49ers Mailbag: Assessing the rookies and depth at key positions

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As we head into the glory that is the NFL preseason, there’s plenty to recap from the first few weeks of training camp. The 49ers have an eight-player draft class, a massive group of returning players, and a few key position battles. Here’s a look at what’s been going on in these early days.

Phani T. asks via Twitter: How are the drafted running backs (Sermon, Mitchell) doing overall?

Early on, there were some issues with handoffs and fumbles, mostly on exchanges, just as you’d expect for rookie running backs. Eljiah Mitchell also got hit in the hands and dropped a pass which became a Marcell Harris interception. But those bad moments are few and far between. I’ve been seriously impressed with both of them.

Trey Sermon looks like he has legitimate bell cow back potential; he doesn’t have any definite elite traits, at least yet, but he’s above average in almost every category, and is smooth; his balance and vision are impressive for his age, and he’s getting reps as the 49ers’ red zone running back.

Mitchell is having to learn how to be a gunner on special teams, which he’s never had to do, and has a way to go as a receiver, but you won’t find anyone to complain about him. He’s mature for his age and is inquisitive and open to criticism in the film room.

49ers (legendary) running backs coach Bobby Turner told KNBR he thinks Sermon absolutely has bell cow, No. 1 running back potential, and raved about Mitchell. He said that the exchange issues are a product of the back having limited time with Lance, and that he hopes to have those issues sorted out before the start of the season. Turner said that their heads are definitely spinning, and there will be growing pains, but there’s a moment, which he calls “crashing,” when it all clicks for his running backs, and that head-spinning stops.

Jim C. asks via Facebook: My Concern is Cornerback! Moseley is lights out! I’m concerned Jason Verrett is a 30 year old 5-7 corner with bad knees! Trying to cover 6-5 kids who will have there WAY with him! Big liability ! Mark my words. Jimmy Ward will end moving to corner. Jimmy’s no corner!

There were a couple questions about corner depth but this was my favorite one. Jason Verrett is 5’10” and legitimately looks like an All-Pro corner. Also, D.K. Metcalf is 6’4″. The only 6’5″ (or taller) receivers the 49ers are slated to face are Collin Johnson against the Jaguars (6’6″), Equanimeous St. Brown and Allen Lazard against the Packers, Hakeem Butler with the Cardinals, and Auden Tate with the Bengals. Any corner will tell you it’s not about height. It helps, but there’s a reason elite corners aren’t all 6’3″.

The battle between him and Brandon Aiyuk has been incredible to watch. He’s picked off Jimmy Garoppolo at least twice. From a mental standpoint, Emmanuel Moseley has made a mental leap; he’s making a lot of pre-snap identifications and has made multiple plays on the ball, including a red zone interception of Garoppolo, jumping a route on George Kittle.

Jimmy Ward isn’t going to move to corner full time, but he does already play in the slot quite a bit.

Your concern about corner depth, though, is absolutely valid. You’ve got four absolute locks in Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams and Ambry Thomas. Outside of that, it’s a little tricky. Based on the numbers and depth at defensive line, I think the 49ers may take 10 there and run with six corners to start the season. Deommodore Lenoir has had moments, but looks absolutely lost in coverage more often than the times when he’s making plays on the ball. I think they’d prefer to keep at least one veteran backup, whether it’s Dontae Johnson, B.W. Webb, or Ken Webster. Both Johnson and Webb can play nickel. Lenoir could absolutely be on the chopping block.

That’s all to say if Moseley or Verrett get hurt, you’re not going to be exceedingly confident with your depth. Thomas has looked more consistent, but he’s still a rookie. I suspect they’ll wait until the season to see what they have and make a move on a lingering free agent if they run into trouble there.

Bradley L. asks via Facebook: Who’s winning the battle for the slot receiver position?

*Won. It’s Mohamed Sanu’s job. It’s a trident of Aiyuk-Samuel-Sanu with Trent Sherfield as the clear next up. You could argue he’s had a slightly better camp than Sanu (they’ve both been excellent), but Sanu is the clear starting slot guy right now.

Tom L. asks via Facebook: I haven’t heard much about Aaron Banks. How has he been doing in training camp? 

Daniel C. asks via Facebook: How is the competition at RG?

Banks has been alright. He’s had some bad moments, but looks like one of the more competent players on the second team offensive line. I wouldn’t be concerned about his movement in space or getting to the second level; he’s incredibly athletic for his size.

I won’t put a timeline on it, but at some point this year, I strongly expect him to win the starting job. The 49ers would also prefer to have their Swiss Army knife player, Daniel Brunskill, on the bench if possible, in case someone else gets injured. He’s their backup at literally every position on the offensive line, so having him as their starting guard is a little bit of a reason to sweat.

Alex S. asks via Instagram: What are the chances Jauan Jennings makes the final roster? If not, what is he missing?

Right now, I have Jennings making the final roster. The top four, as mentioned above, is clearly Aiyuk-Samuel-Sanu-Sherfield. Outside of that, it’s absolutely up in the air. Given Richie James Jr.’s punt returning experience and time with the team, I’d give him the nod as the fifth receiver (definitely not a lock) with Jalen Hurd and Jauan Jennings as fighting for that sixth spot.

Hurd showed very well in practice on Thursday, but he simply hasn’t practiced enough. He’s going to have to play well in each of the last two preseason games, because he won’t play on Saturday. Jennings, meanwhile, has looked impressive since coming off the Reserve/COVID-19 list. He doesn’t have great speed, but he’s super shifty, maneuvers his body well and uses his height (6’3″, Hurd is 6’5″) really intelligently to open up angles most receivers don’t have available.

The perfect example of that was when he went up high to grab a red zone touchdown over Jonas Griffith. If he continues how he’s playing and Hurd doesn’t blow him out of the water, I’d keep giving him the edge to make the roster.

