During the first eight practices of 49ers training camp, I’ve kept one rule: don’t overreact.
Play it close to the vest — real games don’t start for another month.
Yes, practices can be enlightening, but drawing too many conclusions from training camp can only lead to folly.
That said, there have been some things from the early goings of 49ers camp that one cannot ignore — both good and bad.
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And to list ‘em, I’m going to use an old sportswriter trope: three-up, three-down. Forgive me.
Up: The passing game
The big question surrounding the 49ers is how Jimmy Garoppolo will follow up his stellar five-game end-of-season stretch. Will he justify his massive $137.5 million contract (at the time it was signed, it was the biggest contract in the history of the sport) or was the hype surrounding him unjustified?
A definitive statement can’t be made until September, but very early returns look good. Garoppolo is showing pinpoint accuracy and a solid touch on his throws in the opening days of training camp.
That alone could lead one to believe that the 49ers’ passing game is going to be solid.
But I’m liking what we’ve seen from Garoppolo’s supporting cast. In particular, Marquise Goodwin, George Kittle, and rookie Dante Pettis.
Goodwin is already one of the fastest people on the planet, but he’s earning plaudits for his performance so far in camp — he’s improved his route running and that, paired with that unmatchable speed, gives the indication that he controls one side of the field every time the ball is snapped. He’s looking like a necessary double-team (perhaps triple-team) on every snap. There’s not many players in the NFL who can boast that kind of influence.
Goodwin’s constant threat deep has Garoppolo testing out something that he’s clearly worked on in the offseason — his deep ball. Garoppolo’s downfield awareness and accuracy was one of the few obvious detractions on the quarterback’s 2018 season, but if he can carry what he’s shown in the eight days of camp into regular season games, those detractions will go away.
I don’t know exactly how Kittle does it, but he’s dominated every time I’ve seen him play since the end of last season. Kittle was a safety blanket for C.J. Beathard when the latter was the quarterback — the Iowa connection — but I’m having a hard time seeing how Kittle doesn’t turn into Garoppolo’s favorite option in 2018. I will give you one prediction in this column, though I don’t know if it’s bold: Kittle is going to breakout this season — draft him in fantasy football.
Finally, rookie Dante Pettis has simply looked the part in the early going. A lot like Kittle, Pettis lacks an obvious advantage on his mark, but he — at least early on — seems to find a way to make a play. He ended practice on Wednesday with two downright silly catches that cannot be ignored. I don’t know if Pettis starts the season getting regular snaps — 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was astute in his statement last week that the further into camp rookies get, the more they have to work — but the eye test and positive comments regarding his smarts and professionalism give every indication that he’s going to make an impact for this team before long.
Down: Right guard
One of the 49ers’ biggest issues — and there were quite a few of them — last year was the sieve-like quality of the middle of their offensive line. I’m sure you can recall poor C.J. Beathard getting pounded into the turf time time and time again via A-gap pressure.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson showed he had enough promise last year to bring about a new contract and the 49ers signing one of the best centers in the NFL — Weston Richburg — will do plenty to shore up the middle but we still don’t know who will be to Richburg’s right in Week One.
The job was supposed to be decided between Jonathan Cooper and Joshua Garnett, but Cooper is still limited following offseason knee surgery and Garnett has a knee ailment that is perplexing Shanahan.
In turn, Mike Person is the man for the job. He’s been on six teams in seven years and was signed in May. He’s versatile, having played every position on the line, but if he’s the starting right guard in Minnesota, there has to be some concern.
Up: Fred Warner
I was a big fan of the 49ers pick when it was made in the draft — I watch of Mountain West football — but Warner has looked tremendous in person. The one knock on the kid — who played a quasi-strong-safety role at BYU — was that he doesn’t hit hard. Maybe that’s the case in games, but it doesn’t seem to apply to practice. Warner has been a standout at a position that is showing some surprising depth.
Down: Richard Sherman
Sherman is coming off a massive injury — a torn Achilles tendon is possible career-ender — so plenty of slack needs to be cut, but we’re yet to see him in his full splendor in Santa Clara. He says he’s 100 percent, but he’s not playing at the same speed as his teammates. There’s more than a month until the season opener, but until Sherman shows that he’s all the way back, we can’t presume his ceiling for the Niners is what it was before the injury.
Up: Julian Taylor
Taylor, the seventh-round draft pick out of Temple, looks the part of an NFL defensive lineman, and he’s playing it too. He’s already gotten moved up the depth chart to see time with the fist string with his good play and Arik Armstead’s injury.
“He brings an awesome mindset of physicality, violence, and effort,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Taylor.
Is it good that a seventh-round rookie who still has “very, very long way to go” is a first-string pass rusher on this team? No. But don’t let that distract from the fact that Shanahan might have found another third day gem in the draft.
Down: Tight end depth
While I love what Kittle is doing and Garrett Celek should be trusted to be a solid receiving option, the 49ers have questions beyond those two at tight end.
They’re down two Coles — Hikutini and Wick — and aren’t thrilled with their options after that. While neither of the Coles’ injuries are serious, Shanahan might need John Lynch to sign another tight end (preferably not named Cole) ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener.
Though that extra tight end might already be on the roster — Kyle, it’s time for Joe Staley: tight end.