Jimmy Garoppolo will be out of sight for the 49ers’ OTA practices, which begin Monday. He won’t be out of mind.
Because Garoppolo remains on the roster, there’s a notion – whether true or not – that this is not quite Trey Lance’s team. Or that the 49ers are unsure about Lance. Or that they are at least hedging their bets. Which leads to the first and most important question as the 49ers begin OTAs: Can Lance reassure everyone that he is indeed ready to take over?
It’s like a palace drama in which a young prince is poised to take the throne but first must navigate other claimants and the whisper campaigns designed to undermine him. The best way to do that is to act like the legitimate heir – to show strength and leadership and otherwise signal that you can handle the job.
So far, Lance has been going about it the right way.
Before arriving in Santa Clara last month for the start of the offseason program, he spent the previous two months at 3DQB in Orange County, Calif., Where he worked with quarterback coach Adam Dedeaux.
Despite scant playing time as a rookie, Lance dealt with a number of injuries, including a bent finger (preseason) and knee injury (Week 5). Dedeaux said bad habits inevitably will creep in when a quarterback compensates for injuries – it happens to every passer – and that Lance’s time in Orange County was mainly spent smoothing out any rough spots in his throwing motion and getting him ready for the 49ers’ offseason program , which began April 19.
“It was mostly about getting him healthy, strong, feeling good about his stroke again,” Dedeaux said. “No major tweaks or anything – just kind of getting back into it.”
Dedeaux and his group have been working with Kyle Shanahan-coached quarterbacks since 2016 when Matt Ryan, then with the Falcons, was a client. Former NFL quarterback John Beck, who played under Shanahan in Washington, is also an instructor at 3DQB and the group knows exactly what Shanahan is looking for and trains 49ers’ quarterbacks accordingly.
“We know the offense, we know what he wants,” Dedeaux said. “We use the same workouts, the same verbiage. Everything is tailored to (Lance). When he works out with us, he’s working solo. So there’s no distraction from other quarterbacks or other systems. It’s very specific Kyle’s 49ers offense. “
Dedeaux said Lance was one of the first NFL quarterbacks to arrive when the season ended and that he’ll be back in Orange County to work on more specific tweaks to his motion when the 49ers’ spring session ends in June.
“I can’t speak any more highly about how he approaches it – he works his tail off and wants to learn, is totally coachable,” Dedeaux said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him.”
The 49ers’ first OTA practice is today. The media will get to watch Tuesday’s session. Here are nine other questions as the sessions begin
2. Who’ll be on hand?
Any one of these players could arrive this week, but the 49ers have gone through the voluntary offseason program thus far without: Garoppolo, who’s rehabilitating from his March shoulder surgery, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa, Alex Mack, Dee Ford and Trent Williams.
The team, of course, is in the midst of a testy contract negotiation with Samuel, whose absence from OTAs was telegraphed in April. Bosa, who is also a candidate for a new deal, has been working out in his native South Florida with his older brother, Joey, which he’d likely do if he had a long-term contract or not.
The 49ers plan to cut Ford next month. Mack is still contemplating retirement while Williams, a 12-year veteran, simply doesn’t need the practice at this point of the offseason. In fact, you might argue the 49ers are better off evaluating younger players at Williams’ position. Which brings us to our next question
3. How will the offensive line look?
The 49ers have a lot of linemen who can play guard or tackle. Or center or guard. Or in the case of Daniel Brunskill, center, guard or tackle. There will inevitably be some shuffling as the offseason goes on and position coach Chris Foerster finds the right fits at each spot, but there ought to be one revelation Tuesday – whom the 49ers see as the front-runners for swing tackle.
Assuming Williams isn’t there, the 49ers will have backups at left tackle and right tackle, where Mike McGlinchey is continuing to recover from last year’s quadriceps tear. (He’s aiming to be back by training camp.)
One of the top candidates is Justin Skule, who’s practicing again after tearing an ACL in June. Others include Jaylon Moore, Colton McKivitz, fourth-round pick Spencer Burford and sixth-round pick Nick Zakelj. That group also has been discussed at guard, which is why the composition of the line remains cloudy.
4. Who are the centers?
Jake Brendel turns 30 in September, he hasn’t had any real playing time since the 2018 season and he could be the 49ers’ starting center for Week 1.
“He’s not a household name, but we have a lot of confidence in his ability,” said general manager John Lynch last month.
With Mack wavering about retirement, Brendel likely will be the first-team center during OTAs. Who else will get a shot there? Candidates include Brunskill, who’s also the incumbent at right guard, Zakelj and undrafted rookies Dohnovan West and Jason Poe.
