SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ abrupt release Thursday of wide receiver Bruce Ellington served as another reminder that all players brought to the organization under one of the previous systems are vulnerable.
Tight end Vance McDonald, who was the subject of trade talks during the draft, may not be a perfect fit for the 49ers’ scheme. But he has done a commendable job in training camp in his bid to retain his spot with the organization.
McDonald caught five passes during practice on Thursday. Four of his receptions came from starting quarterback Brian Hoyer. He also collected a 15-yard scoring pass from C.J. Beathard, which McDonald punctuated by flattening rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon inside the 5-yard line.
“He’s kind of gotten the chance to put himself in position to make some plays,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of McDonald. “I think he’s gotten better each day the more he’s gotten comfortable.”
All of the returning tight ends – McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell -- face stiff challenges to hold onto their spots after Shanahan and general manager John Lynch hand-picked veteran Logan Paulsen and rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikuntini in the offseason to fit specific roles within the team’s offense.
On defense, the returning starter who must prove he can play at a consistent level under a new scheme is Quinton Dial. When the 49ers switched to a 4-3 scheme, Dial was inserted into the competition at nose tackle. Dial was drafted as a two-gap defensive lineman. Converting to a one-gap scheme is no easy task.
Veteran Earl Mitchell has been the starter because of his fit for the system after signing as a free agent. The 49ers are also high on sixth-round draft pick D.J. Jones. Dial probably should be starting on an NFL team this season, but it remains to be seen if he can make a smooth enough adjustment to convince the team's decision-makers that the best spot for him is with the 49ers.
--Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, was the subject of a teaching point after 49ers running back Carlos Hyde ran him over at the goal line in practice on Wednesday. Shanahan said Witherspoon’s biggest mistake was that he let Hyde gain too much momentum before the collision.
“When the outside receiver cracks on the safety, you better replace that guy a lot faster,” Shanahan said. “So now Carlos has about a 3-yard head start instead of a 15-yard head start. I don’t care who you are, if Carlos gets a 15-yard head start on you and lowers his head and you’re not allowed to go low on him, that will be the end result.”
--Hyde continues to impress the coaching staff with his running and receiving. He caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Hoyer during a red-zone period. He also picked up a first down on a third-and-1 play with a 4-yard reception during a move-the-chains period.
--Safety Eric Reid returned after missing two practices due to an ankle sprain. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner sat out with an ankle sprain. He is listed as day to day. Linebacker Eli Harold is in the concussion protocol. Safety Jaqquiski Tartt remains day to day with a ribs injury.
--Running back Tim Hightower and linebacker Brock Coyle were removed from practice with undisclosed ailments.
--Four 49ers veteran players were given a day off: NaVorro Bowman, Pierre Garçon, Joe Staley and Jeremy Zuttah.
--Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster took over at middle linebacker for Bowman. Foster recorded a couple of sacks but appeared to make several assignment mistakes.
“I thought he did a good job,” Shanahan said. “We just threw him in there and he started moving a lot. He’s got to make all the calls. I think like anybody in his first time at it, I think he had a few busts. I think there’s good stuff for him to get in and watch the tape and learn from.”
--Linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong made a leaping interception of a Beathard pass intended for Kendrick Bourne down the middle of the field.
--Another practice, another deep reception for Marquise Goodwin. This one covered 45 yards in the air from Hoyer against the coverage of Dontae Johnson.
--The 49ers had three touchdown passes from three different quarterbacks during a four-play span. Hoyer hooked up with DeAndre Smelter on a fade over Rashard Robinson. Beathard hit Aaron Burbridge on a scoring pass against Prince Charles Iworah. And Matt Barkley hooked up with Victor Bolden.