Kaepernick sidelined, but 49ers coach sounds optimistic about both his QBs
SANTA CLARA -- Some of you have been asking about various 49ers rookies. Here's a quick synopsis of the team's incoming class, including some prominent undrafted players:
1A. DL DeForest Buckner. He's been exactly what the 49ers thought they were getting -- a huge, 300-pound lineman who moves like a much lighter man. Those movement skills sometimes get Buckner off balance and he's probably a better pass rusher than run defender at this point. Because of that, he may not start some of the early-season games against run-heavy Los Angeles, Carolina and Seattle. But he'll certainly be rotated through the defensive line heavily and could start Sunday's preseason opener, especially with Arik Armstead nursing a shoulder injury.
1B. G Joshua Garnett. It would be a disappointment if, after all the 49ers' offensive-line struggles last year and after trading up to get Garnett in the first round, he doesn't start in Week 1. Garnett has lined up at both right and left guard with the second-team offensive line, and his snaps Sunday likely will come on the left side. The starting guards remain Zane Beadles, left, and Andrew Tiller, right.
3. CB Will Redmond. The 49ers see Redmond as a nickel cornerback, at least early on in his career. He's looked very good in that role so far, although he is still practicing with a bulky brace on his surgically repaired (ACL) right knee and hasn't quite been cleared for full practices. Nickel cornerback remains a question mark for the 49ers. Does Jimmie Ward juggle that along with a starting role on the outside? Should the job go to Keith Reaser or Dontae Johnson? Is Redmond ready? How many snaps a game should safety Eric Reid get as the nickel back?
4. CB Rashard Robinson. Tall and long-limbed, he's been very sticky in coverage. Robinson mostly lined up at left cornerback in the spring, but has been playing both sides -- often with the second-team defense -- in training camp. Robinson was not a tough tackler at LSU, and he's had to do little (any?) of that so far in training camp. That will change in the preseason games.
5. DL Ronald Blair. Most of his snaps have seemed to come as a defensive lineman, both in base packages and in the team's nickel alignments. But he's also played outside linebacker and even a little nose tackle. Blair is strong and fluid. He's become a coaches' favorite because of his versatility and is a favorite in other areas of the organization because he is such a genuine, nice guy. Look for him to enter the game as a situational pass rusher this season.
5B. OT John Theus. He began training camp as the second-string right tackle but was pushed to the third string when Anthony Davis was elevated to the second unit. Theus has nice size but must get stronger. It seems that the 49ers are going into the season with Erik Pears as their emergency, "swing" tackle. Pears, however, is 34 and is entering the final year of his contract. Which means the team must groom a swing tackle for the future. Theus seems to fit the mold.
5C. OL Fahn Cooper. Cooper went through spring drills as a tackle but has been playing left guard with the third-string unit in training camp. He and Brandon Thomas have been the guards with the third-string line. As of now, there are at least four guards ahead of them on the depth chart (Zane Beadles, Andrew Tiller, Ian Silberman and Garnett), suggesting Cooper's best bet for 2016 is the practice squad. His size and experience at tackle make him a project worth undertaking.
6A. QB Jeff Driskel. If the backup quarterback is a fan favorite on every NFL roster, then the rookie, backup quarterback is really popular. Driskel already has admirers. He's tall, athletic, has a good arm and has gotten better with every week of practice. The downside is that he's the fourth quarterback on a team that probably will keep two passers on the 53-man squad. Driskel could land on the practice squad (barring a series of command performances in the preseason, it's hard to see another team grabbing him.) It's also possible the 49ers find a spot for him on special teams. His size-speed combination has given him a role on both the punt and kick teams. He's the personal protector on the punting team. Heck, he's even had the opportunity to return a kick or two
6B RB Kelvin Taylor. There have been no cracks in the running back pecking order yet. The starter is Carlos Hyde. His backups are Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris. That leaves Mike Davis, Taylor and Kendall Gaskins fighting for the remaining snaps. That last group is certain to get a lot of carries during the preseason, and the 49ers are hoping one will emerge from the pack. Taylor might have the best movement skills of that group, but Davis is showing far more wiggle this year than he did during his uninspiring rookie season. A running back could make the team based on special teams skills. Harris has been practicing at kick returner. But some of the other key special teams roles on coverage units seem to be going to a tight end (Bruce Miller) a linebacker (Nick Bellore) and a safety (L.J. McCray).
6C. WR Aaron Burbridge. He’s been playing right wide receiver with the third-team group since he arrived. The good news is that none of the young players ahead of him have grabbed a firm hold on a roster spot. DiAndre Campbell perhaps has been the most consistent of that group. Bryce Treggs began to come on during Week 2 of training camp. Burbridge has been solid. He's neither big nor fast, but he uses his body well to shield defenders, which makes quarterbacks comfortable throwing in his direction. It will be interesting if the team starts using him out of the slot at some point.
7. CB Prince Charles Iworah. He might win 'best body' among the defensive backs but needs refinement. Several cornerbacks have been seen moonlighting at safety this year, including Iworah. Coaches say this is a good thing -- the more positions you learn the more valuable you are on the roster. Really, it's likely a signal that you have little chance of making the 53-man squad this year.
Undrafted WR Bryce Treggs. The Cal receiver has been lining up as the third-string slot receiver where he has been catching a lot of passes. He also is backing up Bruce Ellington on kick and punt returns. Treggs and Devon Cajuste are the only 49ers skill players that Chip Kelly saw in person in the run-up to the draft. Treggs could be the fastest 49er, although Torrey Smith and Keith Reaser might disagree.
Undrafted WR Devon Cajuste. He's the team's biggest receiver, so big that some draftniks projected him as a tight end. His size makes him a frequent target in practice, and, to his credit he has been able to handle a big workload in Chip Kelly’s demanding practices so far. Cajuste needs to work on his hands, and his deep speed is lacking. But Eric Rogers' (ACL) injury and DeAndre Smelter's lackluster camp so far have left the 49ers in need of a big, possession type receiver. Which is to say: The door remains open for Cajuste.
Undrafted C Alex Balducci. By now you know the story: Balducci played on the same Oregon defensive line as Armstead and Buckner but is trying to convert to center in the NFL. He’s done a nice job so far. Centers have to be smart. And they have to enjoy trench warfare, which the one-time nose tackle clearly relishes. Balducci’s been anchoring the the third-string offensive line, though he’s lately begun to share reps with Colin Kelly.
Undrafted NT Darren Lake. The 49ers are wondering whether Lake simply became buried on one of the nation’s most talented defensive lines at Alabama last year. Lake is a huge guy with long arms, and he’s drawn a lot of attention from his position coach so far. With Ian Williams’ future uncertain following yet another ankle injury, Lake seems like someone worth keeping around even it is via the practice squad.