San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers’ rookies face battles for playing time as team’s workouts begin

The 49ers’ offseason program is ramping up, which means the battles for playing time and spots on the regular season roster will begin to crystallize early next week. Reporters will be allowed to watch the team practice for the first time Tuesday, after the club’s first practice Monday, offering an opening glimpse into how all the new players will be incorporated.

The second phase of the offseason program lasts three weeks and is voluntary, though the 49ers expect everyone to attend except kicker Robbie Gould, who skipped the conditioning program after requesting a trade away from the team last month.

Phase two is the first time coaches get on-field work with players, though no contact or offense-versus-defense work is permitted. That will come June 11 through 13 in the mandatory offseason team activities.

Let’s take a look at what awaits the 2019 draftees in their competition to solidify their new roles with the team.

Nick Bosa, DE

The 49ers kept Bosa out of harm’s way during rookie minicamp earlier this month, which was his first football action since he was with Ohio State in September when he sustained his core muscle injury against TCU. The coaching staff knows Bosa is already one of the team’s most talented players and wanted to ease him back into things to ensure he’s fully healthy for training camp. His workload should steadily increase as the offseason program progresses.

Bosa will be a featured weapon along the defensive line come September. But his exact role hasn’t been determined. Conventional wisdom suggests he’ll be a defensive end lining up against right tackles in passing situations while newly-acquired Dee Ford plays on the opposite side. Less important will be those players’ roles in base packages, in which the 49ers typically have five players on the line of scrimmage. Bosa could be used either as a “Leo” defensive end to contain ball carriers on the weak side of the formation, allowing Arik Armstead to play “big” end on the tight end’s side, which is where he excelled last season.

But according to Pro Football Focus, base packages throughout the NFL were used just 25 percent of the time last season, essentially becoming an afterthought when the emphasis was rushing the passer. Expect Bosa and Ford to switch sides frequently throughout the fall to keep offensive coordinators guessing. The coaching staff has to be eager to see Bosa, Ford and DeForest Buckner on the field at the same time after overhauling the front seven this offseason.

Deebo Samuel, WR

The 49ers have 11 receivers on the offseason roster, making it one of the deepest and most intriguing battles of the summer – and also the most complex. For Samuel, his long-term fit projects as the “Z” receiver to replace veteran Pierre Garçon. But he also spent a good chunk of time at South Carolina playing in the slot, where his toughness and route running could be utilized best. He also has the speed to play “X,” which was occupied by Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis throughout 2018.

The key for Samuel will learning the nuances of the playbook. Young players have struggled to learn all the necessary components to Kyle Shanahan’s scheme and it can often take two seasons to fully master – particularly for skill position players tasked with learning multiple spots. It’s likely the coaching staff has Samuel limited to one position early on to avoid overloading his plate. How quickly he adapts will ultimately decide how effective he’ll be in his first year.

Jalen Hurd, WR

Many of the same things can be said about Hurd, though his role figures to be drastically different than Samuel’s over time. The 49ers envision Hurd (6-5, 226) moving to tight end or H-back at some point over the next few years. When that happens could depend on Hurd’s body composition. If he gains weight – some 15 to 20 pounds – that switch could come sooner rather than later. He’ll stay at receiver if he remains around the weight he played at last with Baylor, where he played predominately in the slot.

As George Kittle said countless times last season, having a complete understanding of his responsibilities was paramount to his record-breaking season. Hurd, who had 2,638 rushing yards in 33 games at Tennessee, could be similarly as effective with the ball in his hands as Kittle. But he has a long way to go to learn the specifics of getting open in Shanahan’s offense before he can realize that promise. For now, he’ll work to refine his route running and pass catching with the 49ers’ deep group of wideouts.

Mitch Wishnowsky, P

Wishnowsky impressed in his practice debut earlier this month at rookie minicamp, thumping punts that were hard to handle on the typically-windy practice field. Wishnowsky, the earliest-drafted punter since 2012, won’t face any competition for a roster spot, but he does face the challenge of working without Gould as the holder on field goals.

Dre Greenlaw, LB

Greenlaw could be an important player during his rookie campaign. The 49ers haven’t given a timeline for the return of free-agent addition Kwon Alexander as he recovers from an ACL tear last October. That could give Greenlaw a crack at the starting “Will” linebacker job if the coaching staff decides to keep veteran Malcolm Smith at the “Sam” position he played during 2018. There, Greenlaw would compete with third-year player Elijah Lee, veteran David Mayo and undrafted free agent Azeez Al-Shaair. Lee started the final five games of last season following Reuben Foster’s release, making him the favorite to work with starters alongside Fred Warner. Greenlaw started 38 of his 42 games at Arkansas, including 11 his true freshman season in 2015, when he was named a freshman All-American.

Kaden Smith, TE

Smith will be in the thick of a competitive battle to backup Kittle. Second-stringer Garrett Celek is entering the final year of his contract and turns 31 later this month, which could allow the 49ers to go younger if Smith proves worthy of playing time. The 49ers like his pass-catching skills despite his miserable 4.92-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. The Stanford alum will compete with second-year pro Ross Dwelley, recent free-agent signee Levine Toilolo and undrafted rookie Tyree Mayfield, who may have the leg up for his work on special teams and intriguing athleticism.

Justin Skule, T

The 49ers are hoping to have a competitive battle for the swing tackle role behind starters Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey between Skule and Shon Coleman, who was acquired during final cuts last summer in a trade with the Browns. Skule, who started 40 straight contests at tackle for Vanderbilt, was sharpened against SEC competition throughout his college career while Coleman was inactive for all 16 games during the 2018 regular season. The 49ers let go of veteran Garry Gilliam early in the offseason to go younger and cheaper. Skule could be an intriguing player worth developing.

Tim Harris, CB

Despite not making a sizable investment at cornerback during the offseason, the 49ers should have a deep competition there behind former All-Pro Richard Sherman. Harris, who might have been drafted far earlier than Round 6 if not for a pair of season-ending injuries at Virginia, will cut his teeth competing with fellow youngsters Ahkello Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore and Greg Mabin for a role. The secondary’s struggles throughout 2018 have been well documented, and that could allow Harris to make a quick ascension up the depth chart if he impresses new secondary coach Joe Woods.

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