We can finally turn the page that was seemingly the longest offseason in NFL history and focus on football. This season will be full of questions, new faces, entertainment, action, and everything else you could imagine.
Recently, we’ve found out that player safety with COVID is still a concern, so we’ll see how that affects roster management and the outcomes of the games. As training camp is underway, let’s take a look at six questions before practice to help preview the 49ers.
Over/under 10.5 wins?
Over. I think the Niners win anywhere between 11-13 games this year, with 13 obviously being the high end. They’ve had brutal injury luck and some bad bounces. You would think fortune would be in their favor one of these years.
It’s easy to pick the over when you look at the talent on the roster. Sure, there are questions at cornerback, but those go away when you look at how deep the defensive line is and how much speed is on the field overall.
We’re going to talk about the QB position ad nauseam this year, but no matter who is throwing the ball, they’ll have a top-5 supporting cast. If the Niners don’t win double-digit games this year, something went terribly wrong along the way.
Rookie I’m most excited about
Trey Lance isn’t the only answer, but the 49ers placed all of their chips on the 21-year-old, so it has to be him. I’m most excited to see Lance’s progression. During the first week, how comfortable does he look?
Two weeks from now, when the Niners are playing in the preseason, how aggressive is Lance, with his arm and legs? Lance can make it to where the coaching staff has no choice to play him. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start right out of the gate, but that could mean Lance can earn series and not just packages.
Perhaps what I’m interested in the most is how the players talk about Lance. Are they telling us he’s the real deal and not holding back, or will there be a “pump the brakes” type of attitude.
Lance is the future of this organization. There is no denying that. The question is, how soon will he have the keys to the car.
Best position battle heading into training camp
There are some sneaky good battles on this roster. Cornerback, linebacker, defensive tackle, you can go on and on as players are fighting for playing time, but the answer has to be WR3 as the 49ers don’t know who takes the field when they go to 11 personnel.
Richie James? Jalen Hurd? Mohamed Sanu? Or will it be Trent Sherfield, Jauan Jennings, Travis Benjamin, or Austin Watkins? Again, there are plenty of options and even more potential, but this battle will play itself out, and I’m not sure we’ll have an answer by the end of camp.
I’d bet on WR3 being by a committee for the early part of the season as the 49ers figure it out. For specific routes, you can use specific receivers, so there doesn’t have to be a rush to crown the WR3. James and Hurd have the most upside, but this will come down to consistency and opportunity.
Hurd is the best complement to what’s currently on the field would be Hurd, as he’s the battering ram who could win jump balls. That’d give the Niners George Kittle and Hurd on the inside, with Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel on the perimeter. Good luck, defenses.
Biggest storyline heading into training camp
Lance vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. Every throw from these two will be dissected. There will be overreactions and blanket statements made daily. But, if Lance has a great day, that doesn’t mean Jimmy G played poorly.
If Garoppolo turns the ball over in practice, that doesn’t mean Lance should be the starter. The best player will start, and Kyle Shanahan hasn’t been shy about that. If you thought we were out of the woods when talking about QBs, we are just getting started.
It sounds cliche, but we’re going to have to trust Shanahan here. If Jimmy is the starter in Week 1, that shouldn’t be looked at as an indictment on Lance. Instead, it means the coaching staff legitimately believes Garoppolo gives the team the best chance to win. There is nothing wrong with that.
What we should keep an eye on is how the reps are being split. For example, is Lance getting 40% of the snaps with the starters by the second week of practice, or is he primarily working with the backups? As we work through August, those questions will be the signs you’re looking for to see who starts.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp
How improved the 49ers offensive line will be. I remember in 2019, during training camp, the offense couldn’t do much of anything as the defensive line wreaked havoc. So if the offense had a day where they won, it was an outlier.
The improvements along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball since Shanahan/Lynch started have been night and day. But, unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a feel for offensive line play since there are no stats for us to gauge them.
You don’t have to be a football savant to know Alex Mack is and always has been a great player. He should assist rookie Aaron Banks, who figures to start at right guard. This will be by far the best offensive line the 49ers have had since the Harbaugh days, and that should help translate to wins.
Notable injuries heading into training camp
We will see if Dee Ford and Jalen Hurd are practicing right away or if they are slow-rolled into action. Both players are essentially starters, and we know what type of impact Ford had for the defense in ‘19.
Having a big red zone threat like Hurd will only help Garoppolo when it’s time to find a target in the end zone, even if he is inexperienced.
I still feel awful for Tarvarius Moore, who figured to be another special teams demon and play a significant role on defense. In addition, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Justin Skule will also miss training camp after suffering injuries to OTAs.