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.
Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston
The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.
Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense
Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.
We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.
While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.
Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.
One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.
Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.
Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.
Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.
Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.
Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller
Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.
Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.
Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.
Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.
Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line
It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.
Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.
With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.
San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise
San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.
Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.
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