How Brendel handles the position in the spring may determine whether the 49ers bring in a more experienced center in the summer.
5. Who’s the starter at safety?
When OTAs began last year, Jaquiski Tartt was dealing with a lingering toe issue. When they begin Monday, Tartt won’t be on the roster and we’ll get a sense of how the 49ers plan to replace the longtime starter.
The leading candidates are last year’s fifth-round pick, Talanoa Hufanga, and Tarvarius Moore, whose June Achilles tear wiped out his 2021 season but who is back to full strength.
They’re different players. Moore is fast and long, spent one year at cornerback and hasn’t always been the best tackler. Hufanga is excellent around the line of scrimmage, but has linebacker-like speed and isn’t known for covering a lot of ground in the secondary.
Because of their differing skills, perhaps the question – who starts? – is moot. It could be that the 49ers rotate Hufanga and Moore depending on the situation.
Veteran newcomer George Odum and undrafted rookies Leon O’Neal and Tayler Hawkins also figure into the mix at safety.
6. Can Brandon Aiyuk break out in 2022?
At this point a year ago, Samuel was a man on a mission. He was focused on bouncing back from a disappointing 2020 season and he used a strong offseason as a springboard to a breakout regular season.
With Samuel absent at the moment, Aiyuk becomes the team’s most prominent receiver. Like Samuel a year ago, he’s put himself in a good position as spring practices begin. He finished 2021 on a high note (he averaged 71.3 receiving yards over the last eight games), he entered the offseason healthy, he trained in with Lance in Orange County, and he’s been working out in Santa Clara for months.
When he was asked about Samuel last year, Garoppolo routinely said he was impressed with the way Samuel took a leadership role in the receivers room, noting several times that Samuel was first in line for every drill. Aiyuk, conversely, was often the last in line for those drills, at least early in the season. He has a golden opportunity to take charge in Year 3.
7. Who’s the nickel cornerback?
The 49ers have a nice list of candidates to replace K’Waun Williams at nickel cornerback, but it’s hard to pinpoint a Week 1 favorite for the position.
It’s possible the veteran of the group, Darqueze Dennard, is running with the first-teamers this week. Other options include Deommodore Lenoir and a pair of rookies: fifth-round pick Samuel Womack and undrafted Qwuantrezz Knight.
8. Dre Greenlaw or Azeez Al-Shaair at weakside linebacker?
Greenlaw or Al-Shaair? It’s a question we could be asking at the end of the season, too.
Both linebackers are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March and it’s hard to see the 49ers hanging on to both.
Greenlaw, of course, missed most of 2021 with a groin injury, which gave Al-Shaair an opportunity to shine at weakside linebacker, which, unlike strongside linebacker, is an every-down role. When Al-Shaair was banged up at season’s end, Greenlaw returned to his former role and started every game from Week 18 through the playoffs.
The catch here: Whoever ends up playing the most at weakside linebacker could be the more coveted free agent and thus could be the one to go.
9. How does Javon Kinlaw look?
No, Kinlaw won’t be practicing after he had an ACL procedure midway through the season. But he’s reportedly been rehabilitating well at the team facility, seemed slimmer when he was watching from the sideline during a recent local pro day, and it will be interesting to see how he’s moving around on a side field.
Kinlaw is nowhere near Lance’s level when it comes to scrutiny. Still, he’s yet to live up to the promise that comes with being a first-round pick, and the 49ers believe his knee surgery should unlock his potential. He’ll be under the microscope in 2022.
It will also be interesting to see who lines up in his place at defensive tackle this spring. Last year, DJ Jones filled the role to great fanfare, but he’s a member of the Denver Broncos now. The list of candidates includes Kevin Givens, Maurice Hurst, Kerry Hyder Jr. and Hassan Ridgeway.
10. What does a fresh set of eyes in the RB room mean?
It was clear Trey Sermon didn’t exactly pass the Bobby Turner test last season.
The longtime running backs coach is the hard-to-please gatekeeper when it comes to a tailback’s playing time and carries. And though Sermon started two early-season games as a rookie, that was due to the bare-bones state of the running backs room at the time. When the position became even marginally more stable, Sermon’s playing time all but vanished.
Now Sermon has another chance to make a first impression. Turner is recuperating from surgery this season, and Anthony Lynn has taken his place. It’s important to note Lynn is a disciple of Turner’s – he played for Turner and was on the same Broncos coaching staff as Turner – and likely views the position in a similar way.
Still, it will be up to Lynn to determine the pecking order at running back this season, which means an opportunity for Sermon and the others.
(Photo: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)