After two weeks of training camp, I’ve done some reflecting on my notes/observations and will summarize some of what I saw from the offense so far during this preseason.
I’m aware there has been information overload regarding the quarterbacks, and as a result, many are fatigued with any discussion of Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance.
If you want more QB talk, Rich Madrid broke down Lance’s first touchdown pass in-depth, while Kyle Posey went through each of Lance’s first-half dropbacks here.
So for this article, I’m going to highlight the biggest takeaways I saw from everywhere BUT the quarterback position.
I’ll do a brief summary of every skill position group and finish with the offensive line.
The room is still led by veteran Raheem Mostert, but rookie Trey Sermon has gotten more reps with the first team than any other running back on the roster. Sermon has shown flashes of the tremendous balance he possesses — arguably his best trait — and something allows him to stay upright as he fights through contact.
Sermon’s overall ability is very well rounded as he has also displayed plus ability as a pass-catcher, his only real weakness of note is that he doesn’t have homerun speed that blows you away.
He does however have the ability to slowly wear down a defense with methodical runs, and a physicality that isn’t really possessed by any other running back on the roster.
Ultimately, I think that Kyle Shanahan will deploy Mostert and Sermon in a similar fashion to how he used Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman during his time in Atlanta, where he relied on their differing skillsets over the course of a game without there being a truly objective number one option.
Wayne Gallman has gotten the majority of the reps with the second team and looks like he will be a good bet to make the final 53-man roster with Jeff Wilson Jr. remaining on the PUP list.
Rookie Elijah Mitchell has shown flashes as well, I thought he was the most explosive receiving option out of the backfield and he has definitely taken strides in pass protection over the course of camp.
However, Mitchell’s chances of taking a spot on the final roster are now clouded, as the rookie will miss the majority of the preseason with an abductor strain.
The leading candidate to take that spot is JaMycal Hasty, who has a tremendous amount of short-area burst and exceptional one-cut ability. There are times where Hasty looks like he is going to be another UDFA gem that Shanahan and Bobby Turner mold into a major contributor.
But, he has put the ball on the ground a few times during camp, and the tendency to be turnover prone is likely what is going to cost him a spot on the 53-man roster if Mitchell is able to return from his injury prior to the final cut.
Overall, the running back room is as deep as it has been in years, and the various skillsets all mesh very well together, the balance of speed and power is noteworthy.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel have lead the way, and will assuredly account for the majority of targets during the season. Aiyuk had one of the most impressive camps of any player on the roster, and the strides he has taken since finishing an impressive rookie campaign have to have Shanahan and the offensive staff salivating at the potential this electric talent will bring to the offense.
The two words I kept coming back to were “catch radius” as Aiyuk put his large wingspan on display on a handful of plays that were truly jaw-dropping, snatching balls high out of the air with little to no effort.
Samuel, on the other hand, came into camp in the best shape of his young NFL career and the work he was putting in off the field in between drills made it evident how much more serious he is taking his conditioning.
Samuel noted that he spent extra time in the offseason working on the deeper part of the route tree, and I fully expect Samuel to be a legitimate vertical threat rather than being confined to the yard after catch weapon we’ve seen during his first two seasons.
The third wide receiver spot is where things really get interesting, and in my opinion, there are two players who clearly separated from the rest of the pack to make a case for that role.
Mohamed Sanu is the player I would say has a hold of that spot, for now. He’s a veteran who has familiarity with Shanahan and his system, the only real concern with Sanu was if he would have enough burst at this point in his career to justify a prominent role on a contending team.
Everything I saw from him would indicate that enough explosion is still there, and the sure-handedness and reliability of being a long-tenured NFL vet will leave Sanu with a clear-cut path to that third reviver spot.
The only player who pushed Sanu for that spot was Trent Sherfield, a special teams standout in Arizona who signed with the 49ers this past offseason.
Sherfield immediately showed that he has the potential to be much more than a special teams ace, as I vividly remember the first day I saw him working in individual workouts he was rolling to the sideline out of his break and went up with one hand to snag a ball, showing tremendous body control and situational awareness to haul in a pass while also getting both feet down inbounds.
Over the next few days, the number of targets he received during 11-on-11s incrementally increased, including working with the first team with regularity. Sherfield also built a strong rapport with Trey Lance, as the two connected with frequency when the second team was on the field. Sherfield has plus speed, runs crisp routes, and has proven to have reliable hands as well.
Beyond those four, things get murky very fast. No other player objectively separated themselves from the rest, with quite a few players showing flashes and ultimately fading before being able to sustain any kind of consistency.
Of the remaining group, I thought Jauan Jennings had the best camp. He’s someone who I believe deserves a spot on the roster due to the plus size. He brings something that the receiver room is sorely lacking at the moment.
