The 49ers are – kinda, sorta – starting to take shape.
Tuesday was the first open OTA of the season and on Wednesday reporters met with the assistant coaches, including prominent newcomers like Anthony Lynn and Brian Griese.
Thanks for helping me begin to sort through the events in today’s mailbag. As always, your questions have been lightly edited for context (mostly adding first names) and clarity.
Many talked about Trey Lance going 16-of-18 in Tuesday’s OTA practice, but nobody mentioned anything about his throwing motion or delivery. Has there been any change to his windup that critics have mentioned prior? – Ben L.
No. I thought he would have been working on that during his March to mid-April stay at quarterback school in Orange County. His instructor, Adam Dedeaux, told me that wasn’t the case – there weren’t any significant modifications and that the sessions served as more of a reset after a 2021 season in which Lance dealt with several injuries, including to the forefinger on his throwing hand.
Dedeaux did note, however, that Lance would be returning to Orange County after the 49ers’ spring practices are complete. He said that if there were any meaningful adjustments to Lance’s motion, they would be made then.
Of the drafted rookies, who has the best chance to start and / or play a lot? – John R.
I’ll list the top five:
1. RB Tyrion Davis-Price. Rookie runners, from Alfred Morris to Elijah Mitchell, have played a lot for Kyle Shanahan in the past. I think the 49ers are hesitant to give Mitchell or any of the running backs too great a load this season, which means there will be plenty of rotation. At minimum, Davis-Price promises to be part of that rotation for stretches of the season.
2. DE Drake Jackson. When the defensive line took the field for the first time on Tuesday, guess who lined up at left defensive end? Yes, the rookie. Of course, Nick Bosa was not on hand and there was no contact and Jackson hasn’t even gone through a one-on-one drill against an offensive lineman. But the 49ers clearly wanted him to be the talented speed rusher they had when Dee Ford was healthy. They didn’t seem to be gently easing Jackson into the mix.
3. WR Danny Gray. He’s the fastest guy on the team. Even if he had terrible hands or was not good after the catch, the 49ers would give him a half dozen plays a game to keep defenses honest, which is what they did with Travis Benjamin at times last season. But Gray has more than just pure speed. I’d rank him as WR No. 4 right now behind Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings.
4. G. Spencer Burford. With Daniel Brunskill dealing with knee tendinitis, Jaylon Moore lined up at right guard with the first-team offense this week. The 49ers see Moore as a guard and they hope he can push Brunskill for the starting spot this season. Still, if there’s a sudden need at tackle – like there was last season – Moore could be tapped again at that position. If that happened, Burford would be next in line at guard.
5. CB Samuel Womack. He lined up at both outside cornerback and the nickel spot with the second-team group on Tuesday, which obviously doubles his chances of getting into games. The 49ers suddenly look deep at outside cornerback with Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir and Dontae Johnson – and a rehabbing Jason Verrett – at the position. Only Darqueze Dennard is ahead of Womack at Nickel.
How did some of the young offensive line players do? Excited to see Spencer Burford after watching some of his highlights. – Chris G.
If I gave you an answer it would be a fraudulent one. There was no real contact in the OTA practice we watched Tuesday. The offensive and defensive lines were on the field together for just one period and they did so without helmets.
I can tell you that the two draft picks, Burford and Nick Zackelj, lined up at the guard spots with the second-team offensive line. (Aaron Banks and Moore were the top-line guards). Undrafted rookie Dohnovan West was the third-team center and fellow undrafted rookie Jason Poe was next to him at guard on the third team.
The 49ers say they’re encouraged by how Banks trained in the offseason and that his stamina is far better than what it was a year ago. They also want to give Moore a long look at guard, which is what they drafted him to play. The issue last season was that one backup tackle, Justin Skule, tore his ACL in June while another, Shon Coleman, simply looked flat after opting out of the 2020 season. As a result, Moore was needed at tackle.
Skule is now back in full. He didn’t even have a protective sleeve over his surgically repaired knee. It also appears that Colton McKivitz – who dropped 10 pounds in the offseason – will primarily be a tackle, at least to begin the offseason.
How many players are NOT in the best shape of their lives? – Pete O.
I heard variations of “best shape of his life” twice on Wednesday when the assistant coaches were speaking. Offensive line coach Chris Foerester said that about Banks while Leonard Hankerson said it about Aiyuk. (Javon Kinlaw has not gotten a “best shape of his life” but did get a “healthiest he’s been” earlier in the spring from Shanahan.)
If history is any guide, the rookies will not get any “best shape” appraisals. Players usually make their biggest leaps, body-wise, from Year 1 to Year 2. The ones that did a lot of traveling in the run-up to the draft typically have the hardest time in the spring.
Is there a leader in the race for the starting strong safety job? – Denis G.
