The 49ers and Denver Broncos on Friday held their first of two training camp practices at the UCHealth Training Center roughly 40 minutes from downtown Denver.
Here are our observations from the sidelines in Englewood as the two teams squared off on offense and defense simultaneously on separate fields.
Linebacker Fred Warner played a key role in two takeaways forced by San Francisco’s defense during full-team drills, just two days after he intercepted Jimmy Garoppolo five times back in Santa Clara. Warner pressured Broncos signal-caller Joe Flacco, leading to another interception for budding free safety Tarvarius Moore, which appeared to go for a touchdown the other way. It was Moore’s third interception of the past two practices. Linebacker Malcolm Smith also had an pick on a Flacco pass that deflected off of running back Phillip Lindsay.
Warner also forced a fumble late in practice that was recovered by Dre Greenlaw. The 49ers’ penetrating, one-gap defense was problematic for the Broncos offense throughout the practice, largely because Denver was used to a less attacking, two-gap style of defense they’ve been practicing against for nearly the past month (the Broncos began training camp early to play in the Hall of Fame game). The 49ers defense was lively and talkative throughout the session.
Running back Jeff Wilson Jr. had a strong practice after missing most of the early portion of training camp with a calf injury. He took over first-team work from Matt Breida, who was dressed but didn’t get any full-team work. Wilson scored a pair of touchdowns – one rushing, one receiving – during a red zone period. The 49ers were also without Raheem Mostert, who was wearing a blue noncontact jersey after a head injury in the preseason opener.
Wilson also held his own in a special teams drill designed to replicate gunners running down field and blockers setting up. Wilson seems earmarked for the practice squad for the second straight season, though another injury at running back could give him a chance at making the 53-man roster.
Star pass rusher Von Miller was bearing down on Jimmy Garoppolo and lost his footing. Garoppolo felt the pressure and threw off his back foot as Miller nearly rolled into his front leg – the same leg of the surgically repaired ACL. Garoppolo’s pass wound up well short of his intended target, Marquise Goodwin, and right into the hands of Broncos safety Justin Simmons. That was Garoppolo’s worst mistake of the afternoon (more on him below), but he was sharp throughout the practice.
Perhaps the most entertaining portion Friday was the special teams drill. The only time a fight came close to breaking out was when 49ers reserve linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and Broncos linebacker Jamal Carter got locked up to end the drill.
Cones were set up to create alleyways for would-be “gunners” to try and defeat their blockers to touch a dummy representing a punt returner. Players lined the alleys and were talking smack the entire time, though it seemed mostly good spirited. Reynolds was the blocker and Carter served as the gunner. The two stalemated and stayed locked up as teammates from both sides converged. The players were separated as it appeared Reynolds won the rep, but no punches were thrown.
The moment spoke to the competitiveness of the practice without it devolving into a fight, which are common when two teams come together for joint training camp sessions.
Garoppolo completed his first eight passes while spreading the ball around to multiple pass catchers. His day started with a completion to Marquise Goodwin, then he hit Richie James, Kendrick Bourne, tight end Ross Dwelley, rookie Jalen Hurd and threw another to Bourne. He didn’t throw an incompletion until a red zone period when he had a pass deflected by a Broncos linebacker while looking for Deebo Samuel in the back of the end zone.
There didn’t appear to be a hangover effect from Garoppolo’s five-straight interception performance Wednesday. He was asked after Friday’s practice about how he dealt with it.
“That day I was pretty ticked off,” Garoppolo said. “The defense got the best of me that day. We’ve had battles back and fourth. It’s been good for us, good for them, and it’s only gonna lead to (becoming) a better football team.”
Garoppolo unofficially completed 10 of 15 passes after starting 9 of 11. He struggled late with two incompletions to Jordan Matthews, whose chances at making the team could be waning.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was asked afterwards about the tone of the practice and how he felt about the two teams avoiding getting into fights.
“I’m pumped for our guys because they came out with the intent to continue with the message that we’ve been delivering with that relentless pursuit,” Saleh said, “being violent, but obviously being clean. So they came out here and didn’t skip a beat being on the road. Felt good, felt their energy out there.”