The 49ers on Thursday held their final practice before taking on the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night’s preseason opener. It was a far less physical session than Wednesday’s, which featured ankle injuries to defensive end Nick Bosa and cornerback Jason Verrett.
While the injuries are starting to pile up, here are our observations from the sidelines Thursday.
The 49ers spent the second half of practice going through two-minute drives, with the offense scoring would-be game winning touchdowns late in the clock on two of three chances.
It started with backup quarterback Nick Mullens, who hit rookie receiver Jalen Hurd three times, including a deep corner route to put the offense well within the red zone. Then Mullens found rookie tight end Kaden Smith for an acrobatic touchdown catch in traffic as the clock hit zeroes.
Splashy plays have been few and far between for Smith, the sixth-round draft pick, throughout training camp. Though his catch Thursday was an example of what attracted San Francisco to the Stanford alum. Mullens’ throw appeared to be off target, forcing Smith to adjust to his back shoulder. He made the grab amid tight coverage while contorting his body in the opposite direction he was running. Expect Smith to get plenty of playing time in the preseason.
For Hurd, his work Thursday was a sign of development after playing almost exclusively during running plays while he refined his route running and his knowledge of the playbook early in camp. His first two catches during the two-minute drill came in the middle of the field, where he offers San Francisco another big-bodied target to complement the small-ish receiving corps. His long reception on a corner route, setting up the score, was the third-round pick’s most impressive play since practice began.
Jimmy Garoppolo and the first string also put together a touchdown drive to successfully complete the drill. It started with a short pass to tight end George Kittle with Richard Sherman the closest defender. A few snaps later, Garoppolo looked for Kittle again on a deep pass up the left sideline into the end zone.
Kittle beat linebacker Kwon Alexander but was met by new free safety Tarvarius Moore, who made a good play in coverage to break up the pass, though it appeared Kittle could have still made the grab. It was a well-thrown pass that hit his hands and he couldn’t hang on to the ball as he fell to the ground.
Then Garoppolo completed passes to Dante Pettis and two more to Jordan Matthews before finding Trent Taylor in the middle of the end zone. Taylor had another strong practice. He caught a pair of touchdowns from Garoppolo during a red-zone drill earlier in the practice and has remained one of Garoppolo’s favorite targets this summer, particularly in crucial situations.
Speaking of the red zone period, Garoppolo was intercepted by Moore on a pass over the middle while looking for Taylor. It seemed as though Garoppolo rushed his throw into a crowd because of pressure off the right side from Solomon Thomas, who worked as a starter at defensive end because the 49ers were without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair.
Thomas had a strong practice overall and was a handful for right tackle Mike McGlinchey throughout the morning. Thomas wore a heavy ice pack on his left hand following Wednesday’s practice, but he didn’t appear bothered by the hand Thursday.
Moore’s interception was the first time Garoppolo was picked on a pass that wasn’t deflected first. Moore has been a quick study while transitioning to free safety this offseason, where he could showcase his 4.32 speed more often than he did at cornerback last season. The 49ers like Moore for the range and physicality he showed at safety at Southern Mississippi. Moore’s development following the position switch has quietly been a nice development for the 49ers in the early going.
Garoppolo unofficially completed 13 of 22 passes in full-team drills, not including a spike during the two-minute period before the touchdown. He connected on 8 of 12 before the drive and 5 of 10 during it. He had two good throws that wound up falling incomplete (the long pass to Kittle where Moore had good coverage, and a post route to Marquise Goodwin, who had the ball split his hands on a pass over the middle leading him toward a safety).
Garoppolo won’t play in Saturday’s preseason opener, though he has a big week upcoming with a pair of joint practices against the Denver Broncos before he’s expected to make his exhibition debut in the Monday night game Aug. 19.
Coach Kyle Shanahan offered up thoughts on Taylor (5-8, 180) and what makes him a valuable option in the red zone, even as the 49ers’ smallest player.
“Trent’s got a very good feel for his zone,” Shanahan said. “Trent, he’s one of our better man-to-man players, but he also has a feel out there where he can just feel open areas. And there’s a lot of guys who are just supposed to run the route that’s called and then they see a space and they can adjust it and there are a lot of guys who think they can do that but they can’t. Trent’s one of the guys who can. I mean, if he sees something and changes a route it’s usually because he should. And I think Jimmy has a good feel for him in that way and sometimes when guys are like that you’ll stay on them a little bit longer than usual instead of progressing to the next option.”