SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The 49ers this past Sunday held their ninth training camp practice in preparation for the 2018 season. In the second year of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch's rebuild, there was a lot to look for. They have the polarizing quarterback, three recent top-10 draft selections, perhaps the NFL's next great linebacker, and a system that is at the forefront of offensive innovations in the league.
As I took in practice at the SAP Performance Facility, the field adjacent to Levi's, here's what stood out.
Star cornerback Richard Sherman is dealing with a hamstring strain and didn’t practice that Sunday, but it presented an interesting opportunity to see where the 49ers secondary stacked up without him. Maybe it was just a good day for them, but on this particular day, the DBs showed out in both individual and team drills.
Most notably, the team saw three rookies excel in Tavarius Moore, D.J. Reed and undrafted prize Tarvarus McFadden. Moore and McFadden each had picks in team drills, and Reed had one during a 1-on-1 rep against Richie James. The man coverage technique and pure speed from Moore and Reed in particular stood out.
On a couple plays against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 1s, the first-team defensive backs looked omnipresent, blanketing the field. Ahkello Witherspoon and the corners played tight and the air support on more than one occasion came from free safety Adrian Colbert. They were forcing the quarterbacks to hold onto the ball and make challenging throws into tight windows.
And considering the rave reviews about this receiving corps — which are indeed legitimate — as well as the presence of Garoppolo, and Kyle Shanahan scripting the plays, one has to give credit where it's due. This defensive back group has been competing against a high-level offense and looks like a unit with a lot of potential, with or without "Uncle Sherm."
Solomon Thomas coming on
Maybe more than anything, the 49ers' new regime needs its first investment to take the proverbial next step. That's Thomas, the athletic defensive tackle and No. 3 overall pick from 2017. And so far he seems to be on the path to delivering in his second year. During my time in Santa Clara, it occurred to me how much Thomas developed.
He was more consistent rep to rep, and even had a couple of furious snaps that were demonstrative of his true potential. He looked quicker and stronger, more polished in his upper-body technique, and more confident overall. Compared to last year, Thomas looks like a player that is thinking less, and is moving based on instinct and previous repetition. There truly was visible improvement in his game.
I saw it carried over to the next day, too, as Thomas put together a few very solid reps in 1-on-1s (via San Francisco 49ers live feed):
Thomas this offseason put in extra work away from the team, getting together with pass-rush and defensive line specialist Brandon Jordan. The improvement in his hand technique is at least in part reflective of the training he received. If these signs from practice are accurate barometers of his trajectory, Thomas could be the 49ers' top breakout candidate, and could make this a mean, mean line with DeForest Buckner.
Garoppolo is automatic
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was as advertised. It's as if he were in a zone for 90% of the practice. With him, I saw more drops than off-target passes. He threw darts with that lightning quick release. He completed a high percentage of his passes, attacking all areas of the field. The anticipation and placement stood out on most throws. And impressively, he's vibing with and has his timing down with a diverse group of receivers, all of which are different sizes, speeds and have different body language.
There's also a confidence Garoppolo carries, like he knows he’s going to make the throw. Between snaps, players gravitate to him, lending an ear like he's got something to offer. And the quarterback holds conversations with everyone on offense, from Weston Richburg to Jerick McKinnon. 11-year vet Pierre Garçon and Garoppolo also did a lot of communicating Sunday before and after throws. This really spoke to his command.
Since he is still looking like the undefeated quarterback he is, it wouldn't be all that surprising if Garoppolo didn't play that much in the exhibition and already received top-10 QB treatment from Shanahan and the staff. There's probably not a lot else they need to see before Week 1 in Minnesota.
-- I noticed Joe Williams getting work with the special teams. The one clear rep of his I spotted was a standout snap as a gunner; he showed off that extra gear, beat the protector and got to the return man. It would have been an jarring hit or fair catch in a game. In his battle for an active roster spot, it will be critical for Williams to put the staff's minds at ease if they have to lose special teams ace Raheem Mostert.
-- RB1 Jerick McKinnon was doing some side work, practicing his pass blocking technique on a heavy bag that is chained to a slider. He was going at it solo, until full back Kyle Juszczyk wandered over with some tips and starting splitting reps with McKinnon. The two seemed tight at camp and on social media.
-- On one play in team drills, the left end exploded into the tackle, capturing my eye (I was originally fixated on linebacker Reuben Foster). It was a violent snap that resulted in a pressure. When the jersey straightened out and the red digits on the white backing became clear, it read No. 98. Ronald Blair. The third-year vet remained behind Jullian Taylor — the rookie seventh-rounder whose leapt to the first-team — but looked like somebody who could make a case for himself in the preseason games.
-- I spoke briefly with Keena Turner, and asked him about rookie linebacker Fred Warner and his ability to hold up near the line, given he is a hybrid type that first excels in coverage. "Linebacker is a mentality," Turner said, not worrying at all about Warner's durability or aggression in the box. A former Pro Bowl linebacker and four-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, Turner is currently a team VP acting as an advisor to GM John Lynch.
Media courtesy Getty Images, Michael Zagaris/Getty Images, San Francisco 49ers, AP Images