49ers

49ers camp report: Aaron Burbridge making his mark among receivers

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USATSI

49ers camp report: Aaron Burbridge making his mark among receivers

SANTA CLARA – Only 13 players remain among the players coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch inherited with the 49ers when they took over 18 months ago.

Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge is one of them. He must be doing something right.

After all, Burbridge was a sixth-round pick in 2016 from Trent Baalke’s final draft class. And Burbridge missed all of last season with a significant hamstring tear. He is still around, and making a serious bid for a roster spot among a deep group of 49ers receivers.

It is a crowded field, as the 49ers are likely to keep only six receivers on their 53-man roster. Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Aldrick Robinson, Kendrick Bourne, Victor Bolden and Max McCaffrey spent time on the roster last season, while Burbridge was on injured reserve. Plus, the 49ers drafted Dante Pettis and Richie James.

“It feels good to be back out here playing ball, in general,” Burbridge said. “I’m more comfortable with the offense. I’m more comfortable with the new coaching staff and everything, so everything is going way more smooth this year.”

Burbridge is considered an ace on special teams. He is continuing to develop his skills as a wide receiver, and has enjoyed an active camp. On Tuesday, quarterback C.J. Beathard found him on a deep pass during 11-on-11 work, and he caught a touchdown pass during a 7-on-7 period.

But Burbridge does the little things, too. Cornerback Greg Mabin was lined up against Burbridge in press coverage. Burbridge knew he wasn’t getting the ball, so he made an adjustment to drive Mabin off the line of scrimmage to create traffic for a linebacker, enabling tight end Cole Wick to make the reception.

“The coaching staff saw something in me and kept me around, and I feel like it’s my job to go prove that they might the right decision to keep me here,” Burbridge said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”

Offensive Play of the Day

Tight end Garrett Celek ran a sideline route against the tight coverage of strong safety Jaquiski Tartt. Jimmy Garoppolo’s pass fluttered 30 yards down the field, and Celek and Tartt each appeared to get a hand on the ball. Celek maintained his concentration and hauled the ball into his body with one hand and got both feet in-bounds.

Defensive Play of the Day

Free safety Adrian Colbert cut under Marquise Goodwin’s deep post pattern to make a leaping interception of a Garoppolo pass. Colbert came down with the pick, then made some nifty moves while returning it 75 yards for a touchdown. The play prompted some verbal back-and-forth, as well as some non-verbal dialogue between Goodwin and Colbert on opposite sidelines while the second units took the field.

Sherman Intercepts Garoppolo

Cornerback Richard Sherman was matched against veteran wide receiver Pierre Garçon for each of his one-on-one practice reps. Garçon caught a deep pass from Garoppolo on the first play. The second deep pass was incomplete, and Sherman intercepted Garoppolo, trying to hit Garçon on an in-cutting route, on the final one-on-one rep. Later, during a 7-on-7 red-zone drill, Sherman broke up a Garoppolo pass on a fade route intended for Garçon.

Injury report

Defensive lineman Arik Armstead sustained a hamstring injury during Sunday’s practice and the club lists him as “week to week.” Rookie Jullian Taylor saw his first action with the first-team defense in Armstead’s absence at the “big end” position. Taylor is a seventh-round pick from Temple.

"He’s got size. He’s got power and he’s been playing real well," Shanahan said of Taylor. "So we were going to do that anyways and give him a chance because he’s earned it by of some of the reps he’s been doing. Then, it made it pretty easy because of what happened to Arik two days ago. Seemed pretty good out there, but we’ll see again when I watch the tape.”

Tight end Cole Hikutini (groin) will miss at least a week of practice, and could be worked slowly back onto the practice field next week. Guard Joshua Garnett (knee) missed his second day work, but is expected back soon.

Cornerback Jimmie Ward and linebacker Brock Coyle left practice during individual drills with what Shanahan described as “tightness.” Linebacker Reuben Foster was also slowed by a nagging quadriceps condition. Shanahan said he was not too concerned.

Cleared for practice

Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who missed four practices with a lower-leg injury, worked with the first-team defense, alongside Reuben Foster, after receiving clearance. Smith was one of five 49ers players who were cleared for practice after opening camp on injury lists. The others who put on pads for the first time in camp were guard Jonathan Cooper (knee), receiver Trent Taylor (back), linebacker Dekoda Watson (calf) and rookie safety Marcell Harris (Achilles).

