Scenes from 49ers training camp
The 49ers were given the day off from practice on Monday, making it a perfect time for a mid-training camp mailbag.
To your questions (which were lightly edited)!
David PM asks: Every year, all teams feel positive and have high expectations while in training camp. It has been the case all three years with Kyle Shanahan. Do you feel this year this positive vibes can translate to wins? Maybe a playoff run?
I’d argue that wasn’t the case in Year 1, when Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard were the top quarterbacks on the depth chart. Last season, it certainly made sense for San Francisco to enter the year with high expectations following Jimmy Garoppolo’s 5-0 run as the starter to end 2017.
I think the lifted expectations entering this season are valid for a few reasons. First, it’s Year 3 in Shanahan’s system and a number of key players have talked about the importance of continuity. Second, the new emphasis on load management and player health appears to be working, even with Dee Ford dealing with knee tendinitis that could cost him the next week of practices. The 49ers aren’t concerned his knee issues will last into the regular season if taken care of properly right now. Overall, the roster’s in good health.
Third, the defense looks markedly improved over last season. Nick Bosa looks like he could develop into a multiple-time All-Pro, barring health problems, of course. Linebacker Fred Warner appears to have taken drastic steps forward. Richard Sherman is healthier and Jason Verrett looks like he’s in good form despite his litany of injury issues.
My opinion: The 49ers have enough talent to make a run at the playoffs. The questions will always be about health and availability. I’d expect nine or more wins if Garoppolo starts all 16 games. The Eagles made it to the postseason last year as a wild card team at 9-7, though I’d expect both wild card winners to finish with at least 10 wins this year.
The consensus in the locker room is anything less than a playoff appearance would be a disappointment.
Matt Hedges asks: I haven’t heard much talk about Kaden Smith as our tight end No. 2. What’s the situation there?
Smith has gotten off to a slow start, which isn’t all that surprising for the sixth-round pick. Tight ends have a lot on their plate in Shanahan’s offense, so learning the nuances of the position can take some time. Meanwhile, Ross Dwelley appears to be the favorite for the second tight end spot with Garrett Celek expected to start the season on the active physically unable to perform list following back surgery in the spring.
At the moment, I have undrafted rookie Tyree Mayfield and Dwelley rounding out the tight end group behind George Kittle on the 53-man roster, with Smith landing on the practice squad. It’s not a terrible place for Smith to be. He can continue to hone his craft while being an injury away from a promotion to the active roster.
I went with Mayfield because he’s more athletic and versatile. He could fill in at fullback if anything were to happen to Kyle Juszczyk, which is a luxury the 49ers haven’t had the past two seasons. Plus he’s a more valuable player on special teams.
Jon In SoCal asks: How is the interior offensive line coming together? Not a lot of depth there and Josh Garnett now out. Looking at Ross Reynolds. My sleeper dude.
I’d argue the depth of the offensive line is the biggest weakness on the 49ers’ roster. The second and third units have had an awfully tough time against San Francisco’s talented defensive front, which is to be expected given all the resources poured in there.
But that lack of depth could become problematic during the regular season if injuries pop up. Starting right guard Mike Person momentarily left practice Sunday with an undisclosed injury. Center Weston Richburg remains on the physically unable to perform list following knee/quad surgery, though the team is optimistic he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season.
If Person and Richburg are healthy, the offensive line should be above average. Otherwise, it looks like Ben Garland and Najee Toran would be the favorites to win backup roles. And it’s hard to see Garnett getting a roster spot after missing three weeks in August.
As for your dude Reynolds, I’m thinking he ends up on the practice squad unless he stands out during the preseason or another guard gets hurt.
Tai asks: Do you think the 49ers regret not signing/drafting a free safety this past offseason based on first eight days of camp?
No. The team seems content with moving Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore to safety to make up for their lack of resources invested there this spring. Whether or not that strategy works remains to be seen. It’s a risky one.
Ward was activated off the PUP list earlier this week so he could participate in walkthroughs, though it’s likely he’ll be out of practice for another week or so after breaking his broken collar bone in the spring. Coordinator Robert Saleh has entrusted Moore to take over as the starter during practice, surpassing Adrian Colbert, who made 12 starts there the past two seasons.
Moore has played well, though it’s unclear if he’s done enough to stay in the starting lineup once Ward gets healthy. My guess is Ward takes over as the starter and Moore gets bumped to second string. It would make sense to have Moore trained both at safety at cornerback to give the 49ers maximum versatility at the bottom of the depth chart in case injuries become an issue again.
Remember, the 49ers started eight different combinations of safeties and six different duos at outside corner last season. Moore and D.J. Reed seem poised to be the do-everything members of the secondary that could fill in at multiple spots if needed.
Frank Mursier asks: Long time Niner fan, my question is don’t you think we need to keep a veteran receiver like Matthews because our receivers are so young?
Not necessarily. I think Matthews was brought in to offer a different skill set and, to your point, a veteran presence in the offseason. But I don’t believe that would be a reason to keep him if someone like, say, Kendrick Bourne is the better player right now.
Matthews has been consistent, though not very splashy. And Bourne will be entering his third season in the system after going undrafted during Shanahan’s first offseason. That might be more valuable than Matthew’s veteran leadership.
I happen to think, right now, Bourne is the team’s second-best “Z” receiver behind Dante Pettis, since Deebo Samuel has been working primarily at “X,” which is where Marquise Goodwin has played most of the past two years. I think the receiver corps will be Pettis, Samuel, Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Bourne and Jalen Hurd.
Kevin A. Molina asks: Much has been made about the work that new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has done with the DL but little has been said about Joe Woods and his role with the organization. How have the defensive backs taken to him and have you seen the growth in the younger DBs during these past months?
I think the secondary has quietly taken steps in the right direction. Moore playing well at safety has been an encouraging development. Marcell Harris seems much further along in his development in Year 2 and seems like he could capably fill in at strong safety if Jaquiski Tartt suffered another injury. Reed just seems like a good player who will start games at some point in his NFL career.
I’m not sure what to make of Ahkello Witherspoon. He’s had good moments though he hasn’t been as consistent as he might like. And his glute injury is allowing for Verrett to make a positive impression with the starters as he works his way back into playing shape. K’Waun Williams is generally pretty steady in the slot.
It’s far too early to make any blanket statements about Joe Woods. I’m curious to see how well the 49ers defend the pass after struggling mightily in 2018. My guess is the vastly improved pass rush should help cover for whatever weaknesses exist on the back end.
And if the secondary is significantly better, and Ford and Bosa stay healthy, then San Francisco might wind up with one of the best 12 defenses in the NFL. That would be enormous for their playoff chances.
What’s your burning question about the 49ers? Email Chris Biderman at email@example.com and look for an answer in next week’s mailbag.