Yes. Talanoa Hufanga lined up there this week. The safety pairings looked like this:
1s: FS Jimmie Ward, SS Hufanga
2s: FS Tarvarius Moore, SS George Odum
3s: FS Taylor Hawkins, SS Leon O’Neal
I also thought I saw Dontae Johnson playing free safety, but I’m going to try to verify that at future practices.
What’s the 49ers’ plan at tight end this season? George Kittle and Charlie Woerner are set. Is Ross Dwelley’s spot secured as well? What role does special teams play for the third TE spot? – Victor H.
I’d call the third spot a toss up among Dwelley, 2021 practice squadder Tanner Hudson and a pair of veteran newcomers, Troy Fumagalli and Tyler Kroft. And, yes, both the Nos. 2 and 3 tight ends have to play a lot of special teams, especially coverage and return units. It’s an area in which Woerner started to stand out at the end of the season.
Richard Hightower was with Shanahan from Day 1. With the new special teams coordinator, what have you seen that’s different from the previous regime? Who’s the punt and kick returner now? – Maleake H.
There were only two players handling punt returns on Tuesday: Aiyuk and newcomer Ray-Ray McCloud, who’s earmarked for both punt and kick returns this season. The 49ers ranked 28th in kick return average and 20th in punt return average last season. After all they’ve invested in special teams this year, they need to see significant gains there.
Who will be a potential surprise to make the 53-man roster? – Brent V.
Dennard? He was a desperation signing late last season, practically camped out behind secondary coach Cory Undlin’s office for a week while he learned the defense, then played well in the must-win Week 18 game against the Rams.
I remember Dennard, 30, tweeting something at season’s end about feeling rejuvenated with the 49ers. He entered OTAs as the top option at nickel cornerback. He’ll have to fend off rookies Samuel Womack and Qwuantrezz Knight (who had an interception Tuesday), but Dennard seems to have a solid shot of both a roster spot and a starting role.
S / O to 49ers Me ️‼ ️ made me fall In love with football again. ⁇
– Darqueze Dennard (@Queze) February 3, 2022
When Vic Fangio shows up for practice does everyone notice right away or start looking when The Imperial March suddenly blasts from the speakers? Of less import, if Vic were to return, who adjusts, he or Bosa? – Andrew R.
I sense a disturbance in the force long before I see or hear anything. Who would change, Bosa or Fangio? It’s an excellent, excellent question. In Los Angeles, Joey Bosa moved from defensive end to outside linebacker when the Chargers switched to a 3-4 defense last season. On the other hand, Nick Bosa has openly said he prefers to rush from a three-point stance.
Perhaps all Fangio would need to do is show clips from the 2011-12 49ers season – Aldon Smith had 33 1/2 sacks over that span – to persuade him to make the move.
Have you ever had a player react to something you wrote the way Kinlaw did towards Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn? – Mo L.
No, certainly not to that degree. I’ve had agents – and one general manager – blast me over the phone. There was an expletive-laced tirade from an agent who told me he would end my career. (This was in 2004).
As far as players, Terrell Owens yelled at me in 2003. But he yelled at everyone that season. It almost would have been upsetting if he hadn’t yelled at me.
Tully Banta-Cain confronted me in the locker room about a story in which I compared him and his tall, thin outside linebacker counterpart, Manny Lawson, to Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker from the book “James and the Giant Peach.” I thought I was being creative; Banta-Cain considered it insulting.
Alex Boone was once unhappy about a story I wrote about him overcoming an alcohol problem. He didn’t have an issue with the story but rather that I spoke to his mom without letting him know first. I thought that was a fair complaint and apologized.
I’ve never felt physically threatened by a player.
You are given complete power to shuffle around the divisions and conferences. What do you do? – Matt W.
I’d make the four-team divisions more compact geographically. I mean, the Cowboys’ nearest division rival is the Commanders, whose stadium is 1,300 miles away. The Barrows Plan would result in more authentic rivalries, less travel, less wear and tear, fewer injuries. The players will be healthier, happier. And if they’re happier, they’re gonna play better. (It’s the best sports idea since Costanza came up with cotton uniforms).
NFC Coastal: 49ers, Chargers, Rams, Seahawks
NFC Mid-Atlantic: Commanders, Falcons, Panthers, Ravens
NFC Northeast: Bills, Giants, Jets, Patriots
NFC Lake Front: Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings
AFC Midway: Broncos, Chiefs, Colts, Titans
AFC Southwest: Cardinals, Cowboys, Raiders, Texans
AFC Deep South: Buccaneers, Dolphins, Jaguars, Saints
AFC OhioVania: Bengals, Browns, Eagles, Steelers
What’s your early retirement plan? – Allan B.
At one point my plan involved putting my baseball card collection (I had some 1970s gems in there) up for auction. But that fell apart in the Great Bedroom Cleaning / Purge of 1981.
Thanks a lot, Mom.
(Top photo of Trey Lance: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)