Patrick B. asks via Instagram: Can we expect the offensive line play to be a lot better this season?

Yes. Mike McGlinchey is heavier, Daniel Brunskill has more experience on the interior, and Alex Mack is a veteran who knows the offense. Mack has had some shaky moments, but for the most part looks composed, and the first team offense is very rarely allowing pressures. The 49ers were starting their fourth-string center for much of last season, and that’s a position Shanahan puts a premium on. Having Mack there, even if he’s not near an All-Pro level, is a huge upgrade.

Steve H. asks via Instagram: With all the QB hype, the real question on offense is Aiyuk and Deebo. How are they?

They’ve both looked excellent. Aiyuk is ridiculous, and makes at least one “how did he catch that” catch a day, it seems. Samuel, meanwhile, has practiced every single day except one, when he had some soreness. That’s absolutely monumental. Both of them practicing every day, looking healthy and playing well gives this offense an advantage from Day 1 as opposed to where they were last season, with Aiyuk coming off a nonexistent rookie preseason, and Samuel coming off a foot fracture.

Aaron W.asks via Instagram: How is the secondary looking?

Impressive. Both starting corners have been all over the place making plays on the ball, Fred Warner is still the best linebacker and coverage linebacker in the NFL, and Jimmie Ward is still Jimmie Ward; sometimes he’ll get beat, but he’ll make a massive play on the following one. Talanoa Hufanga has also impressed, and Tavon Wilson has looked reliable as the starting strong safety. When healthy, there’s not much cause for concern with that group.

Joe A. asks via Instagram: Who’s been the biggest surprise so far?

Mohamed Sanu’s health. He was a shell of himself the last time we saw him. He looks every bit like the old Sanu right now.

Chris C. asks via Instagram: Is Dee Ford primed for a career year?

Marco asks via Instagram: How many sacks will Dee Ford have?

Let’s slow the roll with Ford. He’s practiced most days, and definitely still has speed off the edge. But there’s no way to know what to expect from him. He could play one game, 10 games, or every game. The back injuries he’s dealt with are nebulous and touch-and-go, where one day could be fine, and the next day could be catastrophic. I have no expectations for Ford, but he’ll be on the roster, and productive if healthy.

Luca G. asks via Instagram: When do we practice the Chargers?

August 19-20 in Costa Mesa. I’ll be there. Game is on August 22 at SoFi Stadium.

Alfred P. asks via Instagram: Will Trey Lance be the starter for the first preseason game? How long will he play?

No. Garoppolo will start the first series with the starters. The plan is to only give him that series, then have Lance and the twos play 30 snaps. If Lance doesn’t get that many in the first half, he’ll start the first series of the second half.

Craig L. asks via Instagram: Is Arden Key going to make the starting lineup?

I don’t think so, but he’s definitely on the bubble. It’s going to be close, but the 49ers have a real glut of interior defensive linemen who I don’t think they want to lose. I’d like to see him in game action, because he looks way more comfortable using his length and flexibility to bend around the edge in a wide-nine role than he did with the Raiders.

Nico T. asks via Instagram: How is Trey adapting? Is his and Jimmy’s relationship as solid as the posts indicate?

Lance has impressed throughout camp. We don’t actually see how he and Garoppolo interact with the locker room, but there’s no discernible animosity towards each other. Lance is as professional as it gets for a 21-year-old, and sometimes asks Garoppolo for advice during practices. Garoppolo is as low maintenance as it gets, so it’s not hard to believe they have a good relationship.

John Lynch said this on KNBR on Friday about their relationship.

“He and Jimmy have had an incredible working environment together where, yes, it’s a competition, but they’re both really good to each other.”

Take that with a grain of salt, but at the moment, there’s no reason to believe their relationship is awkward. Now, when we get to the season and the competition shifts (and Lance wins the job), maybe that changes.

Eric M. asks via Instagram: Who are the funniest 49ers currently on the roster?

Jimmie Ward is the funniest player on the team, at least intentionally. The real sleeper, though, is Nick Bosa. The fact that he was basically built in a lab to play football with a 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame, and assaults quarterbacks for a living, but has this understated, soft voice, makes for some hilarious comments. The “Baaaker, Baaaker” comment and him speaking Spanish at the Super Bowl availability are forever ridiculous.

Mike N. asks via Instagram: How is our defense looking with Saleh gone? Are we going to run the same scheme?

It’ll be the same scheme, but there will be slight tweaks. I assume there will be more blitzes from the linebackers, up from 2019 levels. In 2019, they ranked 29th in blitz rate, blitzing 20.9 percent of the time, and in 2020, they ranked 10th, blitzing 33.6 percent of the time.

You can’t really compare those two percentages, because last year was a product of devastating injuries, which necessitated blitzes. I would suspect this year’s team is somewhere between those two numbers, and perhaps closer to last year’s figure (33.6 percent) given how well the 49ers’ linebackers have performed in blitzes in practice.

As a whole, the defense has looked stellar. Here’s what linebackers coach Johnny Holland told KNBR about the defense under DeMeco Ryans on Monday:

“We didn’t make any drastic changes, we’re just trying to make it better,” Holland said. “We don’t want to change anything, but I’m sure DeMeco will want to put his stamp on it, and I know his mentality and his attitude is we want to be a physical, tough, aggressive football team and we want it to show every day on the practice field and in games. I know as far as his personality, that he’s a high energy guy, and we want our guys to play with that type of demeanor on field.”

Frankie asks via Instagram: Predict the 49ers’ record?

I’ll probably do a longer prediction on this, and I still can’t really wrap my head around this 17-game schedule, but my best guess right now is 11-6. This is a very competitive team with the benefit of a last-place schedule.




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