If there’s a toss-up between a young guy and a veteran, who do you think 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan – in rebuilding mode and with six-year contracts in their back pockets – are going to choose? With that in mind, here are the 10 youngsters who have caught my eye during the first week of training camp. The 49ers had a day off Tuesday and will be back in action Wednesday.
Arik Armstead, defensive end – The former first-round pick is going into his third NFL season, which makes it easy to forget he’s only 23. In fact, he’s younger than draft picks Joe Williams, George Kittle and Adrian Colbert. As was the case at this point last year, Armstead has been very difficult to block and arguably has been the team’s most impressive defender over the first week of training camp. He’s more than 15 pounds lighter than he was last season, which has boosted his already impressive athleticism. Perhaps most important: A shoulder injury that bothered him since high school and that sent him to injured reserve last year has been fixed.
Matt Breida, running back – Undrafted rookie running backs usually are the ones thrown to the wolves when teams hold their first “live” tackling session of the summer. That’s what awaits Breida, the only tailback on the roster who fits that description. So far, however, the Georgia Southern product has been up for every challenge. His speed – he’s the fastest rookie in camp – was on display in noncontact sessions in the spring and he has held up well in padded practices this week, including breaking off a couple of sizable runs. It’s still early, but Breida has done everything well to this point. Carlos Hyde is scheduled for free agency in 2018. Are the 49ers eying a two-headed monster of Breida and Williams next year?
Reuben Foster, linebacker – An opposing coach once called Patrick Willis a “rolling ball of butcher knives.” That’s an apt description for Foster, too. He’s been perhaps too frenetic during the first week of camp, biting on play action and colliding with fellow defenders. But that energy is what attracted the 49ers and it can be honed. What stands out most is that Foster always is around the ball and is ultra-aggressive. The first time Willis really jumped out to coaches – Mike Nolan and linebackers coach Mike Singletary – was when the 49ers had their initial live tackling drill in the summer of 2007. You could hear his presence from the sound of his tackles. That promises to be the case with Foster, too.
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Chanceller James, strong safety – The most difficult route to an NFL roster begins as a rookie tryout player. James took the first step in May by making himself the most visible member of a minicamp that was full of players straining to make an impression. He’s big (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and aggressive and has taken full advantage of the 49ers’ injuries at safety. He was playing with the second-string unit in Monday’s session and didn’t look out of place. In fact, he had two big “thud” hits on Breida as the running back made it through the line of scrimmage, the type of plays that will continue to draw the attention of coaches.
Lorenzo Jerome, free safety – He feasted on lesser quarterbacks in college – 18 interceptions in four seasons at St. Francis University – and has done the same against the 49ers’ second- and third-team offenses in the offseason and training camp. Depending on how long Jaquiski Tartt is out, Jerome will get a chance to go against veterans like Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin later this week. Goodwin will be an excellent test. Jerome’s 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the combine was not good – he was slower than the much bigger James – and was the main reason he wasn’t drafted. His exceptional instincts have negated that lack of straight-line speed, but will instincts be enough against someone with Olympic-level speed like Goodwin? The week ahead should be fun to watch.
George Kittle, tight end – A hamstring strain will keep Kittle out of action for the near future, but he was impressive enough in the spring and early summer to make this list. Malcolm Smith is the 49ers’ best, and certainly fastest, linebacker in coverage. Asked last week which tight ends have stood out to him, the first name off Smith’s lips was Kittle’s.
Will Redmond, cornerback – At one point last season it looked as if the 49ers might activate Redmond, who was recovering from a college ACL injury. His knee, however, never made the strides the 49ers were expecting and he spent the season on the non-football injury list. This year he’s healthy and his confidence appears to be bouncing back as well. His competition with K’Waun Williams is one of the better ones in training camp. Williams is the veteran and is familiar to position coach Jeff Hafley. Redmond is a little bigger and has more upside.
Rashard Robinson, cornerback – Nothing fires up 49ers practices like the ongoing battle between Robinson and Goodwin. That’s because Robinson is constantly barking at his offensive opponents – Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson and DeAndre Carter are frequent targets – who in turn celebrate like mad men when they catch passes against Robinson. Goodwin, for instance, furiously punted the ball after catching a deep pass in the end zone against Robinson on Monday. (Watch out, Bradley Pinion). But Robinson has had his share of wins in these battles, and the heightened competition only is making everyone better. There is plenty of jockeying for position among the 49ers’ cornerbacks. Robinson, however, seems like a lock for one of the starting spots.
Trent Taylor, wide receiver – He’s not fast and he’s definitely not big. But Taylor knows how to get open, and he’s already become a favorite target and safety valve for all of the quarterbacks. He’s also returning punts, which is a great way to ensure he’s in uniform on game days.
Darrell Williams, tackle – The fourth undrafted player on this list, Williams may not be as big as Trent Brown, but at 6-5, 315 and with an 81-inch wingspan, his size is impressive. Unlike most undrafted offensive linemen, Williams has fared pretty well in one-on-one pass blocking situations, which inherently favor defensive linemen. When Joe Staley gets a rest, John Theus, a 2016 draft pick, steps in at left tackle with the first-string offense while Williams plays with the second-team unit. He appears to be a good candidate to make the practice squad.