis' future remains in limbo. Which is to say, the door was open -- wide open -- for Brown to barge in and stake his claim for a starting role and … he didn't show up in tip-top shape. In fact, he couldn't make it through the entire recent minicamp. He appeared to tweak his right knee during a sled drill early in Thursday's session and essentially sat out the rest of practice. There's still plenty of time for Brown to discover his inner Rocky Balboa and to make strides in training camp. But after taking positive steps at the end of the 2015 season, Brown went sideways a bit this spring.
OLB Aaron Lynch
Lynch is another player who didn't seem to be in peak physical condition, although he was on hand for every practice and worked exclusively with the first-team defense, mostly at left outside linebacker. Lynch dealt with a back issue for a big chunk of last year's offseason and finished the year, his first as a full-time starter, with 6 1/2 sacks, a half sack more than his rookie season. That he had to be removed from the most recent practice after striking rookie tackle John Theus was not a good look, either.
WR DeAndre Smelter
There are high expectations for Smelter, a big, physical receiver who is getting his first real NFL action after rehabilitating from an ACL injury as a rookie last season. Smelter, however, failed to make a splash in the recent minicamp largely because he was dealing with a hamstring strain. Those types of injuries probably should be expected after a year and a half away from the game. But someone like Smelter -- young, relatively inexperienced, coming from a rudimentary passing attack at Georgia Tech -- needs a lot of practice repetitions, which he simply did not get this spring.
Nickel cornerback is a thankless job. You're usually matched against the opponent's top pass catcher. There's plenty of traffic in the middle of the field, and it's often designed to rub you off the man you're covering. You have no help from the sideline; your opponent can dart left, right or head straight down the field. The 49ers may be looking for a new nickel cornerback should Ward remain on the outside. Johnson has experience there and likely would be the player they tapped if the season started tomorrow. When Johnson was injured, the 49ers took long looks at Chris Davis, who played with the first string, and Keith Reaser, who was with the second. Both gave up a lot of completions. Rookie Will Redmond, who is recovering from an ACL injury but who could be ready for training camp, is another option.