Aldon Smith works to expand versatility


Aldon Smith works to expand versatility

Over the past week, we started taking a look at the offseasons of the 49ers position groups. Now, it starts to get a little more difficult because of the nature of the practices.Players are not allowed to wear pads, and no contact is allowed. So good luck trying to evaluate linebackers, defensive linemen and offensive linemen under those restrictions. But that won't stop us from trying. . .
The 49ers made it simple last season for rookie Aldon Smith, the team's first-round draft pick. Although listed as an outside linebacker, Smith rarely played the position. He entered at right defensive end in passing situations, and his job was to work with Justin Smith to get to the quarterback.Few did it better than Smith, who tied for fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks. Things will get a bit more complex in his second year. Smith is slated to replace Parys Haralson at right outside linebacker. He will not be one-dimensional this season, as a big part of his game will be setting the edge in the run game.As far as his duties against the pass, one sequence during the final day of the mandatory minicamp might have offered a glimpse of what to expect.During a coverage drill, Smith got completely turned around while attempting to cover rookie tight end Garrett Celek. Smith ended up trailing Celek by at least 5 yards, as Celek caught the pass down the field from Colin Kaepernick.Then, a short time later during an 11-on-11 session, Smith showed his quickness to take an outside route to get around left tackle Joe Staley for a would-be sack of Josh Johnson.Bottom line: Smith is the 49ers' best pure pass rusher. Do no expect to see him in coverage very often as he transitions into a full-time role.The 49ers two All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman did not participate in the final days of the offseason program. Willis went home to Tennessee due to an illness in his family. Bowman remained with his girlfriend on the East Coast as the couple expected the birth of twins.Ahmad Brooks parlayed his first year as a starter (in six NFL seasons) into a handsome six-year, 37 million contract extension. Brooks played 93 percent of all 49ers defensive snaps last season. In the past, Brooks had a tendency to get out of shape during the offseason. But he took part in the full offseason program, and appeared to put himself in position to have a big-time season.Haralson, who has 68 career starts, enters training camp as the top backup at the outside linebacker positions after Aldon Smith takes over as the starter on the right side. It does not appear as if Haralson's scheduled 2.75 million salary is a concern at this point.The 49ers selected two outside linebackers in the draft to supply the team with some depth. However, Darius Fleming, a fifth-round pick from Notre Dame sustained a torn ACL and likely out for the season. And Cam Johnson, a seventh-round selection from Virginia, missed most of the offseason program. Coach Jim Harbaugh said he underwent a clean-out procedure, presumably to improve a knee condition that plagued him in college. Johnson is expected to be ready for camp.Larry Grant did not attract any attention from other clubs as a restricted free agent. He signed his one-year, 1.2 million contract and returns as the 49ers' primary backup at inside linebacker. Shortly after Willis left practice during the first day of the team's mandatory minicamp, Grant stripped tight end Nate Byham and broke up a pass intended for Vernon Davis in a 7-on-7 drill.Veteran Tavares Gooden stepped into action with the first team, alongside Grant, with the absences of Bowman and Willis. Michael Wilhoite, who spent the last month of the season on the practice squad, saw a lot of action, too. Undrafted Joe Holland (Purdue) sat out the final few practices with a right foot injury.On the outside, Eric Bakhtiari, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, put himself in position to compete for a roster spot. It'll likely come down to whether special-teams coordinator Brad Seely envisions him as a core contributor in that phase of the game. Undrafted rookie Kourtnei Brown, a 6-foot-6, 255-pounder, looks the part but never was a major contributor during his four seasons at Clemson.

What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense


What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.

“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”

The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.

“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”

Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.

“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.

“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”

Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.

“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”

Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.

Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.

“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.

Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine


49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine

The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.

Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.

In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.

Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.

After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.