The first week of pads is in the books for the San Francisco 49ers. The team has the day off on Monday. This will be the last week of training camp, as the Niners will transition to preparing for their Week 1 opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. Let’s talk about some winners and losers from the first week of padded practice based on my notes.
Williams passes every test. He’s the first player you want coming off the bus. Williams had arguably the most dominant week of practice, but he was going against one of the best players on the rosters, unlike some other names on the list. I didn’t see Williams lose once during 1-on-1’s all week. I think he was beaten once during team drills. Williams was convincingly the best player on a team full of “absolute monsters,” in his words, after a week of practice.
Mostert proved that he is far and away the best back on the team. Mostert not only ran with power, but he showed he’s comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield. World-class speed gives Mostert a chance to score every time he touches the ball, but Mostert’s patience and vision are better than anyone else in the backfield. He’s a big-time talent.
Fred Warner/Kwon Alexander
The dynamic duo at linebacker made plays every day, both against the run and against the pass. It’s nice that the giant humans cover them up in front of them, but Warner and Alexander’s instincts in pass coverage stand out. Both players had a similar pass breakup down the sidelines. Both players jumped routes and broke up short passes. It doesn’t hurt that Fred and Kwon are as fast as most safeties, but it’s their route recognition that makes them special. The two feed off each other and will be a big reason why there isn’t much of a drop-off on defense this season.
OL Tom Compton/Colton McKivitz
McKivitz, like the receiver you’ll see listed next, had one good day of practice. Besides that, he looked overmatched, both at tackle and guard. Compton struggled mightily against Solomon Thomas, Kevin Givens, and Kentavius Street. One of these two have a shot to start at right guard if Ben Garland can’t return. Are the three defensive linemen I listed improved? They are. Does that mean they should look like All-Pro’s in practice? They shouldn’t.
Both players are more athletic than the incumbent starter Mike Person, but their strength isn’t on the same level as Person, and it shows. That’s to be expected for McKivitz, as he’s a Day 3 rookie. You don’t want to rely on a fifth-round pick to start for a Super Bowl contender. Thanks to injuries, the 49ers may not have a choice. Right guard will be an issue if either of these two starts.
WR Dante Pettis
Pettis had a great practice on Tuesday. That led to him being crowned by the media, and the comeback campaign was on. From Thursday through Sunday, Pettis was wildly inconsistent, struggling with drops, contact, and getting open against the team’s top cornerbacks. I’ll root for Dante, and I still hope he gets an opportunity as a returner, but he’s not a guy that the team can count on at this point. Pettis has a long way to go if he’s going to see the field this season, even with injuries.
Where Pettis did excel was down the field, so perhaps he could evolve as the team’s deep threat.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
The cornerback competition opposite Richard Sherman is between two players, and neither of them is Witherspoon, who saved his best practice for Sunday. Unfortunately, it may be too little too late for ‘Spoon. When your confidence is shaky at a position where you’re going to get beaten—it’s inevitable—then it’s hard to rely on you in big moments. Too often during the week, Witherspoon would give up a play and let that affect him for the rest of the team period.
I wouldn’t think much of it if Witherspoon was giving up plays to star wideouts, but the Shawn Poindexter’s of the world, who’s fine, but he’s been a practice squad player for a reason, shouldn’t be getting the best of Witherspoon. The most frustrating part about him is that I can’t nail down what is going wrong. The biggest difference between Witherspoon and the starters is that Ahkello isn’t finishing plays.
DT D.J. Jones
Can we count on Jones? I’m not so sure of it. On the field, Jones has a significant impact for the defense. If healthy, the 49ers run defense will be a top-10 unit this season with Jones and Javon Kinlaw. I’m confident in that. Within the first few practices, Jones suffered a shoulder injury—that thankfully wasn’t long-term—but he’s also in the concussion protocol. I’m worried about Jones’s long-term health and whether these injuries will ever go away.
If the 49ers needed to stop one wide receiver, I’d trust Moseley over anybody else, yes, including Richard Sherman, who has played well during training camp. Moseley does the little things at cornerback like “playing through the hands of the receiver” on vertical routes or “leaning and locating” the ball when he’s in phase. He has the speed to run with anybody down the field and the route recognition to break on comebacks. If the wideout has a step, Moseley has the recovery speed, which is a must at cornerback.
Moseley isn’t Deion Sanders. He has to improve his zone awareness on certain route combinations. There were a couple of times where he chased a receiver that he shouldn’t have. Honestly, that aggression doesn’t bother me because it shows up in a positive light in many other forms, like against the run.
Interior defensive line depth
Thomas, Givens, Street, and Kerry Hyder all had good weeks of practice. The difference between the backup offensive lineman and defensive lineman is stark. Givens looks noticeably bigger. Thomas has improved his hand-usage, which has helped him win a bunch. Street is playing with all sorts of confidence, and Hyder is the closest backup edge rusher to Ronald Blair on the team.
The depth bodes well for the 49ers as they’ll try to limit the number of snaps the starters play this season. Thomas was the top performer of the bunch. He’s always been at his best when lined up inside, but this year Thomas isn’t winning because the defensive line is slanting or on the move. He’s winning because he has a plan of attack. I mentioned how Thomas beat up on McKivitz and Compton, but he was the only player last week that beat Williams. If that doesn’t tell you how far along he’s come as a player, I’m not sure what will. The Niners may have to rely on Thomas more than they expected this year, but Thomas’s early returns have been positive.
Unfortunately, he left practice with a hamstring injury on Sunda. What matters is whether Aiyuk suits up on September 13. He’s far from a finished product. When the 49ers break the huddle, you’ll still see Aiyuk second-guessing himself on where to line up occasionally. That’s understandable, as he’s playing X, Z, and F. It’s hard not to be impressed by Aiyuk’s athleticism. He’s the only receiver that ran by Moseley and Verrett. On one play, both Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne were running “go” routes and Aiyuk had to be fives yards ahead of Bourne on the other side of the field. The first-rounder can fly. Jimmy Garoppolo threw one pass over the middle that was high, and Aiyuk soared over the linebacker to make the catch. He can be an “above the rim” type of wideout the Niners desperately need.
Bourne and Trent Taylor are more reliable at this point as they understand the offense better, but Aiyuk is an obvious playmaker that will be a big part of the offense this year. It’ll be interesting to see how Aiyuk’s role evolves with Deebo Samuel on the field. I’m not sure how long it will take for Aiyuk to become “the guy,” but something tells me he’ll be the WR1 sooner than later.