Photo credit: 49ers
The 49ers are back. Training camp was opened to media for the first time on Saturday just as the heat in Santa Clara started to creep from the 80s to 90s. Debuts and returns were witnessed, from a sometimes comical, but safe distance, as the first 11-on-11s were had.
To be clear, not much could really be seen from the grass box reporters were in, stretching from the 40-yard line to the end of the fence on the sideline of the second practice field the 49ers have, and which they will use for 11-on-11s tomorrow. There were some highlights to be seen, for sure, like a toe-tap grab by Trent Taylor, a Richard Sherman pass breakup against Taylor, thrown by Jimmy Garoppolo.
There were also a pair of occasions when some very valuable assets in the $75 million man, George Kittle, and the one-day bank-breaking Nick Bosa, ended up on the ground, one of Kyle Shanahan’s great disdains.
The only practice absence on Saturday was Arik Armstead with back discomfort, while Jalen Hurd only worked in conditioning and route-running drills on the sideline. Jordan Reed also participated in those drills, as well as pass-catching drills with quarterbacks before 11-on-11s. Some of the injured players in Ronald Blair III, Richie James Jr. and Deebo Samuel (donning a bucket hat) were all visible either on the sidelines and/or with their position groups, but not in uniform.
Jimmy Garoppolo back wearing knee brace
Jimmy Garoppolo is wearing his knee brace again. Kyle Juszczyk said Tuesday he hadn’t seen Garoppolo wearing it, but he had it on during Saturday’s practice. It’s a fact more than a news item, only really notable if Garoppolo expresses discomfort in his knee and because Juszczyk said he had previously not been wearing it.
Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson in the fold, with hints at special teams in their future
The 49ers cut tight end Daniel Helm, who was promoted from the practice squad last season but did not play in a game, and wide receiver Chris Thompson in order to make way for the signings of Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson.
Kyle Shanahan was overtly jazzed (yes, jazzed) about the signings, hinting at their versatility. That probably refers to their abilities on special teams, as returners, where the 49ers are thin, and both players could be used, especially in kickoff situations, in order to protect younger players like Brandon Aiyuk from those kickoffs which are high-risk, low-reward propositions.
Other potential return options are Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor and Brandon Aiyuk. James Jr. would be in that category if not for his injury (which will likely cost him a roster spot) as would Travis Benjamin, who voluntarily opted out of the 2020 season.
Shanahan said he’s admired Austin and Nelson since college and everywhere they’ve played in the NFL, and were stoked to be able to sign both, and needed both, due to the fact that the 49ers only currently have nine healthy receivers, with Austin and Nelson included.
“If you have seven receivers at our practice, you’re in trouble,” Shanahan said.
He said he wasn’t sure if both could be signed, but the coaching staff was impressed with their workouts. Shanahan also pointed to the opportunity to stash veterans on the practice squad for the first time this season. Practice squad players can now play in NFL games twice while remaining on the practice squad. Two players a week can play on the active roster without being promoted to the active roster.
“They were both in shape, looked like they had in previous places they’ve been in their career,” Shanahan said. “That’s what excites me the most is we needed the numbers to help guys, but we also added two guys who are capable of beating people out on this roster and capable of earning a spot… We’re bringing in two guys just like that now that they’re going to push people to make this team, or hopefully they can show they can be a part to help us at some time.”
Minor back concern for Arik Armstead
“I want to say he’s day-to-day, even though I probably didn’t hear that, but I think that could tell you my level of concern. I’m not too worried about it. Just has some back stiffness, which happens to a lot of people, especially with guys his size. He could be out there if we really needed him to right now, but we’re trying to be smart. So, just me guessing right now, I bet we’ll probably be smart these first four days and then try to get him in the next block of practices.”
The young guys: Brandon Aiyuk and Javon Kinlaw
- Brandon Aiyuk: There’s a substantial amount of buzz around Aiyuk separate from the fact that he’s essentially a rookie brought in to replace a 10-year stellar veteran in Emmanuel Sanders. His mental acuity has been praised by players and the coaching staff, and he got his first chance with the offense today. Shanahan said he felt generally positive about his first day.
“Today was the first full speed practice and I thought he did a pretty good job today,” Shanahan said. “We’ll see when we go watch the film, but I’ve been real impressed with him just being around him. He was very impressive on the Zoom meetings. Just his attention to detail. But, since we’ve gotten here just going through these walkthroughs and stuff, you can tell he knows how to practice like a pro. You can tell he comes prepared every day. He’s not a guy you’ve had to teach how to act or teach how important it is to learn this stuff. You can tell he understood that before he got here and since we’ve been around him, you can tell he’s been working and that’s why he’s further ahead, I think, than a lot of rookies would be at this time.”
- Javon Kinlaw: One constant throughout the offseason is players talking about just how physically imposing Javon Kinlaw is, listed at 6’5″, 319 pounds. That was one of the most immediately apparent realizations on Saturday. He is massive. It was hard to tell how he fared in 11-on-11s, but he received constant 1-on-1 advice from defense Chris Kocurek, who was in his ear at all times. It’s clear, though, that he has a way to go in refining his skillset, and may not begin the season as the starter. He wasn’t in the first 11-on-11s of the year, to no one’s surprise. Shanahan hinted at him having room to improve but praised he and Aiyuk for being down-to-business players who are “working their tails off” and “fallen right in line.”
Deebo Samuel timeline
The 49ers are hoping Deebo Samuel can return by Week 1, but are “not counting on it.” His Jones fracture is the same one that Taylor failed to recover from last season. It’s a common injury for wide receivers, especially in their first few seasons, which is tricky due to poor blood supply in that part of the foot. A more detailed, but succinct explanation can be found here.
