With exhibition opener days away, 49ers' biggest area of concern is...

With exhibition opener days away, 49ers' biggest area of concern is...

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers have reason to feel a lot better about many of their position groups after the first 10 practices of training camp.

But as the 49ers prepare for their exhibition opener Friday at Kansas City, the organization has every reason to feel concerned about their options at the two guard positions.

There promised to be a lot of competition at the 49ers’ center and guard spots when training camp began. (Joe Staley and Trent Brown are set as the starting tackles.)

But there is only one thing the 49ers seem to know for certain about their group of interior offensive linemen: Daniel Kilgore is far-and-away the team’s best player. His athleticism, strength and grasp of the new blocking scheme have enabled him to solidify a spot on the line.

Guard Joshua Garnett got off to a solid start in camp. But his play declined in the second week of camp – perhaps due to a knee issue that will have him sidelined an estimated four to six weeks. Garnett is not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, so the 49ers find themselves in a predicament.

Jeremy Zuttah, who made the Pro Bowl last season as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, has disappointed in the early stages of camp. Unless he can get things going in a hurry, he is not likely to find a spot on the 49ers’ regular-season roster.

The 49ers did not pay a big price to get him. They gave up their sixth-round pick at No. 186 in exchange for Zuttah and the Ravens’ sixth-round pick at No. 198. Still, the 49ers were expecting more.

Zuttah has been working mostly with the second team at center. He has not been playing much at guard. Showing the willingness to play both spots is the key for him to win a roster spot. The 49ers thought they were getting that kind of versatility when they brought him aboard. But he is not moving well and has not responded to the challenge to compete wherever the team needs him.

Right guard Brandon Fusco and left guard Zane Beadles, currently working with the first-team unit, are far from nailing down starting jobs. Veteran Tim Barnes, who started 32 games the past two years for the Rams at center, is beginning to see more practice time at guard, in addition to center.

It is possible the 49ers will not settle on their starting offensive line until after final cuts. They might have no other option than to hold out hope that they can find an upgrade from outside the organization just before the start of the regular season.

Here are some notes and observations from Tuesday’s practice:

--Practice was cut short after rookie linebacker Donavin Newsom was injured. An ambulance took him to Stanford Hospital, where it was determined he sustained a concussion. He had no cervical spine fractures, the team reported.

--Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and running back Joe Williams got reprimanded by their position coaches for rookie mistakes. Thomas did not take part in some early drills as he had his ankle wrapped. D-line coach Jeff Zgonina got onto Thomas, explaining it was something that needed to be done before practice started. Williams had his third fumble of camp. Running backs coach Bobby Turner made Williams pick up the ball and run the down the field -- long after the play was over.

--Ray-Ray Armstrong lined up next to NaVorro Bowman at the weakside linebacker position. Armstrong and rookie Reuben Foster are competing to replace Malcolm Smith, who is out of the season with a torn pectoral. Both Armstrong and Foster recorded interceptions. It was Foster’s fourth pick of training camp.

--The lone big play from the offense came during a run-based drill at the beginning of practice, when Brian Hoyer used a play-action fake to deliver a deep pass to tight end Vance McDonald against the coverage of safety Eric Reid.

--Ronald Blair and Tank Carradine, who might be battling for one backup spot on the defensive line, had good days. Blair had two sacks, while Carradine had one. Carradine continues to work with the first-team defense ahead of Thomas and Blair.

--Undrafted rookie safety Lorenzo Jerome had an interception of a Hoyer pass. Jerome lined up with the first team with Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt out of action.

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.