Photo Credit: Christopher Mezzavilla
Early training camp battles often favor the defense, and that was the case on Thursday, the 49ers’ second training camp practice of the season. What was made apparent is that all the pieces, which lined up so well on paper, appear to be there in reality.
We’re still missing Emmanuel Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt and Jauan Jennings, who are all on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Javon Kinlaw are all limited to individual drills. That leaves us limited to a few starters, but exemplified the areas where the 49ers are deep.
And where they’re deep is in the middle of the defensive line. It’s already immediately apparent that they have at least one too many interior defensive linemen, which is a fantastic problem to have. It’s a group featuring Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones, Zach Kerr, Kevin Givens, Maurice Hurst, Kentavius Street and Darrion Daniels.
Every single one of those players, Kinlaw excluded, showed up in some impressive ways at one point or another in Thursday’s practice.
The edge presence, right now, is not too encouraging, but that’s without Nick Bosa and Dee Ford participating in team drills. Samson Ebukam flashes speed and power but through two days has been neither dominant nor poor. Arden Key is extremely bendy and could be an intriguing back end roster addition, but there’s not too much more to write home on that front, as of yet.
On the inside, though, Jones is an absolute menace, and at one point pancaked Alex Mack in one-on-ones before later knocking rookie guard Aaron Banks way off his line and getting a free lane to the theoretical quarterback. He wreaked havoc inside with consistency in 11-on-11s and had a would-be backfield stop on a Raheem Mostert outside pitch.
Zach Kerr probably had the second-most impressive performance of the day. On the second snap of 11-on-11s, he whooped Alex Mack and slipped by him with ease, for a would-be backfield stop on Trey Sermon. He also caught Mostert on a cutback inside for a nice, short-yardage stop. He had his way Dakoda Shepley in a one-on-one rep, too.
Sermon, by the way, had one particularly nice cutback run in which he juked Kevin Givens, who had penetrated the backfield. He slid to his left to avoid Givens, then cut it back up field to his right for a sizable chunk gain.
But the defensive line didn’t allow many of those. Kerr and Maurice Hurst are quickly appearing like brilliant under-the-radar signings, and at least one of them feels like a lock to make the roster. Kerr displayed some excellent eye positioning and a few short-yardage run stops.
There were moments, too, from all of Givens, Street and Daniels in both 1-on-1s and and 11-on-11s. The theme of the day, again, was that the 49ers are absolutely stacked on the interior; even without Kinlaw, the interior of the 49ers’ offensive line had serious trouble in containing them.
Arik Armstead got involved, too, for at least one would-be sack. He’s still clearly better as a three-technique than he is as an outside rusher, but he collapsed the pocket from the outside on a few occasions.
Just as impressive was the effort in the secondary, particularly from Jason Verrett, who looks like the veritable All-Pro-caliber player he appeared to be last season. He had multiple pass breakups and it’s hard to recollect if anyone’s gotten the better of him and it’s resulted in a catch in 11-on-11s. If it has, it certainly hasn’t been significant. He had a near interception on a less-than impressive throw from Jimmy Garoppolo intended for George Kittle.
Dontae Johnson also had a nice sideline breakup and got a little more run alongside Verrett after Tim Harris Jr. struggled on Day 1 and still got beaten quite a few times on Day 2, but recovered to open 11-on-11s with a clean breakup on a slightly overthrown Garoppolo pass intended for Deebo Samuel.
Even Jared Mayden got in on the action, breaking up what could maybe be argued was a drop from rookie tight end Josh Pederson.
But the nicest play of the day came from K’Waun Williams, who charged down a throw from Garoppolo towards Kittle, tipping into the arms of veteran safety addition Tavon Wilson for the only interception of the day.
It was not Garoppolo’s best performance by any stretch, though he did draw a neutral zone infraction and a couple offsides with effective hard counts. He had a couple connections with Samuel, including a chunk gain over the middle against Harris and one right sideline completion to Aiyuk, also against Harris, who Aiyuk had lost by a fair few feet.
Trey Lance had a few nice completions, including another gorgeous Aiyuk reception, toe-tapping the far sideline against Dontae Johnson. Johnson argued it was out of bounds, but it’s training camp; we’ll give the offense the benefit of the doubt on this one. He also hit Samuel for a nice chunk gain against rookie Ambry Thomas; it was thrown slightly behind Samuel, but like his connection to Kittle on Wednesday, it was a minor adjustment and in a place only accessible for his target. He followed that up promptly with a deep throw over the middle to Travis Benjamin.
Oh, and the linebacking corps remains as deep as its ever been, with Marcell Harris, who lined up as a linebacker last year, looking awfully linebacker-ey this year. He had a startling pass breakup on backup fullback Josh Hokit, probably employing a little more contact than the coaching staff would prefer at this stage.
And Fred Warner. He’s still the best linebacker in football, and flashed that on the fourth play of 11-on-11s, when he met Raheem Mostert at the line of scrimmage on an outside zone handoff. He had absolutely no business arriving as promptly as he did; his speed and ability to trigger towards a target laterally is unparalleled. In real time, it might as well be teleportation, because he’ll arrive on the edge after starting on the wrong side of the formation before a runner even gets to the line of scrimmage.
It’s wizardry, and his dominance is perpetually on display. Verrett and the interior defensive line matched his level on Thursday, which made for an entertaining watch. The 49ers have two more practices before their off day on Sunday, then one more non-padded practice Monday before gearing up in pads for the first time on Tuesday.