Top takeaways, developments from 49ers training camp
Three weeks in the books
With the conclusion of a joint practice against the Denver Broncos on Thursday, the 49ers brought an official ending to Kyle Shanahan’s first training camp as head coach.
Following the exhibition game Saturday night against the Broncos at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers will shift their weekly schedule of meetings and practices to simulate how they will operate during the regular season. But the 49ers have plenty of unanswered questions.
“There’s a lot of good competition on our team -- not just for starter positions, but backup positions,” Shanahan said. “I can tell you, it’s going to be real tough to cut it down to 53. We’re going to need all this game and practices to evaluate that.”
Rookie QB makes bid for backup
Quarterback C.J. Beathard is making a strong challenge for the backup job, as he and veteran Matt Barkley have taken equal practice snaps behind Brian Hoyer.
One team insider told NBC Sports Bay Area that Beathard has put in a lot of extra work, including spending countless hours utilizing virtual reality to practice reading defenses and going through progressions. Beathard watched 1,000 plays on virtual reality last week alone.
Beathard is scheduled to be the second quarterback into the action Saturday against the Broncos, Shanahan said.
Bowman’s bounce-back season?
NaVorro Bowman, 29, has experienced two significant injuries in recent seasons. The recovery from his torn Achilles has been simple, compared to the knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 season.
But it remains to be seen whether Bowman still has the sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability he exhibited while being named as a four-time, first-team All-Pro player.
Bowman might not have the same speed to stick with backs and tight ends in pass coverage, but the 49ers still expect him to be an enforcer and leader in the middle of the defense.
Receivers are in good hands
The 49ers’ top pass-catchers stood out during training camp. Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin have shown a lot of consistency as Brian Hoyer’s best options.
Garçon experienced his most success in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme in Washington with 1,346 yards receiving in 2013. The big surprise, however, has been Goodwin.
Goodwin ran only speed routes in four seasons with Buffalo, as he also missed significant time due to injuries. He is running a greater variety of routes, which makes him more dangerous on the deep ball. He should have a breakout season.
Cornerback Rashard Robinson had an up-and-down training camp, but he appears to be trending in the right direction. Meanwhile, Dontae Johnson appears to be the best bet on the other side in his competition with Keith Reaser.
The 49ers are willing to take some lumps at cornerback this season as the players grow into their roles. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, who got off to a rough start in camp, came on strong during the practices against the Broncos. It still might be a while before he is ready for a starting role.
K’Waun Williams, the 49ers’ nickel back, was as consistent as any player during camp and appears to be in solid position to hold off Will Redmond for that important chore.
Wide open at tight end
The 49ers have six tight ends in camp that offer different skillsets. Rookie George Kittle has been limited throughout camp with a hamstring injury, but he gives the 49ers the best all-around package.
Logan Paulsen was brought in for his blocking. Rookie Cole Hikutini was signed for his receiving. Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell face stiff challenges to hold onto their roster spots.
McDonald has made the biggest strides, as he fights to maintain his starting job. But as the 49ers break camp, this competition remains wide open.
D-line depth is strength
The 49ers should be good on the defensive line, considering Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon were their top picks over the past three years.
But it does not stop there. Some good players will not make the 49ers’ roster. Their depth chart includes D-linemen Earl Mitchell, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Chris Jones and Ronald Blair.
The 49ers also have a solid group of outside linebackers who can rush the passer in nickel situations, including Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, Dekoda Watson and Pita Taumoepenu. The 49ers should see a significant improvement in their sack numbers this season.
Concerns at guard
At one point in camp, the 49ers were concerned if they had even one NFL-caliber offensive guard – let alone two. Brandon Fusco seems to be settling in at right guard. But there are major question marks about left guard.
Tackles Joe Staley and Trent Brown are set. The 49ers are happy with center Daniel Kilgore. Guard Joshua Garnett started camp OK but his play tailed off before he was ruled out for four to six weeks to undergo a procedure to repair cartilage in his knee. Jeremy Zuttah was a major disappointment and was released.
Zane Beadles is currently the starting left guard, but the 49ers continue to be on the lookout for options outside of the organization to strengthen their most questionable position.
Can Foster shoulder the load?
Shoulder? What shoulder?
That was the answer from the 49ers’ medical experts when the club selected linebacker Reuben Foster with the No. 31 overall pick. Sure enough, Foster was cleared on the eve of training camp for full contact.
Foster became a starter when Malcolm Smith was lost for the season with a torn pectoral. Foster did not miss a practice during training camp, but was held out of 11-on-11 contact drills Thursday due to a mild AC joint sprain of his surgically repaired right shoulder.
Although Shanahan stated Foster is expected to play Saturday, his shoulder will continue to be a concern as long as there are reminders such as his appearance on the injury report.
Hyde flips the switch
Running back Carlos Hyde remained in the South Bay after the end of the team’s offseason program. He ate healthy meals at the team’s cafeteria and worked out daily, showing up at training camp at a svelte 228 pounds.
Hyde’s commitment has been noticeable, as he has maintained control of the job as the team’s top running back. The 49ers finally have some depth with Tim Hightower, Matt Breida and Joe Williams.
But, at least through training camp, Hyde answered any concerns about his commitment and whether he fits into Shanahan’s system.
Unseen safety key to defense
Free safety Jimmie Ward has the most important job in the 49ers’ defense. The problem, however, is that the 49ers have no better idea if Ward is a fit for that role because he has yet to get on the practice field.
Ward, who missed 13 games in his first three NFL seasons due to injuries, was placed on physically unable to perform with a hamstring injury he sustained during a conditioning drill on the first day of camp.
The 49ers expect Ward to be cleared for action next week. Eric Reid has fared well at strong safety, but Ward has missed a significant amount of time that could have been used gaining valuable practice time in the new system.
Hoyer takes charge
Never once since his signing on the first day of free agency has Brian Hoyer’s status as the 49ers’ No. 1 quarterback been questioned. He had a strong offseason program, and he has tightened his grasp on the starting job during camp.
Hoyer’s ability to run Shanahan’s offense even impressed members of the visiting Broncos during two joint practices.
“Hoyer is doing a great job running it,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said. “They get the ball out fast. They move you left and right. It takes a polished quarterback to run an offense. He’s doing a great job.”