The 49ers' first training camp under the watch of Kyle Shanahan kicked off this week with a practice Friday in Santa Clara. There were plenty of highlights, including the last-minute signing of Solomon Thomas, a Reuben Foster pick-six and the unveiling of a high-incline turf ramp for players to train on.
But we're far from the meat of training camp. There are plenty of questions that need to be answered, and unknowns that will factor into the team's performance this year.
Here are 10 things in motion in 49ers camp to keep an eye on.
How will the interior offensive line shake out?
Starting from the inside out, Daniel Kilgore has been a mainstay at center since the Jim Harbaugh era, despite not being a top 15 player in the league at his position. Now in comes veteran Jeremy Zuttah via trade from Baltimore, and he’s got a very good chance to take over as the starter.
Questions also surround the guard spots. Is it going to be Zane Beadles and Josh Garnett again? Could the 49ers decide it’s best Kilgore stays at center while Zuttah and Garnett start at guard? Then there’s the possible but unlikely scenario of Brandon Fusco or Michigan rookie Erik Magnuson emerging as starting options.
What kind of production are the 49ers going to get out of the Leo?
First off, it’s unknown who the Leo will be at this point. The odds-on favorite is Arik Armstead, since he’s slimmed down for it and is the best overall defensive lineman making a go at it.
The two sleepers to win it are Aaron Lynch and veteran Elvis Dumervil, who ranks 32nd all-time with 99.0 career sacks. While they haven’t been as highly advertised as practicing there yet, they’re both designed for the Leo. Pita Taumoepenu, the Utah rookie with the rapid get-off, is also in the mix. With their combined efforts, the 49ers could see an uptick in sacks in 2017.
How much will other backs cut into Carlos Hyde’s workload?
Kyle Shanahan himself pointed to all the different ways he’s divvied up carries among his running backs over his years as an NFL offensive coordinator. “It depends on your roster,” the coach said in regards to the variation. It was a 50-50 split in Cleveland, a 75-25 split in Atlanta, and Shanahan has also had workhorse situations in Houston and Washington. Now in San Francisco, the No. 1 running back is Carlos Hyde—and he’s built like a feature back—but he’s got capable ball carriers behind him.
The combination of Tim Hightower, Joe Williams and even Kyle Juszczyk and potentially Matt Breida could eat into his workload significantly. It all depends on how Hyde performs – and of course, if the lead back can stay healthy. Hot handedness and opponent may also play heavily into Shanahan’s decisions when it comes to usage.
The outcome of a crowded LB group
The 49ers may have one too many patrolling linebackers. It is hard to imagine four-time All-Pro NaVorro Bowman or first-round pick Reuben Foster spending time on the sidelines this year, which leaves only the SAM linebacker position open. But given the duties, a player like Ahmad Brooks, who comes hard downhill, may be best suited to play it.
Where does that leave newly signed linebacker and Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith?
He received a five-year, $26.5 million deal from the 49ers this offseason. There's a chance he's an expensive, but often-used backup slash insurance policy at linebacker. But he is also the player that is most knowledgeable when it comes to this new defense, having played in it and under its coordinator Robert Saleh in Seattle. It's still possible Smith wins a starting role and is part of the trio the 49ers roll out Week 1.
Is Jimmie Ward going to be better or worse as a safety?
Ward is set to play the single-high safety role in 2017, a position which primarily demands instincts and range. But this isn't so new—Ward was a starting safety at Northern Illinois, where he was relied on and performed because of those aforementioned strengths.
His NFL career hasn't quite taken off at nickel or cornerback since being drafted 30th overall in 2014, so this has potential to play out well for him, especially from a financial standpoint. And for what it's worth, he can play worry free and with his hair on fire, because frankly, the 49ers don't have a lot of high-caliber options behind Ward.
Who’s getting traded, if anyone
Talks swirled around two starting offensive players, tight end Vance McDonald and running back Carlos Hyde. Rightfully so. Shanahan fully restocked both positions with his handpicked guys, including a couple of familiar faces in Logan Paulsen and Tim Hightower. With McDonald’s struggles, it would not be a surprise for him to be moved or cut, especially with George Kittle being the talk of Santa Clara.
Hyde, on the other hand, is a very talented player when healthy. And the team would be much thinner at running back without him, which would also place a lot more weight on the shoulders of journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer. Anything can happen, but the trading away of Hyde would be tough to justify unless the team were mailing it in this season.
The development of Trent Brown
Trent Brown should be a top storyline to follow in the NFL this season given his potential and position.
Starting a full 16-game schedule as a 23-year-old seventh-round draft choice was an impressive feat in 2016. And Brown put together a few highlights in the process, manhandling even Michael Bennett at times. Given his size and power, and how well he can move for 6-foot-8, some think he may actually have greatness in him, including Joe Staley and Von Miller. If Brown can not only retain his starting role on the right side, but show the needle is pointing up, it could mean big dividends for the 49ers.
Timeshare in the slot
In case you haven’t noticed, the 49ers have a lot of slot receivers. Outside of WR1 Pierre Garcon, the next four highest investments are shiftier and smaller is stature. Jeremy Kerley, 5-foot-9, is the returning vet in the group. But he’ll be seriously pushed for time by newcomers Marquise Goodwin (5-foot-9), Aldrick Robinson (5-foot-10), and even rookie Trent Taylor (5-foot-8).
There’s also a forgotten wild card in 2014 fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington, who is returning from a torn hamstring. But he’s recorded only 325 receiving yards in 26 appearances and is yet to finish a season. The smart money is on the new blood making filling out the WR group. Look for Goodwin to primarily line up opposite Garcon, with Kerley, Taylor and Robinson manning the slot. Though, there should be a great deal of moving around.
How will the trio on the defensive line come together?
It doesn't matter so much where Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas play, as much as it matters that they produce. Zeroing in on these three alone and it's clear to see there is a lot invested; three first-round picks, two of which were in the top 10, and the latest at No. 3 overall. Expectations should be sky high. The defensive line needs to be the constant motor and disruptor that powers this unit.
The usage of Kyle Juszczyk
Juszczyk and Shanahan are as intriguing a pairing between chess piece and play-caller as you can get. That combination of physical versatility and mental creativity opens the doors to a lot of possibilities. The now highest-paid fullback can carry the ball, run block, pass block, catch passes out of the backfield and even line up at tight end or in the slot. And Shanahan has a knack for scheming players open. Juszczyk's total role within this offense will be a fascinating development.
Media courtesy Baltimore Sun, AP, Getty Images, Michael Zagaris