San Francisco 49ers

49ers OTA observations: Malcolm Smith, defense continue to flash

NaVorro Bowman returns after second major injury

Matt Barrows says Bowman may not be back at full speed yet.
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Matt Barrows says Bowman may not be back at full speed yet.

The 49ers held their final OTA practice of 2017 on Thursday. They will have their only full-squad minicamp next week, then they are off for more than a month. No dates have been given for training camp yet. But if you figure it typically kicks off two weeks before the first preseason game, and San Francisco's exhibition opener is Aug. 11, then the first day of training camp probably is July 28 (or thereabouts).

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Thursday's noon practice belonged -- decisively -- to the defense. Early on the team held a red-zone drill in which the offense started at the 10-yard line. That group *may* have made it into the end zone a couple of times on short runs up the middle and on a short pass to rookie running back Joe Williams. Otherwise, it was shut out on the dozen or so other snaps.

Linebacker Malcolm Smith zoomed forward to stop receiver Jeremy Kerley -- he would have de-cleated Kerley in a live situation -- after a crossing-route catch. NaVorro Bowman also was active in stopping Pierre Garcon before he reached the end zone and in breaking up another pass, intended for Kerley, in the back of the end zone. Cornerback Keith Reaser, who was playing with the first-string defense, knocked away a pass intended for Garcon.

The offense didn't help itself. Running back Raheem Mostert dropped a pass and rookie tight end Cole Hikutini did the same. That's been a bit of a theme in the practices that have been open to reporters. Carlos Hyde, Garcon and tight end Garrett Celek had other bobbles on catch-able passes Thursday.

There also were plenty of "sacks" -- plays whistled dead when the quarterback obviously was in trouble. Starters Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Tank Carradine all got in on the action while second-stringer Chris Jones -- one of the OTA MVPs -- had a sack as well. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell got tremendous penetration on a running play when he blew the center off the ball and would have tackled Hyde five yards deep in the backfield had it been a live-tackling situation.

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The day wasn't a total loss for the offense. Matt Barkley threw a nice touch pass down the sideline to rookie Trent Taylor against nickel cornerback Will Redmond for a sizable gain. Brian Hoyer connected on dart across the middle with Kerley. Rookie running back Matt Breida took a short pass from fellow rookie Nick Mullens and then sped away from the pursuing defense for a nice pickup.

Breida's speed has been apparent this spring, and it was something running backs coach Bobby Turner commented on after practice. Another player who has been notable for his speed is Smith, who ran a 4.4-second 40 coming out of college. Garcon spoke after practice and gave kudus to Smith, Bowman and safety Eric Reid for the way they gummed up the short passing game on Thursday. Smith came up with one of the two interceptions on a pass that was bobbled by Hyde, deflected by Bowman and caught by Smith.

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The 49ers continue to tinker with the inside of their offensive line. While Zane Beadles has lined up almost exclusively at left guard, Joshua Garnett and Brandon Fusco have been playing both left and right guard at various points with the first-team group. Offensive line coach John Benton said a three-way competition is shaping up among Beadles, Garnett and Fusco for the two guard spots.

Early on it looked as if Trent Brown and newcomer Garry Gilliam would share snaps at right tackle. Brown, however, has gotten in better shape as the spring has gone on and has taken the lion's share of first-string repetitions there. Benton noted that Brown wasn't in great shape when spring sessions began. That's true, but he was in far better condition than he was at this point a year ago.

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The upcoming minicamp is mandatory, although attendance has not been an issue for the 49ers in OTAs. First-round draft pick Solomon Thomas is the only player who has missed most of the spring sessions, and he should be back on Wednesday, which is the second day of the three-day minicamp.

Thursday's OTA session had a few notable absences. Rashard Robinson, who is the biggest lock on the team to win a starting cornerback spot, was out with what looked like a minor injury. Nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams also did not go through the entire practice.

During team drills, the first-string cornerbacks were Dontae Johnson and Reaser. The second teamers were rookie Ahkello Witherspoon and Prince Charles Iworah. With Williams out, the top nickel corner was Redmond. Johnson came up with one of the two interceptions on the afternoon when Garcon tried to haul in a pass over the middle from Hoyer that was slightly behind him and instead scooped it into the air to Johnson.

Eli Harold (personal reason), Ronald Blair (minor injury) and tackle Norman Price (foot) also sat out practice. At the end of the session, Ahmad Brooks went down with an unknown injury and limped off the field. That left the team with two strong-side linebackers, Dekoda Watson and undrafted rookie Jimmie Gilbert. Harold and Watson, a special teams standout, may be competing for the same spot on the 53-man roster.

Other injury news: Center Jeremy Zuttah (hamstring), receiver Bruce Ellington (hamstring) and Mostert (unknown) all were in uniform. Zuttah and Ellington were held out of team drills; Mostert seemed to be back in full.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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