Jennings also moves shockingly well for someone his size and doesn’t have issues getting separation the way you’d expect from someone that big.
There is no way to spin it, Richie James Jr. had a disappointing camp, as there were far too many critical drops or mental mistakes from him during 11-on-11s. One thing he does have working in his favor is his familiarity with the scheme and offense, and when you couple that with his speed and ability to contribute on special teams, it becomes easy to see a path to James winning a roster spot despite his less than stellar camp performance.
A name that never fails to generate buzz is Jalen Hurd, and frankly, I’m at the point where I am urging anyone who will listen to pump the brakes on the hype that surrounds him.
Look, I get it. The guy was a converted running back with extreme physical gifts, and the thought of a player like that in Shanahan’s offense is an extremely exciting prospect. We all saw a glimpse of that in the 2019 preseason, but that was before two major injuries, and the version of Hurd I’ve watched on a daily basis looks like a shell of the player he was two years ago.
The biggest issue for Hurd has always been availability. The bottom line is even when he has been able to practice he has struggled mightily to get any kind of separation against man coverage. The lack of explosion and the fact he doesn’t offer any value on special teams has me wondering where the value would come from should he ultimately make the final roster.
#49ers wide receivers going through pre-practice cone drill. Jalen Hurd is going through rehab on the side. pic.twitter.com/QJPKj4cUS5— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) August 17, 2021
On a final note, Nsimba Webster is the player I would pick to snatch that sixth and final wide receiver spot. Webster is a proven special teams player that can contribute to both coverage and return units.
Aside from the special teams' value, Webster has also shown he has the chops to warrant consideration as a regular contributor on offense. When you are this deep on the roster, reliability becomes the most important factor in my opinion, Webster has demonstrated he has reliable hands and a fundamental understanding of how to get open within this scheme.
The good news is the top of the depth chart is as strong as it’s ever been, as George Kittle and Ross Dwelley both had impressive camps. Kittle started off a little slow but quickly built up steam before becoming a focal point of the first team's offensive attack during 11-on-11s during the last couple of practices.
Dwelley has always had solid hands, but he appears to be a little more agile than he has been in the past as well. He logged a few of the more impressive catches during camp and has shown the ability to win consistently while working vertically up the seam.
Barring any significant injury, those two will continue to dominate the majority of the tight-end reps moving forward.
The battle for the third tight end spot is where things get interesting. Going into camp I assumed it was MyCole Pruitt’s job to lose, but after suffering a calf injury he did not participate in a single training camp practice.
In his absence, Charlie Woerner and Jordan Matthews got the majority of reps, and between the two I was honestly more impressed with Matthews.
After tacking on 25 pounds of muscle, the converted receiver looks like he has what it takes to make it as a legitimate depth option at the tight end position moving forward. Matthews regularly showed he is capable of being a reliable target, and his background as a receiver gives him a leg up in the pass game.
Woerner was largely disappointing for the majority of camp, as he didn’t have a practice that really jumped out at me until the final day.
The 49ers have traditionally carried three tight ends on the roster under Shanahan, and if Pruitt is healthy I still think he has the edge for that final spot, but I also think Shanahan has to consider rostering four tight ends given the receiving chops Matthews possesses and the ability he would have to double as a big slot receiver when he is not lined up inline.
Largely an experienced group filled with proven veterans, the main question on the offensive line was always at right guard. Daniel Brunskill got the majority of the work with the first team, with Colton McKivitz getting a few looks there as well.
Second-round pick Aaron Banks had a rough camp and ended up finishing without getting a single rep with the first-team unit. It’s still very early, and Banks has plenty of time to develop, but there has to be some level of disappointment surrounding a player who had that much draft capital invested in them not appearing close to competing for a starting spot.
Rookie Jaylon Moore has shared reps with Shon Coleman for the swing tackle role, my concern is that Moore profiles more like a guard to me, and Shanahan has said himself the reason why Moore is getting so much run at tackle is due to the logjam of players that currently exists at the interior positions.
A name to keep an eye on during the preseason is Dakoda Shepley, a former Canadian Football Leaguer who has incrementally improved as training camp has progressed. Shepley has shined in the run game, in particular, displaying an impressive amount of athleticism when working to the next level. I think he ends up being the last offensive lineman to make the roster due to his versatility to play any of the three interior positions.
Rounding out the group, I have to add that center Alex Mack looks to be a significant upgrade, consistently dominating the interior and cleaning up the mistakes of the guards on either side of him.
Trent Williams is still one of, if not the best left tackles in the sport, and Mike McGlinchey looked largely improved when working against a bull rush in pass protection. The unit as a whole is as strong as it’s been since Shanahan has joined the organization.