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Injury-riddled 49ers still have many options in passing game

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The practices last less than two hours. And that time on the field provides only a snapshot into what is truly going on with a football team.

But one thing was apparent: Rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk was much further along than any rookie receiver in a 49ers training camp in a very long time. You could see it in the way he lined up in different spots, ran his routes crisply and fulfilled his assignments without hesitation.

Most of all, you could see it in how often Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard trusted him to throw the ball in his direction. And you could certainly see it with the ease in which Aiyuk made his many catches and smoothly turned upfield to finish the plays.

Aiyuk sustained a left hamstring strain in practice Sunday. He is expected to miss up to a couple of weeks of practice.

It’s a significant setback, but it should not be disastrous. That’s because Aiyuk raised his floor significantly during the first eight practices this summer. His behind-the-scenes work impressed Kyle Shanahan, as the coach noted on Tuesday. The work he has already logged places Aiyuk, a first-round draft pick from Arizona State, in a position to step back into the mix when he is cleared to return to the field -- presumably in plenty of time for the season opener.

“If Aiyuk didn't come in the way that he did come in, he'd be screwed now with an injury,” Shanahan said. “That’s what's been cool about him that he's given himself a chance to overcome something like this.”

 

Training camp has been rough on the 49ers receivers, as it often is because of the amount of running -- accelerating, stopping, accelerating again -- that is required from players who line up at those positions.

The 49ers opened camp with two significant injuries. Deebo Samuel appears to be making tremendous progress from June surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. The 49ers are hopeful he will be ready for the opener on Sept. 13 against the Arizona Cardinals. Richie James is ticketed to miss at least the first six games of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a fractured wrist.

Veteran speedster Travis Benjamin opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. And Jalen Hurd, who figured to be a key contributor, will spend the season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL while training on a side field.

Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne have been the 49ers’ top receivers during practices this summer. Trent Taylor has established himself as the team’s best slot receiver. Taylor has a chance to provide Garoppolo with a third-down option in a role the club lacked in 2019 while he spent the season on IR due to complications from foot surgery.

After those players, there’s a drop-off. Dante Pettis, who appears to have accepted his coach's challenge, appears to be the next in line.

In the 49ers’ first practice without Aiyuk, two of the recent veteran additions had their best practices since signing one-year contracts in the early days of practice.

J.J. Nelson and Tavon Austin caught multiple passes -- perhaps, capitalizing on the throws that ordinarily would have been directed to Aiyuk.

Austin, a seven-year NFL veteran, who can line up anywhere, including in the backfield, appears to have elevated his game to a point where he is on the roster bubble.

“The more he learns it, the more he can get thrown in there at all three of the positions,” Shanahan said. “When you have injuries and stuff, that does give you more opportunities at all three spots instead of just one.

“I think he's getting a lot better at that with more reps, just like all of them are, the more reps that they get. Tavon is a very talented player who moves very well. I think he gets better and better each day for us.”

As good as the 49ers were on offense in 2019 during their march to the Super Bowl, they lacked some key elements on offense. They had no reliable receivers beyond Emmanuel Sanders, Samuel and Bourne. Taylor fills a glaring void. George Kittle was Option No. 1, and defenses did not have to be too concerned with anyone else in two-tight end sets.

 

Also, the 49ers did not have a legitimate pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

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Already this summer, it is easy to see that the 49ers have more options at wide receiver. Moreover, veteran tight end Jordan Reed could provide a difficult matchup when paired with Kittle, and running back Jerick McKinnon is a matchup nightmare for linebackers on third downs.

Despite all the injuries, the 49ers are on pace to be much healthier in the passing game than at any point last season.