Yes, there are people not named Jimmy Garoppolo who are worth taking a close look at when the 49ers get training camp underway next month. Here are five storylines to monitor in July and August, and how I think things could shake out.
Can Joe Williams emerge?
As it stands right now, Jerick McKinnon is the starter with Matt Breida locked into the No. 2 spot; however, Joe Williams—who reportedly didn’t come into camp in the best shape or mindset last year—showed up to OTAs a different man, according to Kyle Shanahan and local media. Shanahan stood on a table in the war room to fight for the selection of Williams in the fourth round. Now that he’s in seemingly good graces after a rocky introduction led to a season-long placement on IR, the jury is still out on exactly what he brings to the table. He’ll have his work cut out for him since Raheem Mostert offers veteran experience and special teams value, but if Williams can flash the explosiveness and play-making ability he did in Utah, he has the chance to claim the No. 3 spot and figure into the mix with McKinnon and Breida.
Prediction: I really liked what I saw on Williams’ college tape and Shanahan’s praise of him in OTAs gives hope. Then again, can Williams maintain that focus and motivation? Can he achieve better ball security? These are the biggest questions he faces. It’s a coin flip, but I say a renewed sense of urgency and better conditioning land Williams a spot on the roster.
Position battle at guard
Fooch’s update: This one changed a little bit!
One of the weakest position groups in 2017 wasn’t an area the 49ers chose to actively improve upon in 2018. Incumbent starter Laken Tomlinson returns for 2018, while Brandon Fusco—who manned the right side of the line last year—is now with Atlanta. The 49ers signed former Cowboys guard Jonathan Cooper who, despite turning in a decent season last year, has largely been considered a former first-round bust. The 49ers’ own former first-rounder, Joshua Garnett, sat out last season on IR but reported to OTAs about 25 pounds leaner this year. Last month, the team signed Mike Person—a guy they drafted in 2011 who has bounced around the league (and across the offensive line) ever since. Garry Gilliam and Erik Magnuson round out the group, but wouldn’t be in consideration to start.
Nobody in this group inspires a great deal of confidence—if any. The hope, however, is that if newly acquired Weston Richburg can recapture his former glory at the center position, and Joe Staley and rookie Mike McGlinchey effectively bookend at tackle, then maybe the team only needs one guard to truly step up while the other can get by on the collective talent around him.
Prediction: I think Laken Tomlinson is a safe bet to nab one of the starting spots. He wasn’t great by any means last year, but he played better as the season wore on. Plus, with a new center, rookie tackle, and the other guard position wide open, he gives the line some stability having the experience of playing in the scheme last year. That really leaves Garnett and Cooper. Person’s experience across each position on the line, and most recently center, likely slot him elsewhere on the depth chart. Cooper is still on the mend from MCL surgery but is expected to be ready for camp. Garnett, meanwhile, was at least on the team last year and a participant throughout camp, despite missing the season. Even if Garnett doesn’t live up to his first-round selection, I think he does enough to claim the other starting spot. With this group, it won’t take much. He may even win it by default if Jonathan Cooper, who has a history of injury problems, isn’t able to stay healthy.
Will anyone show up in the pass rush?
Much like the guard position, the 49ers didn’t do much to improve the pass rush in the offseason. To be fair, it’s hard to blame them—there really weren’t any intriguing options in free agency or the draft. So it became a matter of settling for—and over-paying/over-drafting—a player they truly didn’t value or exercising patience to wait until next offseason. Lynch and Shanahan opted for the latter and, instead, resigned Cassius Marsh to a two-year contract. They also kicked the tires on former Charger Jeremiah Attaochu with a one-year, $3 million dollar deal.
Prediction: There may be incremental improvement if Solomon Thomas can step up, if Arik Armstead stays healthy, and if Cassius Marsh or Jeremiah Attaochu can provide something. Moreover, a stronger secondary may give a boost in the way of coverage sacks. More than likely though, don’t expect to see much of a difference from last year. The 49ers still lack an ideal fit or true weapon at the LEO pass-rush position in Saleh’s scheme. It figures to be a committee approach based on defensive package, down, and individual matchups. Early indications are that Solomon Thomas will play LEO on base downs and move to end on passing downs. Attaochu and Marsh alternated at LEO during OTAs.
The most intriguing guy is Attaochu. In 2014, the Los Angeles Chargers spent a second round pick on the Georgia Tech product. He started 12 games the following season, registering 6 sacks and a forced fumble. After battling injuries and falling behind Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on the depth chart, he never really had another opportunity to prove himself—now he does, coming into a wide-open competition in San Francisco. At 6’3, 252 lbs, Attaochu has the makeup and the motor to be a successful threat off the edge. The biggest questions are if he can deliver on that potential and if he can stay healthy.
Will Richard Sherman be the Sherman we’re used to seeing?
The former rival made waves when he signed with San Francisco this past offseason. Once considered the best cornerback in the game, Sherman is now 30 years old and coming off a ruptured Achilles. He signed a team-friendly contract which largely hinges on his production. He’s been seen at OTAs running around in individual drills but we’ll get a little better sense of where Sherman is at once the team puts on pads. Even then, it’s likely the 49ers take a very cautious approach with Sherman. They know what he brings to the table and he knows this defensive scheme as well (or better) than defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. So will Sherman be the starter in Week 1 against Minnesota?
Prediction: The early signs are encouraging. Sherman getting cleared for drill work in mid-June was the first step. Now, it’s a matter of seeing how he fares through training camp and the preseason. Few carry as big a chip on their shoulder as Sherman, so motivation and work ethic are not in question. The nature of the injury is the only thing that gives pause. Achilles injuries are difficult to recover from—some never return to what they once were; some don’t return at all. The cornerback position poses an even greater challenge due to the need to start, stop, and change direction on a dime. That’s a lot of stress on a repaired tendon. Still, I’m going with tempered optimism on this one. I don’t think Sherman gets back to the dominance he displayed up until 2017 but I do think he gets back to about 85% of what he was. If he can, he’s still a top-ten or top-fifteen cornerback in the league, which is something San Francisco will be counting on for secondary unit that is just as promising as it is inexperienced.
Reuben Foster’s Suspension Status
For a while there, it looked like Reuben Foster’s NFL career could be over. With his ex-girlfriend admitting to lying about the domestic violence situation, and his gun charges being dropped, Foster faces a mere misdemeanor charge for marijuana in his home state of Alabama. The 49ers’ front office should be lauded for their patience and not jumping to conclusions in this ordeal, which initially miscast them in extremely poor light. The Niners and Foster dodged a huge bullet on this one. Still, the second-year linebacker will face some sort of ramifications—albeit significantly less dire ones.
Prediction: Roger Goodell loves to make an example. The distraction that Foster created, coupled with the marijuana charge, land him a four-game suspension which gets reduced to two. In his absence, the 49ers will look to rookie linebacker Fred Warner to step into the starting lineup with Malcolm Smith and Eli Harold.
What will you be watching for in camp? What are your predictions?