Training camp is in full swing as the 49ers gear up for their first preseason game against the Cowboys this week. There’s been a lot to pay attention to from the start but let’s focus on five of the more recent noteworthy storylines.
1. The center position has quickly become worrisome
Ben Garland was brought in to fill the role while incumbent Weston Richburg recuperates from offseason surgery. It’s been reported that Richburg may or may not be ready for Week 1. Even if that’s the case, missing all of OTA’s and training camp couldn’t possibly bode well for a player who is supposed to be the heartbeat of the offensive line.
Meanwhile, Garland has been absolutely bullied by the defensive line in camp. Furthermore, he’s only started seven games since 2012. While I don’t doubt that the 49ers would love to bring in a veteran to compete and fortify the position before they jeopardize Garoppolo, there aren’t any free agent options.
Might they pull the trigger on trade? We’ll see. Either way, the center position is one that has suddenly emerged as a serious area for concern.
2. Are the 49ers’ training and coaching staff being too cautious
This crew is in an unenviable position. If they work players too hard and injuries crop up—they get vilified by fans and scrutinized by the media. On the other hand, if they don’t ramp up the physicality in camp and players look unprepared for action or start dropping like flies during the regular season, there will be blowback.
The staff has been very conservative with players during training camp so far. They’re bringing recovered players along slowly and tempering the intensity of practices. Shanahan recently announced there would be no live tackling during camp.
How much that positively or negatively impacts the team remains to be seen. It’s hard to disagree with the logic after the plethora of injuries these past two seasons; however, the team has been far from decent when it comes to tackling during the Kyle Shanahan era. Shanahan made it clear that he feels live tackling doesn’t make you any better at it when the regular season rolls around and, yes, the 49ers still have preseason games to get acclimated.
But time will tell. If the Niners continue to struggle to bring players to the ground, this approach will come under fire and be viewed as a lack of adequate preparation
3. The wide receiver position is getting further unsettled
Projected starter Dante Pettis has had an uneven performance so far. Kendrick Bourne and Richie James—long shots for the roster—are making their respective cases for sticking around. Deebo Samuel has looked like a rookie but also flashed his talent in a handful of practices. Veteran Trent Taylor has been impressive from the get-go. This was a highly-touted competition heading into camp, and it remains just as unclear as to when it started. Inconsistency has been the theme; some high points and some lows.
Tuesday’s practice was one of the lows.
Dante Pettis committed a fumble, Bourne dropped a pass into the hands of Ahkello Witherspoon, and Samuel was unable to corral a perfectly thrown pass from Nick Mullens in the endzone. Shanahan voiced his displeasure that no one had “separated” themselves this summer, and issued a call to action:
“We need that group to step up. We have some ability in that group, but the consistency isn’t there. Of course, with rookies, but the vets, too. I’m expecting all those guys to do better and they all need to pick it up.”
It’ll be interesting to see who remains on the depth chart—and where—when the dust settles. What’s been hyped as a “young, talented group with a lot of potential” needs to start showing more than just youth.
4. Tevin Coleman’s fumbles could hold him back
Tevin Coleman has struggled with putting the ball on the ground throughout his career. Evidently, it’s a problem he’s been unable to correct in 2019. Thus far, he’s fumbled twice in camp—the latest courtesy of a Nick Bosa strip.
Coleman has a firm understanding of the offense the 49ers run from his time in Atlanta with Shanahan. That, coupled with the uncertainty of what Jerick McKinnon will provide coming off his torn ACL, makes him a lock for the roster and the likely starter. But players who can’t be trusted to hold onto the ball have very short leashes. If he can’t get a grip on this turnover issue (unintentional bad joke) and it persists in the regular season, he’ll quickly take a backseat to Matt Breida in the snap count.
5. Free safety is still up for grabs
Eternally injured Jimmie Ward has come off the PUP list but has yet to partake in a live practice session. The bigger question is how long he can remain in pads before his seemingly inevitable next injury?
In his stead, the 49ers have given Tarvarius Moore first-team reps. Although Robert Saleh made it clear that Moore is still raw and isn’t ready for the big stage of starting free safety, he’s shown enough to move up ahead of Adrian Colbert and Antone Exum on the depth chart. Maybe the first-team reps shouldn’t be read into too much—it’s entirely possible the team knows what they have in Colbert and Exum and want them for Moore to continue to develop.
This will be one to keep an eye on when Ward returns. If he’s able to stay healthy, he’s the starter—but that’s an if the size of California. The Niners have to plan as if they’ll be without Ward. If Moore can get a quick handle on the mental aspect of the position and combine it with his athleticism, he could be in the lineup sooner than later. If he’s still a ways away come Week 1 and Ward’s on the shelf, the team will likely turn to Exum.