49ers' Ahkello Witherspoon making a case to start at cornerback
The 49ers' offseason ends on Thursday. Here's the status report on the team's large rookie class as well as a look ahead to how the group will fit in during training camp. The team reports to camp July 27. The first practice is the following day.
1. DL Solomon Thomas. He took part in a rookie minicamp on May 5 but missed every other spring practice because Stanford's classes were still in session. Thomas' learning curve is not expected to be steep. In the rookie minicamp, he played the so-called 'big end" spot that Tank Carradine manned this spring. That's similar to one of his main positions at Stanford. Thomas has been able to watch 49ers practices via his iPad and may be part of a group that trains in Hawaii that includes DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair, Eli Harold and Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. That trip would be valuable to Thomas since Bennett plays 'big end,' too.
1B. LB Reuben Foster. He was held out of all team drills as his surgically repaired right shoulder continues to recover. However, as noted here, he didn't take it easy on the shoulder in individual drills this week and seems to be nearing a full recovery. He's expected to be full go on the first day of training camp practice July 28. His competition with Malcolm Smith at weak-side inside linebacker may be the best one in Santa Clara this summer.
3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon. He mostly lined up at right cornerback with the second-team defense but received some first-team repetitions at left cornerback this week while Rashard Robinson dealt with a minor injury. Witherspoon is every bit as fluid as described on draft day by general manager John Lynch, and a pairing with his long-limbed body double, Robinson, would give the 49ers a physically imposing duo at cornerback.
3B. QB C.J. Beathard. He looked like a rookie quarterback for most of the spring, but seemed to make strides during the recent minicamp and had some of his strongest throws there. There will be plenty of jockeying for position at other positions this summer. At quarterback, however, the separation seems distinct for the near future: Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, Beathard and undrafted Nick Mullens. That’s not to say the 49ers coaches haven’t been pleased with Beathard, who they say fits Shanahan’s aggressive style perfectly. “He trusted his skill set to attack when needed, and he wasn’t afraid to,” quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello said of Beathard’s game at Iowa. “It was definitely a trait that we, as an entire building, thought was important to be successful.”
4. RB Joe Williams. Speed tends to show well in spring practices where there is no hitting and tackling. Williams has speed, which he displayed on a long, outside run to the left during Wednesday's practice. A lot of analysts wonder if Williams will overtake Carlos Hyde at tailback. In the spring, at least, it seemed as if undrafted Matt Breida (see below) had more highlights than Williams.
5 TE George Kittle. No rookie received more first-team repetitions than Kittle. That's partly because receivers and tight ends are rotated more heavily than other groups due to the amount of running they do. But it's also because Kittle showed he could handle the assignments. He was the team's most prolific target during the recent minicamp and drew praise from Hoyer. "He has a really good football awareness, is what I would call it," he said. "A feel for where to break, how to break, read-zones. I've been surprised and, obviously, it's a good thing for us to have a guy who has that football awareness and some feel of the game to it." Kittle's biggest asset is that he's well-rounded as both a blocker and pass catcher, which fits the identity of Kyle Shanahan's offense. That type of player tends to see a lot of playing time.
5B. WR Trent Taylor. He had a drop in Wednesday's practice. That's only notable because he was so sure-handed for the rest of the spring. Taylor was exactly as advertised -- very good at shaking free of coverage with a quick, up-field step as soon as the ball arrived. He's behind Jeremy Kerley at slot receiver right now, but he may end up being the team's best punt returner. "He gets after it. He's very good at separating," Shanahan said. "Like all of the rookies right now, everything has been thrown at him. He's had some really good days and he’s had some days where he's been off. I'm really excited about Trent. I'm excited for him to soak all of this in, get away for a little bit and I think he'll come back to training camp and get some good competition out there.”
6 NT D.J. Jones. He lined up at nose tackle with the third-team defense. It's hard to evaluate defensive linemen in the spring, but Jones certainly shows good energy and balance. He and first-stringer Earl Mitchell are the only true nose tackles on the roster. Quinton Dial is playing the position with the second-team defense, but he's probably more of a defensive tackle in the 49ers defensive system.
6B. Pita Taumoepenu. He was the "Leo" pass rusher with the third-team defense. The 49ers drafted him because of his relentlessness, which was apparent in practices. Elvis Dumervil's addition knocks Taumoepenu down in the pecking order. But he's the fastest defensive lineman on the squad and could find that his main role, early in his career at least, is on special teams.
7. CB Adrian Colbert. He isn't tall, long-armed and lanky like fellow cornerbacks Robinson, Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson. But Colbert has good size -- he looks more like a safety -- in his own right and his physical style should become more apparent when the pads go on in training camp. He took repetitions with the second-team defense at times in minicamp.
FS Lorenzo Jerome. He practiced both at free safety and nickel cornerback. The instincts that led to so many interceptions at St. Francis were on hand this spring as well.
RB Matt Breida. Like Williams, Breida's speed was apparent during the spring. He was especially adept at catching short passes and turning up field quickly, which is a staple of Shanahan's offense.
TE Cole Hikutini. Like Kittle, Hikutini was a frequent target this spring. He was perhaps the 49ers' most sought-after rookie free agent. If he has a strong training camp the 49ers would feel more comfortable about parting ways with Vance McDonald.
SS Chanceller James. The other rookies listed here either were draft picks or priority free agents. James caught on as tryout player at the 49ers' rookie minicamp. He's just the right size for the strong-safety position in San Francisco's new defensive scheme and came away with an interception in Wednesday's practice. The 49ers liked James so much they cut a more celebrated rookie strong safety, Malik Golden from Penn State.
LB Donavin Newsom. He’s at a loaded inside-linebacker spot but has very good speed. Newsom scooped up a fumble on Wednesday and took off to the end zone.