A potential trade, an ankle injury and a free agent come into play in 49ers preseason
School's out for summer. Training camp ended this week, and while it's not nearly the event that it used to be when the 49ers took their show on the road, it still had plenty of moments and plenty of standout players. Here are the ones that take the top honors:
Han Solo Frozen-in-Carbonite Award. DeForest Buckner walks around the periphery of practices and you can tell it's killing last season's 49ers Iron Man that he's not out there. Buckner is dealing with a minor ankle sprain, which has kept him out of most practices. To me that's the equivalent of freezing him in carbonite for preservation and thawing him a few days before the regular season. He may end up being the 49ers' best player this year. Having an ankle injury is a blessing in disguise because it keeps him from suffering something more serious.
Breakout Player Award. Here's a training camp vignette: After one of the roughest, longest practices of camp, Kyle Shanahan tested his players further by making them run wind sprints -- the entire team, from sideline to sideline, four times straight -- after practice. Who crossed the finish line first? Marquise Goodwin. Yes, the receiver's fast. Yes, his route running is sharper than expected. But it's clear he put in a lot of hard work before training camp even began.
Best Hands Award. It goes to a tight end who came out of college with a reputation for being a tenacious blocker, not necessarily a deft receiver. On the second day of camp, fifth-round pick George Kittle, with linebacker Reuben Foster draped all over him, leaped up, put one hand in he air for the ball, twisted in the air and while falling was able to secure the one-handed grab against his body. Kittle has been slowed by a hamstring strain, but he had such an impressive spring and early start to camp that expectations are high for the rookie.
Welcome to the NFL Award. I'm not sure if this goes to 228-pound tailback Carlos Hyde or 200-pound rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. When Hyde cut an inside run to the outside and saw Witherspoon standing upright at the goal line five yards away, you almost could hear a locomotive whistle go off in his head. Hyde lowered his shoulder, blasted Witherspoon backward and, well, 'Welcome to the NFL, rook.'
Worst Moment in Camp. A few of us were in Denver when Thomas Herrion collapsed and later died following a preseason game in 2005. There was a sickly, dark, can-this-be-happening? feeling that fell over everyone as Herrion was being rushed into an ambulance, a medic feverishly performing CPR on the big linemen as they went past. Seeing another undrafted rookie, Donavin Newson, lying still after a hit to the head brought back those black memories. After 15 minutes, it became clear that Newsom was moving and he was released from the hospital two days later. But he's still dealing with issues from his concussion, and his season is over.
Biggest Addition Award. The 35-foot-tall ramp on the southwest corner of the practice fields. It supports a 60-foot ramp set at a 30-degree angle, which appears far steeper than you'd think 30 degrees would be. Players -- especially Aaron Lynch -- hate it, which is sort of the point. Strength coach Ray Wright had rehabbing players like Lynch walking on all fours up it -- backward! -- this week.
Brick by Brick Award. The 49ers bring a full-size hoop into their meeting room. Why? They keep score in every practice with the offense racking up big points for touchdown grabs, the defense getting the same for takeaways, etc. Ties are settled by shooting hoops. It turns out the Bizzaro Larry Bird of the group is defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina. That might be expected. The long-time nose tackle is a bit muscle bound with calves the size of tree trunks. Said Shanahan: "Zgonina, our coach, was really bad. I enjoyed saying that. But we’ve got a bunch of good football players in here.”
Biggest Letdown Award. That fierce competition at center -- or perhaps left guard -- involving Jeremy Zuttah? Eh, it never happened. Zuttah was released last week and was picked up Friday by the very team that traded him to San Francisco, the Baltimore Ravens. Instead, the competition Shanahan, et al. were seeking on the offensive line has come from less heralded acquisitions like Brandon Fusco, Tim Barnes and Garry Gilliam.
Who's He Award. Lorenzo Jerome gets the nod over Matt Breida. Both are undrafted rookies from lower profile schools who have outplayed more ballyhooed players at their positions. Jerome's timing is impeccable. He signed with a 49ers team that lost three safeties to injuries three days into training camp (Two of them have since returned). That's given him plenty of repetitions and plenty of time to impress coaches. Good timing is imperative for a single-high safety. Jerome has that gift.
Affliction of the Summer. This was a huge upset. For 37 straight years this honor has gone to Hamstring. And while Hamstring put up a strong fight and was as active as ever -- I'm looking at you, Jimmie Ward -- it was upstaged in 2017 by Ankle. Some of the most prominent players on the team, from Buckner to Eric Reid to Lynch to Foster have been sidelined with a lower ankle injury. The 49ers overall injuries, including three concussions, two rib injuries and a torn pectoral muscle, are interesting. The perception is that Camp Shanahan was rougher, more grueling than what the 49ers have seen in a while. The nature of the injuries suggest that perception is correct.
The Iron Bee Award. This annual award goes to the player who showed the most durability and grit in training camp. Defensive tackle Chris Jones not only made it through every practice in the spring and summer, he played in the pits, he substituted for injured teammates and he hustled after the ball on every play, no matter far it went. Your x-tra small, “Iron Bee” t-shirt is in the mail, Chris.