The NFL draft is in the rear view and the offseason program is in full swing. So let’s get to another edition of our weekly 49ers mailbag.
Zachary Grier asks: Do you think Solomon Thomas will be successful in the new Wide-9 alignment and with the new defensive line coach?
Thomas’ lack of development during his first two seasons was one of the key reasons the team decided to move on from defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina and bring in the hyper-charged Kris Kocurek. We got our first look at Kocurek at minicamp last week and he’s every bit as energetic and demanding as advertised. I imagine getting Thomas to become a valuable pass rusher, whether on the outside or inside, will be one of Kocurek’s main objectives.
How Thomas stands to benefit from the new alignment remains to be seen. He should benefit from working primarily on the inside in pass-rushing situations, which is where he excelled in college. Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch for the first time this offseason admitted Thomas was being used out of place on the edges, where he doesn’t have the same quickness advantage against tackles as he does against guards.
One thing Kocurek will emphasis is an attacking mentality, which should lend itself well to the 49ers’ one gap scheme. That should help Thomas avoid overthinking his responsibilities and instead allow him to play faster than he has during his first two seasons.
Thomas will be challenged in ways he’s not used to in 2019. The additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford means there will be fewer snaps outside for Thomas, Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair, who have all been used on the edges since the Robert Saleh became coordinator in 2017. There might be a logjam of inside pass rushers.
We know Buckner and Arik Armstead, who’s making $9 million this season, will get plenty of playing time. Thomas should be a key member of the rotation along the defensive line, but he’ll have to earn his snaps among the crowded group – even as the former No. 3 pick in the draft.
jgrover1533 asks: Which running back has the most all-purpose yards between Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon?
It’s impossible to say because I can’t predict how healthy each player will be. But for the sake of the mailbag, let’s say each guy is 100 percent for the start of Week 1.
I think McKinnon would be the most heavily used running back, if healthy. For me, it’s as simple as following the money. The 49ers gave him $18 million in guarantees when he joined the team in free agency in 2018. And after watching him in training camp, it was clear he was going to be among the team’s leader in touches. He was a prominent weapon in both the running and passing game.
If he’s healthy, I think he should resume that role with Coleman and Breida offering supporting roles. The good news: All three players seem capable of carrying the load any given week. Shanahan is hoping his running back group is a strength this fall after being decimated by injuries last season.
Bob Cook asks: Who are the two most likely to start at safety and two most likely to finish the season at safety? I know that may seem demented, but look at last two years.
Jaquiski Tartt is the team’s best strong safety, though Marcell Harris played well while Tartt was dealing with his shoulder injury late in 2018. I think Jimmie Ward is more polished than Adrian Colbert at free safety and would give him the nod if healthy. I wouldn’t sleep on D.J. Reed, either. He has a chance to develop into a starting-caliber defensive back either at free safety or in the slot.
Remember, Colbert was drafted as a cornerback with special teams value. He wound up being moved to safety because of injuries and ended up playing well to end 2017, as did a number of key young players who struggled to replicate that success in 2018.
The 49ers contend Colbert played well before a high ankle sprain led to injured reserve in the blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams last October. Perhaps he can put it all together in his third season and allow the 49ers to use Ward as a versatile backup, which might be better, given his lengthy injury history. Free safety should be one of the most competitive battles during training camp.
Christopher Cain asks: Will 49ers sit with 2 or 3 QBs now that both backups were serviceable?
It’s hard to see them keeping three quarterbacks active because roster spots will be at a premium. Remember, they seem likely to have four running backs (McKinnon, Coleman, Breida and Raheem Mostert) after typically keeping three throughout Shanahan’s first two seasons. The receiver battle is also more competitive this year with the addition of two draftees, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.
With Jimmy Garoppolo still working his way back from his torn ACL, Shanahan should have ample time to evaluate the battle between C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens during the offseason program. Either could end up getting traded to another team needing a backup. It’s worth keeping in mind the 49ers will have joint practices this summer against the Denver Broncos and San Francisco’s former quarterbacks coach, Rich Scangarello.
Perhaps the Broncos will be in the market for a third QB behind Joe Flacco and second-round draft pick Drew Lock.
Reg Clodfelter asks: Do you think that Shanny limits Hurd’s snaps to mostly receiver this year? Or is he used in the more variable move tight end role in Year 1?
We don’t know yet, and I’m not sure Shanahan does either. For what it’s worth, Hurd was given jersey No. 17, which is a receiver’s number. He’ll work with the wideouts and new position coach Wes Welker this offseason while Shanahan tries to figure out how to use him.
Shanahan said after Hurd was drafted that how he’s used will depend on how his body develops. It could be that he’ll play receiver while he remains in the 230-pound range – and eventually move to tight end if he adds 15 to 20 pounds, which was closer to his playing weight when he was a running back at Tennessee.
If Hurd wins over the coaching staff and plays well throughout the offseason and training camp, I’d imagine his role will be game-plan specific. He could conceivably line up at any of the five eligible receiver spots, which also means in the backfield, tight end or H-back. Opposing defenses could have a hard time matching up with him, given his unique skill set.
My best guess: Hurd as a rookie is used predominately in the screen game and to take pressure of tight end George Kittle in the middle of the field. He has work to do as a route runner after playing receiver for just one season at Baylor before entering the NFL.