Rookie defensive lineman Kentavius Street, who sustained a torn ACL in a pre-draft workout with the New York Giants, remains on the non-football injury list and is likely to sit out the entire season.

Transactions

After the injury to Hikutini, the 49ers decided to add some depth at tight end with the signing of Wes Saxton to a on-year contract. Saxton (6 foot 4, 235 pounds) originally signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted rookie in 2015. He has spent time with the Jets, Washington, Buffalo and Detroit during his career. The Lions released him on June 14. The 49ers cut three-year veteran cornerback C.J. Goodwin to make room for Saxton.

This ‘n’ That

Beathard hit tight end George Kittle for a deep pass against the coverage of Chanceller James... Rookie receiver Richie James had a 35-yard pass reception from Garoppolo against Tartt... DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas had would-be sacks during 11-on-11 drills... Veteran linebacker Korey Toomer leveled Wick with a hit after a reception along the sideline... Rookie cornerback Tarvarius Moore broke up a Nick Mullens pass at the sideline intended for Kendrick Bourne... Undrafted rookie offensive lineman Alan Knott was in charge of the "Rookie Hype Machine." He ran toward the crowd and performed a front flip/roll before running the length of the bleachers to get the fans fired up... Referee Ron Torbert headlines a group of NFL officials who will be working the 49ers' practices this week. The officials will discuss the rules changes with the players during a meeting.

Examining 49ers' backup QB competition of C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens

Examining 49ers' backup QB competition of C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens

The most talked-about competition on the 49ers is also for a job coach Kyle Shanahan hopes is the most superfluous position on the team during the 2019 regular season.

Reserve quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens are competing for the job to suit up on game days and serve as Jimmy Garoppolo’s insurance policy.

“You really hope Jimmy stays healthy so it’s irrelevant who’s the No. 2 guy,” Shanahan said before the 49ers broke off last week at the conclusion of the offseason program.

“These guys have both proven that they can play in this league and we’re going to have to make a tough decision at the end of preseason to which one we want to give that No. 2 job to.”

At the beginning of the past two seasons, there was never a question that Beathard would serve as the team’s backup quarterback -- behind Brian Hoyer in 2017, then Garoppolo last season.

But things are different this summer after Mullens became one of the bright spots of a thoroughly disappointing 49ers season. He played well during his eight-start stint to close out the season.

Mullens compiled a respectable 90.9 passer rating while putting up big numbers after taking over for Beathard for the 49ers’ Week 9 game against the Raiders. Mullens averaged 285 yards passing per game, ranking him fourth all-time through eight games behind Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

Yet, Mullens earned nothing other than the right to compete with Beathard for the backup job. And Shanahan seems to be pleased with both players, based on what he witnessed during the nine-week offseason program.

“C.J.’s had a real good camp,” Shanahan said. “He’s been playing real well. So has Nick. So I’ve been excited about both of them.”

Beathard was a third-round draft pick in 2017. The 49ers signed Mullens immediately following that same draft as an undrafted rookie. Mullens was among the final cuts before the starts of the ’17 and ’18 seasons. After he cleared waivers, Mullens immediately signed back to the 49ers’ practice squad.

Mullens was promoted to the 49ers’ 53-man roster last season after Garoppolo sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.

First-year quarterbacks coach Shane Day has outlined some areas of improvement for both players. Shanahan said the true competition for the backup job will begin in training camp, but there’s little he does not already know about both men.

“I know both of them so well, because we’ve been here two years with them and we’ve gotten a chance now to see both of them in practice and both of them in games,” Shanahan said.

“They’ve both been doing a real good job, both playing at a high level, so that’s been exciting. But to sit there and really stress over, from a coaching standpoint, trying to make the decision, we’re not there yet because a lot could change.”

Here is a closer look at the decision that Shanahan could face – assuming one of the players is not dealt in a trade -- when the final cuts must be made by Aug. 31 at 1 p.m.

C.J. Beathard

PROS: The 49ers selected Beathard in the third round, which provides a strong indication that he had the physical tools necessary to make all the throws in Shanahan’s offense. But that investment was also two years ago. So, now, the decision is less on potential and more on what the player has done.

Still, Shanahan’s offense is predicated on taking advantage of the weaknesses in the defense. If the play call and defense sets up a deep shot, Shanahan wants to see it thrown deep. Beathard can make the deep throws and has the arm strength to carry the ball outside the numbers.

