The San Francisco 49ers are just a week into training camp, but with their preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys only a week away, what are the biggest takeaways from the Niners’ first few days of practice?
Teams don’t win Super Bowls in late July/early August, but make no mistake: The foundation to a successful season is laid during training camp.
Free agents rock their new colors for the first time, wide-eyed rookies square off with the big boys, grizzled veterans wage wars with energetic youngsters in a battle for starting gigs, and the ultra-competitive environment lends itself to building all-important team chemistry.
We’re only a week into San Francisco’s training camp, but here are five early observations:
1. Same old Richard Sherman
The last guy in the universe to shy away from sharing what’s on his mind, Richard Sherman has been in vintage form on and off the gridiron from the moment he joined the 49er family.
At his presser, Sherm playfully scoffed at the notion that he’s the “old guy” in the secondary, spoke glowingly about fellow starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and his ability to learn quickly, and was brutally honest about the importance (or lack thereof) of San Francisco’s strong finish last year since it only resulted in a 6-10 record.
Save for getting toasted by Marquise Goodwin during 1-on-1s (a drill that’s designed for the offense to have the advantage), he’s shined on the practice field. The eighth-year corner seems to be building a friendly rivalry with fellow vet Pierre Garcon while breaking up several passes, notching an interception and not showing any lingering effects from his Achilles injury.
He looks a lot like the guy who terrorized the 49ers and the rest of the NFL for seven seasons in Seattle, and that’s exactly who Niner fans should want on their squad. It’s clear from his candid chat with reporters and his training camp performances that the omni-confident cornerback plans to do what he’s done throughout his career: Talk a mean game away from the field and back up his braggadocios claims on it.
2. Joe Staley should have his number retired by the 49ers when he hangs up his cleats
Ups, downs, deep playoff runs that included a trip to the Super Bowl, seemingly never-ending losing streaks, quarterback controversies, firings, teams that have underperformed, teams that have overachieved and even the “tackle eligible.” Joe Staley has seen it all in his 11 seasons in San Francisco, and the big man still has a passion for football and a zest for life that shine through whenever the cameras are rolling.
Arguably the premiere offensive tackle of his generation, Staley has been a class act in his decade-plus with the red and gold, going out of his way to take first-round pick and fellow offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey under his wing, standing up for his quarterback and earning the respect of his peers across the league.
Coming off an excellent bounce-back season that saw him ranked as the NFL’s top offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus with a grade of 89.6, the powerhouse veteran turned back the clock in 2017, seemingly reinvigorated by the franchise’s ambitious new regime and coaching staff.
The 33-year-old (34 before the regular season starts) is an unrestricted free agent after 2019, and it’s possible he re-ups with San Francisco, but even if he calls it a career at that time, the shoe-in Hall of Famer deserves the distinction of becoming just the 13th 49er to have his number retired by the team.
Also, The Joe Show is still awesome.
3. There’s a new attitude in San Francisco’s training camp
We’re doing our best to stay away from training camp clichés, but the members of the red and gold are clearly sporting a new winning mindset that wasn’t quite there a season ago.
These Niners are cool, calm, collected and confident, and with good reason: They’ve got a system on both sides of the ball that supports the personnel, a coach committed to finding players that fit his game plan and a blueprint in place to return the red and gold to championship glory. The franchise’s front office has finally stabilized after a tumultuous few season (more on that in a minute) marred by in-house fighting, poor drafts and lengthy losing streaks.
The locker room is far more unified that its been in recent seasons, but don’t take it from us: Joe Staley called it “one of the closest locker rooms” he’s ever been a part of during his recent press conference.
4. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are still in lockstep
As expected, Lynch and Shanahan went over a multitude of topics during the presser, including the lofty expectations after last season’s strong finish and the team’s humility pertaining to it, the importance of bringing in players to match up against division rivals, position battles (even at punter!) and continuing to change the culture one day at a time.
This no longer seems like a franchise feeling for the light switch in the dark, hoping that some random combination of coach and general manager will lead the team back to prominence (which is exactly how it felt during Jim Harbaugh’s chaotic final season and the two that followed); no, it feels like an organization with a specific plan in place that has entrusted two highly motivated individuals to execute it.
Both noted the significance of understanding that this is a new year and that last season’s five-game winning streak means little, each emphasized the importance of being on the same page regarding the type of players they want in the locker room and both radiated confidence that they’re building something special in San Francisco.
5. Right guard is an open competition
If you subscribe to the theory that Laken Tomlinson has already secured the starting gig at left guard, then there’s only one position across the offense that’s still truly up for grabs — right guard.
After dropping nearly 25 pounds during the offseason to become a better fit for Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, Joshua Garnett will have to bring it throughout the sweltering summer practices to hold off the likes of Jonathan Cooper and Mike Person (Person ran with the 1s on Wednesday). With Cooper and Garnett still nursing ailments, Erik Magnuson also saw some first-team snaps at right guard, so perhaps the second-year pro is throwing his name into the hat as well.
The multi-man battle for right guard could extend right through the preseason finale. Buckle up.
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