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Handing out 49ers training camp awards as season looms

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SANTA CLARA -- It generally is not a grand compliment for a player to be referred to as a star of training camp.

But take these superlatives from the 49ers’ two weeks of practices in front of the note-taking media for how they are intended.

Offseason programs around the NFL were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league requires that media must be allowed to watch two weeks of training camp practices.

So the 12 practice sessions that were open to the media provided the only glimpses anyone outside the organization will get of the 49ers until the regular-season opener on Sunday, Sept. 13, against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.

So, with that, we present to you some awards and observations from 49ers camp, which closed its gates to the media at the conclusion of practice on Sunday:

Best offensive player

He is big. He is strong. He is nimble. He is everything the 49ers hoped they could find in a left tackle upon Joe Staley’s retirement.

Trent Williams did not play last season with Washington. But it did not take him long in training camp to appear to be in midseason form. He had some epic battles with edge rusher Nick Bosa before Bosa was sidelined with an upper leg injury.

Whether he is stone-walling the man lining up across from him in pass protection or getting out and leading a running play, Williams stood out in camp as the team’s best offensive player.


Best defensive player

Middle linebacker Fred Warner brought it to the practice field this summer. He was all over the place, and he played with even more attitude than we’ve seen in the past.

Warner was great in pass coverage, and his pads were popping during run plays. The 49ers do not tackle to the ground during practices, which seemed to frustrate Warner. He played to the whistle and a split-second beyond.

He looks as if he is ready to take that next step to become one of the top all-around linebackers in the NFL.

Best offensive rookie

Although he missed the final week of practices due to a hamstring injury, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk showed more than enough to win the prize.

It is rare for a rookie wideout to get a lot of passes thrown his way – especially from the team’s No. 1 quarterback – in training camp. But the fact that Aiyuk was targeted again and again and again paints the picture of a rookie who was on top of his assignments. It did not take him long to win the trust of his coaches and teammates.

The 49ers traded up from No. 31 to 25 to select Aiyuk, whom – as far as I can figure – the 49ers had rated as the draft’s No. 2 receiver behind CeeDee Lamb. Coach Kyle Shanahan saw something in Aiyuk, and his constant involvement in practices proves the coach has a detailed plan for incorporating him into the offense.

Best defensive rookie

This is a shared award.

The first instinct is to go with defensive tackle Darrion Daniels, an undrafted rookie from Nebraska. Daniels looked really good, as he constantly was in the offensive backfield causing problems. But, let’s face it, Daniels was going up against the team’s reserves on the offensive line.

Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, the No. 14 overall pick in the draft, faced much better competition. Left guard Laken Tomlinson handled him regularly. Kinlaw faced greater challenges and more pressure on a daily basis.

Kinlaw does not appear to offer too much – at least not quite yet – as a pass-rusher, but he should give the team what it wants on base downs against the run.

Although Daniels is not assured a spot on the 53-man roster, he made enough plays during camp to be the co-winner of this award with Kinlaw.

Best undrafted rookie

Because roster limits this summer were reduced from 90 to 80 players, there were fewer undrafted rookies in camp. As noted above, Daniels was impressive on the defensive side.

But this award goes to running back JaMycal Hasty, a 5-foot-8, 205-pounder out of Baylor.

It is going to be difficult for Hasty to make the 53-man roster, but he already beat out Salvon Ahmed, an undrafted rookie from Washington. The 49ers cut Ahmed last week.

The 49ers have to feel good about Jerick McKinnon as the team’s third-down back. Hasty very much is in the same mold, with his ability to run crisp routes out of the backfield. If Hasty were on the team a year ago, he might have seen a lot of action and led the backs in receptions.


Worst development

The 49ers have experienced more than their share of injuries during training camp, but only one player was lost for the entire season: wide receiver Jalen Hurd.

The 49ers selected Hurd in the third round of the 2019 draft. He never stepped on the field as a rookie due to a stress fracture in his back. And his Year 2 is over before it began, too, due to a torn ACL.

Shanahan had a plan for Hurd, who can line up at any number of different spots in the offensive formation. Where Shanahan figured to take full advantage of Hurd’s skills was during their hurry-up game, in which defenses are unable to substitute. The 49ers could have moved around Hurd to find the right mismatch against smaller defenders he could overwhelm with his size.

Now, that plan is being pushed back at least another year.

Best development

Hurd was the exception. All the other 49ers who did not play at all in 2019 have returned and looked really, really good during training camp.

That list includes Jerick McKinnon, slot receiver Trent Taylor, tight end Jordan Reed, Williams and cornerback Jason Verrett.

McKinnon is the team’s third-down back. Taylor will be a reliable target for Jimmy Garoppolo. Reed, who said he's having the most fun of his career, could team with Kittle to create a huge dilemma for defenses. Williams has looked like an All-Pro, and Verrett looks so much better than a year ago, when he struggled through one game and was placed on injured reserve with a knee condition.

Conceivably, each of those five players could add significant contributions to the 49ers this season.

Most encouraging sign

The 49ers remain hopeful wide receiver Deebo Samuel will be ready for the season opener. He appears to be making significant progress after surgery in June to repair a fractured foot.

Samuel definitely is getting antsy. On Sunday, he snuck onto the field when quarterbacks coach Shane Day was holding a teaching session with his group. Samuel, who is on the non-football injury list, managed to catch a couple of soft tosses from Garoppolo before 49ers head athletic trainer Dustin Little noticed and informed the unwitting Samuel that he was prohibited from taking part in any kind of role with his teammates during practice.

Even if Samuel is not 100 percent ready for the opener, it appears his season debut will not have to wait until the middle of the season. It's likely he will open the season on the 53-man roster and not remain on the NFI, which would prevent him from suiting up for at least the first six games.


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And, finally . . .

Jimmy Garoppolo.

The most-discussed player on the team looked sharper than a year ago, when he had that infamous five-interceptions-on-five-attempts practice.

Garoppolo fed the defense on occasion. But he also managed to spread the ball around to his backs, tight ends and wide receivers.

Midway through training camp, he took the brace off his left knee – a not-so-subtle indicator that the torn ACL of 2018 is completely shut out of his mind.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh observed on Sunday that Garoppolo is more decisive than in the past. That is something to be expected, as he has now been in Shanahan’s system for a while.

Because he is in a better spot physically, with a better grasp of the offense, with his first full 16-game season behind him and a more-varied supporting cast, there is no reason Garoppolo should not be able to take his game to a significantly higher level in 2020.