49ers' offseason programs brings clarity to number of competitions

49ers' offseason programs brings clarity to number of competitions

SANTA CLARA – Nearly a quarter of the 49ers’ 90-man roster ended up being spectators during the team’s offseason program, which officially comes to an end Thursday with a family fun day on the practice field.

The goal all along was to get to the starting line as prepared as possible when the team reconvenes in late July for the opening of training camp. Tight end Garrett Celek is not expected to be ready for the opening of training camp due to back surgery. But everyone else should be ready (or near-ready) when camp opens.

Now, the team reaches one of its most critical stages of the offseason. Everyone is on his own.

The 49ers’ coaches will not see the players during the critical 40-day period before the grind begins.

“You have to stack days up in this league,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “If you think you can just take 30 days off and stuff, you are going to be in for such a rude awakening.

“If you aren’t a pro in this offseason, and not only just train but eat the right way, sleep the right way, it will catch up with you in this league.”

Shanahan said he always gives a variation of the same speech on the final day of the offseason program. Steve Young and Jerry Rice also spoke in 2017. Last year, general manager John Lynch delivered some remarks. Thursday, new wide receivers coach Wes Welker will be the featured speaker.

The general message is to be smart and don't do anything that can have an adverse impact on your career.

The 49ers held their final on-field work Wednesday at the team’s practice facility, bringing a close to the full-squad practices. Some areas of the team came into sharper focus during the workouts:

-- Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took major strides with more than 180 snaps during the team’s 7-on-7 passing drills.

Everything was controlled, as Garoppolo faced just one pass rush during the entire offseason program. That came late in the final practice when the defensive line did not gain the full understanding of Shanahan’s command to refrain from advancing off the line of scrimmage.

[RELATED: Jimmy Garoppolo ends 49ers minicamp with TD]

“It kind of caught me off guard a little bit, but I guess it was good to get started on that,” Garoppolo said. “That’s what it’s going to be in training camp.”

-- The competition for the No. 2 job is going to be close with, perhaps, C.J. Beathard gaining a slight edge over Nick Mullens based on the practices. Beathard has the better arm strength and is able to make all the throws, but he appeared a bit shell-shocked toward the end of his run last season.

Mullens has great knowledge of the system and played at a high level in eight starts. He needs to improve his throws outside the numbers.

-- Veteran wide receiver Marquise Goodwin’s spot appeared vulnerable when the offseason began. But he came through with a very strong showing, including a great start to Tuesday’s practice with receptions on deep-out patterns to the left and right sides from Beathard.

-- Trent Taylor clearly created separation against Richie James for the team’s primary slot receiver job. Taylor is healthy after missing all of last offseason’s work following back surgery. Taylor created a nice rapport with Garoppolo.

“He feels space differently than most guys,” Garoppolo said.

James, a second-year player, did not appear to take advantage of his opportunities to make catches during the practices that were open to the media.

-- Taylor, Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Jordan Matthews had the best offseasons among the team’s wide receivers.

-- Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon might have been the best player on defense during the offseason program. He routinely had tight coverage and broke up numerous passes. Witherspoon's elevation in play –- along with Jimmie Ward’s fractured collarbone – prompted the 49ers to move Tarvarius Moore to free safety.

Obviously, Richard Sherman is slated to start at left cornerback. Witherspoon, now, must hold onto his job against Jason Verrett, who is expected to be a full-go for practices at the beginning of training camp.

-- Moore broke up a Garoppolo pass on a deep crossing route for Goodwin during practice Wednesday. (It was a pass Shanahan thought Garoppolo should not have thrown.) Moore is already looking better at free safety than he did during his time at cornerback. But Moore faces an uphill climb for playing time with Ward and Adrian Colbert ahead of him on the depth chart.

-- It is difficult to read much into play on the offensive and defensive lines when the players are not wearing pads. But veteran nose tackle Sheldon Day opened some eyes with his quickness off the ball. He got into the backfield on back-to-back run plays on Wednesday to stuff running back Tevin Coleman.

-- Linebacker Eljah Lee is making a bid, along with Dre Greenlaw, to win a starting job in the 49ers’ reconfigured linebacking corps. Veteran Malcolm Smith is also in the picture to start alongside Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander. Lee looked particularly good in coverage during practice Wednesday.

Ryan Clark calls 49ers a 'pretender,' but their play proves otherwise

Ryan Clark calls 49ers a 'pretender,' but their play proves otherwise

One NFL analyst says it's time to start taking the 49ers seriously. Another feels just the opposite.

"They are pretending," ESPN's Ryan Clark said of San Francisco on Wednesday's episode of NFL Live. "They are faking us out. They are imitators, pretenders, whatever you want to say. They are not the real deal at 2-0."

Clark insisted that the 49ers should be the lowest-ranked of the nine current 2-0 teams in the league, which is interesting, considering they've won their two games more decisively than all but one of the others. San Francisco leads the NFC in points scored, and outside of the Cowboys, they've scored at least 15 more points than every other team in the conference. They also have the best point differential of any team in the league not named the New England Patriots.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have won their two games by a combined total of three points. They beat the Bengals by a single point at home. The 49ers just walloped the Bengals by 24 points in Cincinnati. Seattle's other victory came over a Pittsburgh team that lost its starting quarterback in the first half.

