Here are 12 observations – most of them with a defensive twist – from the 49ers’ Wednesday OTA practice:
▪ Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said the 49ers have liked what they’ve been seeing from Jimmie Ward at cornerback and will keep him there this week. Like last week, Ward lined up at the right cornerback spot with the first-team defense. Unlike last week, he didn’t move inside to slot (nickel) cornerback when the 49ers switched into their nickel defense. He remained on the outside with Chris Davis playing nickel. Ward looked very strong, at one point leaping to the inside to deflect a deep pass intended for receiver Quinton Patton.
▪ Davis, who joined the team in November, took most of the snaps at nickel cornerback. He had a mixed outing, giving up a couple of receptions to Bruce Ellington. Keith Reaser was the nickel defender with the second-team defense. Ward had that role last week, and O’Neil and his coaches obviously are evaluating a lot of cornerbacks and figuring out the best spots for each.
▪ Like last week, Gerald Hodges was the starting inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman. O’Neil said that job currently is a three-man race among Hodges, last year’s starter, Michael Wilhoite, and ex Raider Ray-Ray Armstrong, who joined the team last year. Reporters aren’t able to see every practice the team holds. But the two that have been open to the media thus far have featured Hodges as the starter.
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▪ While Ward is playing cornerback, one of last year’s cornerbacks, Marcus Cromartie, is playing safety. Cromartie was working with the second-team defense on Wednesday and was lining up next to Jaquiski Tartt. Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid remain the starters at safety, and O’Neil said he was impressed by their intelligence. In fact, he said he’s been on the staff of four teams that have installed new defenses and that the 49ers’ safety group is farther along at this stage than any he’s seen.
▪ Last week, receiver Jerome Simpson got into a brief scrap with Davis. On Wednesday, he was involved in an altercation with rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson, who had to be separated from the veteran receiver. Robinson was playing left cornerback with the second-team defense Wednesday although he says he’s been on the right side as well. Robinson said he likes O’Neil’s system because it calls for a lot of man-to-man, press coverage, which is his specialty. Robinson, a fourth-round pick, was 171 pounds at the time of the combine. He says he’s up to 185 pounds now with a goal of getting to 190.
▪ The 49ers once had an outside linebacker, Manny Lawson, who wanted to add mass to his frame. Lawson tried for years to bulk up – it took a long time and he had mixed results. Eli Harold seems to have had no such issues. He’s up to 270 pounds or so and the new weight seems evenly distributed. He’s been moving around well. With Ahmad Brooks working his way back from a minor injury, Harold has been the starter at right outside linebacker.
▪ The composition of the offensive line didn’t change from last week. The starters, from left tackle to right tackle, were Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Brandon Thomas and Erik Pears. The second team, from left to right, was Colin Kelly, Ian Silberman, Marcus Martin, Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown. First-round draft pick Joshua Garnett won’t be able to join the 49ers until the second week of June. The 49ers have not yet decided whether he will play left or right guard.
▪ The 49ers ended their practice with a series of two-minute drills. The first-team offense converted on a pair of third-down throws, both of them from Blaine Gabbert to Torrey Smith. The second throw was a third-and-19 conversion. However, Gabbert and Co., ran out of time before making any attempts at the end zone as did the second- and third-team offenses.
▪ Brooks was rehabilitating on an adjacent field as was rookie receiver Devon Cajuste, who came down awkwardly after a catch last week. Cajuste was running and his injury does not appear long term. Others who were not on hand were defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey (ACL), nose tackle Ian Williams (ankle) and kicker Phil Dawson (veteran).
▪ Seen on the field Wednesday: Former 49ers first-round pick Andre Carter. The former Cal star is helping out with the defensive line as part of a coaching fellowship.
▪ The only two players who got work at punt returner on Wednesday were Ellington and undrafted receiver Bryce Treggs (Cal). Ellington had a strong day on offense where he mostly lined up out of the slot position. When veteran safety Antoine Bethea was asked which receivers have stood out to him this offseason, his first response was Ellington.
▪ The 49ers are taking advantage of Jeff Driskel’s athleticism. The rookie quarterback not only worked with the third-team offense, he was given a role in both punt coverage and punt return sessions. Colin Kaepernick remains in rehab mode. The second-team quarterback remains Thaddeus Lewis.