49ers' coach sounds aggressive after team's first practice in pads
SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers have a day off Wednesday and they're going to appreciate it.
Tuesday's session not only was their first fully padded practice of 2016, it was their longest session this year, lasting approximately 30 minutes longer than the two opening practices.
One of the question marks heading into training camp was how physical Chip Kelly's practices would be. After all, his predecessors -- from Mike Nolan to Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh -- prided themselves on a tough, might-is-right type of football. It was part of their persona. They were physical with an ‘f.’
Kelly, on the other hand, is best known for speed and efficiency.
But Tuesday's practice, while not as grueling or bombastic as previous incarnations of 49ers camp (there was no 'Nutcracker' drill, e.g.), was just as physical. Indeed, that has been one of the refrains from Kelly and GM Trent Baalke all offseason: Just because Kelly runs a fast-paced offense doesn’t mean it’s a finesse system.
Nobody worked harder than the defensive linemen. Before they took on any opponents Tuesday, position coach Jerry Azzinaro had them pounding against blocking sleds in a series of drills. Two things stood out:
* Arik Armstead was the first lineman to go through each drill and had his second strong day in a row. Armstead is young -- he's only four months older than first-round pick DeForest Buckner -- but he's already showing leadership qualities in Year 2.
* Glenn Dorsey is not taking part in any 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 situations because he's coming back from an ACL tear. But Dorsey is going through individual drills -- including the punishing sled work -- with his teammates. You can tell who is hitting those sleds the hardest from the metallic sound they make. They rang out the loudest -- BANG! -- every time Dorsey punched them. That is, he seems hungry to return.
Midway through practice, the offensive linemen took on the defensive linemen. The offensive lineman's objective was to move his opponent to the outside with a zone-blocking technique.
The best player overall in this drill may have been right tackle Anthony Davis, whose footwork seemed very smooth despite a year and a half away from the game. Davis handled fifth-round pick Ronald Blair well and then was strong against another rookie, Buckner. As you would expect from someone who dropped 30-plus pounds, Davis was light on his feet.
The team's first-string right tackle, Trent Brown, also looked good. Brown said he dealt with an illness and a series of small injuries in the spring, which is why he looked sluggish at times. He's in noticeably better shape now and handled himself well, including against Armstead, who has been the team's most ferocious lineman thus far in camp. Brown also put Ahmad Brooks on the ground when the outside linebackers joined the drills later in practice.
Rookie right tackle John Theus is playing with the second-team unit. He was overpowered a couple of times, including by Buckner and Blair. Blair has been playing defensive line almost exclusively so far in camp, especially as a nickel linemen. He showed a nice combination of power and fluidity throughout the day.
Mike Purcell appears far ahead in the competition at nose tackle. Garrison Smith is playing on the second-team unit but has been easily moved around early in camp. Undrafted rookie Darren Lake (6-3, 315) has the best size of the group but is an undrafted rookie. That is, there’s potential there -- the same with undrafted Demetrius Cherry -- but he needs refinement.
Third-string center Alex Balducci is learning a new position. But he has some -- this is a family paper -- 'jerkishness' to him that probably is essential to the job. Balducci took Tony Jerod-Eddie to the ground during one-on-one drills, and the latter was not happy about it.
The 49ers changed their offensive line combinations a bit. Left tackle Joe Staley was given a breather from time to time at which point Erik Pears entered at left tackle with the first-string unit. From left to right:
First: Staley, Zane Beadles, C Daniel Kilgore, Andrew Tiller, Trent Brown
Second: Colin Kelly, Ian Silberman, C Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas, John Theus
Third: Norman Price, Blake Muir/Fahn Cooper, C Alex Balducci, Joshua Garnett, Anthony Davis
Tuesday was Ray-Ray Armstrong's turn to play inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman. Armstrong was prominent on two straight plays in team drills. On the first, he met running back Mike Davis in the backfield for what would have been a loss. On the next, he batted down a pass from Blaine Gabbert.
As you would expect, both Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick looked better when they were running the first-team offense than when they were with the second. There were more mistakes today -- perhaps because of the added contact, aggression by the defense -- including a number of false starts. Batted passes also were common. Armstrong, Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold each swatted a Gabbert pass; linebacker Nick Bellore broke up one from Kaepernick.
Gabbert again had the longest pass play, a touchdown strike to Torrey Smith on a post-route with Jimmie Ward in coverage. Ward was lined up as left cornerback; he and Tramaine Brock alter sides during practice.