[RELATED: C.J. Beathard enjoys backup QB competition]

Beathard has shown his toughness through his 10 NFL starts. (That’s also not necessarily a positive, as we’ll explain later.) He has played well at times. He has also struggled. With a better supporting cast, Beathard’s production would also be expected to elevate. Beathard also says the competition has made both players better.

CONS: While Beathard’s toughness can be seen as one of his better qualities, you never want your quarterback taking hits that can be avoided. Beathard must make quicker decisions to get the ball out of his hands and not absorb nearly as many hits he has taken through the course of his first two seasons.

Beathard got pounded way too many times (one sack for every 10.4 dropbacks). Those hits started to have an obvious impact on him, too. He got banged up while making his five starts last season and he began to look shell-shocked.

Physically, he needed a break at the time Mullens took over. But he also appeared to need a mental break, too. In 10 starts over his first two seasons, Beathard threw 13 interceptions with 12 TD passes.

Beathard must improve his pocket awareness. It’s easy to stand in the pocket during offseason drills and training camp in order to make the throws. The big test for Beathard will be to process information and get rid of the ball when he’s going up against an enemy pass rush.

Nick Mullens

PROS: Mullens is a gamer. He has been underestimated his entire career, and he continues to prove himself at every level he’s played.

Mullens took his preparation to peculiar levels even when he was on the practice squad. He practiced called plays in the huddle while cranking up crowd noise in his headphones. Mullens knows the offense very well. He also never showed any signs of getting rattled – other than his annoyance with Shanahan, who continued to talk in his ear after delivering the play call.

Mullens’ arm strength (more on that later) is questionable, but he can make up for some of his limitations with his timing -- his knowledge of the offense, reading the defense and anticipating his throws.

CONS: Despite some very good statistics, including an 8.3-yard average per attempt, Mullens did not grade well with some important Pro Football Focus metrics.

His 64.2 completion percentage topped Beathard (60.4) and Garoppolo (59.6), but Mullens ranked near the bottom of the league in completion percentage in small windows as well as passes of 20-or-more yards down the field. The takeaway from PFF is that Mullens thrived because Shanahan was able to scheme receivers to be open.

Where his arm tends to be a problem is that defenders tend to get their hands on Mullens’ passes. In college, he threw 46 interceptions in 44 games. Last season, he was intercepted 10 times in eight starts with 13 TD passes.

49ers' Fred Warner already forming bond with injured Kwon Alexander

49ers' Fred Warner already forming bond with injured Kwon Alexander

SANTA CLARA — Linebacker Fred Warner is looking forward to his second season with the 49ers, which includes partnering up with 49ers free-agent acquisition Kwon Alexander

Even though Alexander was held out of the offseason program rehabbing his ACL, Warner is not worried about building chemistry with him on the field. The two are already getting to know each other very well. 

“Yeah, just little things off the field, you know, hanging out with each other,” Warner said after the last practice of minicamp on June 13. “And I think we will have plenty of time during training camp leading up to the season to do that too.” 

Warner and Alexander are regularly seen standing together during practice, deep in conversation. The two were spotted in the back of the end zone last week, which Warner says is on purpose. 

“It’s good to stand back there because then we can see everything, from that point of view,” Warner said. “We go through close calls and seeing different adjustments that we’re making. Most of the time we’re just talking trash to the offense too.”  

Alexander, who is set to be ready to participate in team drills during training camp, appears to be itching to get on the field. He was regularly seen during OTAs and minicamp excitedly jumping around on the sidelines after a big defensive play. 

Linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans knows just what Alexander’s personality brings in practice and in meetings.

“He’s been great for us because he brings a different type of energy,” Ryans said during OTAs. “He brings swagger that I think we were kind of missing. He brings that edge that we needed. And he’s been great in our meeting rooms.” 

Warner co-signed Ryans’ description of Alexander. 

“He brings a lot of energy,” Warner said. “He’s brought a swag to the group for sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him out there running around. I see him during workouts and he looks great.”  

[RELATED: Breaking down backup QB competition between Beathard, Mullens]

Warner says you can even see that energy from Alexander on the sidelines while watching practice film. 

“Kwon hasn’t been out there on the field but he’s been out there and you see him jumping off the tape, from the sideline, it’s funny,” Warner said.  

Warner and Alexander likely will be paired up once the season begins, provided that the veteran is healthy. During the offseason, the defense’s new wide-nine alignment showed three linebackers on the field at once with Malcolm Smith, David Mayo, Elijah Lee and rookie Dre Greenlaw getting a good share of the snaps.