Dallas has beaten the lowly Giants and Redskins -- not exactly murderer's row. The Bills have beaten the Jets and Giants for their two victories, both on the road -- just like San Francisco. Both of Buffalo's games have been played in the same stadium, though. The 49ers just spent two weeks in Tampa Bay and Youngstown, Ohio.

Nonetheless, the former NFL defensive back views the 49ers' undefeated record as the least legitimate, due mainly to questions surrounding their quarterback.

"Listen, I still don't believe in Jimmy Garoppolo," Clark continued, "and I know a lot of people said he's gotten over some of the struggles of the preseason and he's fully back from the injury. Kyle Shanahan did a great job of scheming people open against the Cincinnati Bengals but [Garoppolo] was not sharp against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They won that game because Jameis Winston was just actually worse."

To say Jimmy G looked rusty in Week 1 is certainly fair. To give him no credit for San Francisco's offensive explosion in Week 2 is most certainly not.

[RELATED: Rice thinks 49ers are Super Bowl contenders after 2-0 start]

ESPN's Adam Schefter agrees with that latter sentiment.

"So what?" Schefter said in reference to Clark's comments on Thursday's "Murph & Mac Podcast" on KNBR. "Ryan Clark is thinking of the 49ers from last or the previous years. This is a different team. The defense is better. The running game is strong. Jimmy G has another year in the system.

"And yes, there are questions. Let's not anoint them as potential Super Bowl contenders yet. There are definite questions that this team has to answer, but the team is still 2-and-0 on the road."

'Super Bowl contender' might be an overreach. That said, 'pretender' might be one, too.

49ers' Richard Sherman not surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's resurgence

49ers' Richard Sherman not surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's resurgence

SANTA CLARA — Ahkello Witherspoon has come into his third NFL season locked in, looking like a completely different player than he was less than a year ago. Fellow 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman couldn’t be more proud. 

Witherspoon was on a steep upward trajectory as he closed out his rookie season in 2017. Not only had he earned a starting position with the 49ers, but he also was now going to be playing across from and learning from Sherman, one of the most respected cornerbacks in the league. 

Before the 2018 season, Sherman saw Witherspoon’s talent and believed in him enough to invite him to his ‘Cornerback Summit’ down the street from 49ers headquarters at Stanford. At Sherman’s alma mater, Witherspoon found himself working out with with the likes of All-Pro cornerbacks Darius Slay, Aqib Talib and Xavier Rhodes.

The media portrayed Witherspoon as having “arrived,” but things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Witherspoon’s sophomore season in 2018 did not live up to the expectations and hype. Quarterbacks tested him and won, as they avoided throwing towards Sherman’s side of the field. People outside of 49ers headquarters wondered if the attention was too much for the young cornerback from Colorado University. 

Sherman’s belief, however, never waned and that has been the key to Witherspoon’s resurgence. The veteran cornerback spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area about what has changed for the third-year defensive back. 

“Just his mentality, how he approaches things it’s how he deals with adversity,” Sherman said. “It’s been really cool to just see him evolve from last year to this year. He’s worked at it meticulously, he’s stayed detailed, he’s stayed locked in, when things weren’t going how he wanted them to, he made sure his mentality was always right and it’s lead to the success he’s had.”

It may seem like a small detail, but Witherspoon admits he's changed his approach. His most important adjustment? Having a short memory.  

“I think it’s really just caring a little less,” Witherspoon told NBC Sports Bay Area. “It sounds kind of backwards but I used let a catch kind of weigh on me for three or four plays. Now if you got a catch, it doesn’t matter because I’m still the best corner on the field. If you give up a catch it just happens. It happens to the best people.” 

Sherman can see a night-and-day difference in Witherspoon from 2018. 

“It’s a lot different than last year,” Sherman said. “He didn’t respond as well to certain things that happened to him. He knew that, and he understood and worked to change that.” 

The bond between the two cornerbacks is very evident at practice and in games. When Witherspoon makes a big play, like his pick-six in the season opener, he looks to Sherman immediately -- like a younger brother seeking out approval. 

“I just feel like it’s kind of putting on a show,” Witherspoon explained. “When you have somebody that supports you that much, and you make a play, it’s kind of like you look to him like, ‘Man I’m out here doing it. There it is again.’ 

“So just seeing him, having that connection on the field, it’s inspirational going on to the next play.”  

Sherman’s belief was exactly what Witherspoon needed to propel him into his third season. Sherman still gives the younger cornerback all the credit for being able to turn his approach to the game around. 

“I believe in him and he believes in himself,” Sherman said. “But I think that sometimes you get into that spot where you feel that no one is in your corner and nobody is supporting you. I think I was one of the positive voices for him at a time where there weren’t a lot of positive voices outside of his family.” 

[RELATED: 49ers rookie Samuel doesn't need many snaps for big stats]

Witherspoon’s soft-spoken demeanor remains the same, but now there’s an underlying confidence behind it. He almost seems to stand taller knowing how far he’s come, while recognizing that this is still the beginning of his journey. 

“Last year I was learning as a player and learning as a man and I think this year you can see the growth.”