In a long-term study of NFL players, 88 percent did not need a second surgery. Per orthopedic surgeon Brian Feeley, MD, the Chief of Sports Medicine and Shoulder Surgery and a Professor in Residence at UCSF, players have a “90 to 95 percent” success rate. From that story:
“The earliest timeline of six weeks (July 30) would allow him to participate in training camp, which starts July 28, and the latest, of 12 weeks, would have him back September 10, three days before the 49ers’ season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. The 10-week timeline Samuel suggested on Twitter would put him at August 27 for returning to play, towards the end of training camp.”
Shanahan said the hope is Week 1, which lines up with that timeline.
“The way I kind of see it in my mind, I think we’re hoping for Week 1,” Shanahan said. “Not counting on it, but I think that’s kind of the area that these injuries usually heal by, but a lot of that has to do with: are you ready to play? Has it fully healed by that time? Are you in football shape? Deebo’s going to do everything he can to be in shape, but it’s hard to be in football shape until you can play football. So, how many practices do we get him in here before Arizona? That’s going to all go into play, but I’m hoping for Week One, but not sure yet. It’s a little too early.”
The recover-ers: Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd, Jerick McKinnon, Jordan Reed
- Trent Taylor: Taylor, who’s struggled his whole career with injuries and was a preseason standout before losing his season to a freak complication with a Jones fracture (which happens in less than 10 percent of patients who undergo surgery to repair the fracture, the same one Deebo Samuel has), looked fantastic on Saturday. It was obvious, as he was the most involved in 11-on-11s and ran clean, quick routes, but Shanahan made a point to acknowledge that.
“Just to get him back out there is a huge deal,” Shanahan said. “He looks like the same guy. I know how hard he’s worked and I know how excited he is. He’s not a guy you want to go up to and baby right now or ask him how his foot’s feeling. He’ll be very irritated with that question. He’s ready to move on. He’s ready to play some football and that’s the guy you see out there.”
- Jalen Hurd: Hurd was relegated to the sidelines, but ran routes and caught passes with his helmet on. He was in the 49ers’ training facility getting treatment for much of the offseason. Shanahan compared him to Taylor, saying that he’s been committed to recovering, and that the team is trying to ease him back into action.
“Jalen has been very similar. He came back and he put a lot of time in here,” Shanahan said. “… Him being around our training staff, being around Dustin Perry, our strength coach, he’s put in a lot of work to get to where he is right now, to come back from that back injury. I thought he had a great first ten days, and we are trying to be smart with them and ease them in. Just did individual today and stuff, but hopefully that will pick up as we go.”
- Jerick McKinnon: McKinnon has been the talk of camp (at least via Zoom) thus far, and he looked like his old self in the limited reps this reporter could observe, mainly through binoculars. The main takeaway is, he looked healthy, and participated in 11-on-11s with frequent snaps, and with that speed and agility he’s known for. Shanahan said that it was clear this time that his leg “healed right.”
“I think he spent most of his time in Houston and he spent a lot of time with [OL] Trent Williams down there. I think [WR] Deebo [Samuel] was down there a little bit, but those guys grinded,” Shanahan said. “They worked very hard. Jet’s always been as hard of a worker as there is, he came in as prepared as anyone could be. My only worry about Jet is sometimes he might overdo it because that’s how hard he works.”
The good thing for Jet is, we’ve been through this twice with him and when he came back last year with it, trying to get him back and he’d get out there and try to work through it, you could tell it just didn’t heal right and then he had to go through all that stuff again. It’s still the first day, the first step, but you can tell that it healed right and you can tell Jet’s put that work in and you feel all this that he’s gone through in the last two years. I feel he’s finally in a position where he has a chance to have this comeback now and everyone’s pulling for him. He’s as good of a guy there is on our team and he had a real good first day of practice.”
- Jordan Reed: Reed was probably the most impressive player on the field today. He wasn’t in 11-on-11s but in catching drills, both with quarterbacks and in an isolated setting, he looked every bit the dominant, athletic pass-catching threat he once was. He made multiple athletic, twisting grabs and cuts. But that’s never been the issue with Reed. It’s always been about concussions, an injury which becomes more common the more you have, and which is simply not preventable. Avoiding them is, unfortunately, largely about luck, and luck has not favored Reed in that respect. Shanahan said they’re taking a day-by-day approach to working him into practice.
- “We were being smart with Jordan, very similar to Hurd,” Shanahan said. “Jordan hasn’t been here very long. We do know his history and he just hasn’t been here as long as the other guys, so we eased him in today, routes on air, did all the individual work, but we didn’t want him going against anyone yet. We’ll reassess that each day and we’ll get him in there when we’re comfortable with it.”
Trent Williams speeding
Williams posted a video on his Instagram story, discernibly of him driving a Ferrari at 125 miles per hour. Shanahan said he’s yet to broach the topic with Williams, but heard it was Williams’ brother, and will address it with him. He minced no words about his feelings on speeding and recording yourself driving.
“I haven’t addressed it with him yet,” Shanahan said. “I didn’t really find out about it until I prepared to come in here. I think my concerns about that would be the same as anyone else who understands what can happen when you drive that fast. It puts everyone out there in risk and puts yourself at risk. So, I’ll ask Trent about it. I’ve been told that he said it was his brother and not him. I’ll ask Trent for myself and find out, but regardless of it, that’s nothing anyone should do on this planet unless you’re in a NASCAR race.”
Sidenote: This became a quasi-driver’s ed class press from Shanahan due to the virtual press conference format. Before being asked about Williams, this reporter asked a question via Zoom from his car, with the audio cutting out, leaving Shanahan — “Hope you’re not driving right now” — to confirm reporters weren’t driving and asking questions.