It’s finally here! Rejoice, as the most anticipated day on the calendar has arrived. Football season is officially back, and the 49ers are kicking off their 2021 season with their first training camp practice this morning.
I’m going to give you a list of the five things I will be keeping a closer eye on while I attend practices over the next couple of weeks.
#1 - Kevin Givens
This is the player I am most excited to watch over the course of the next few weeks. Givens is an exceptionally talented football player, and the only thing preventing him from seeing significant playing time was a logjam on the interior of the 49ers' defensive line.
I don’t expect that to be an issue with DJ Jones now in Denver anymore. I firmly believe one of the primary reasons the 49ers ultimately let Jones walk in free agency was because of their belief in Givens and the development they have seen from him since he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019.
Givens is an explosive athlete who has the ability to dismantle opposing rushing attacks while also bringing tremendous value to the table as an above-average pass rusher from the interior. He has big shoes to fill in the absence of Jones, but I firmly believe he is more than up to the task, and I, for one, cannot wait to see how he attacks the coming month with a larger role on this defense.
#2 - The battle between Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair
The 49ers have three really good linebackers, and I would argue the best trio at the position in the entire NFL. The only downside to that is, in the modern state of the sport, you are going to be in sub packages more often than your base defense, meaning only two out of the three will be on the field for the majority of defensive snaps in a given game.
Fred Warner is obviously a lock for one of those spots, which leaves an intriguing training camp battle looming between Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair for that second spot. Both of these guys have an immense amount of talent and possess the range and instinct required to operate in space, which is critical in the current state of the NFL.
I am a big believer in Al-Shaair, but supplanting Greenlaw will be no easy task regardless of how skilled I believe Al-Shaair is. This will probably be my favorite training camp battle to watch simply because I believe it’s the one with the closest margin between players competing for a starting spot.
#3 - Pressure packages from DeMeco Ryans
One of my favorite things from training camp last year was watching the defensive walk-through that occurred almost every day before practice. It became clear very quickly that first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was going to be dialing up some very different blitz packages and defensive fronts than what we had seen from Robert Saleh in years prior.
Ryans ended up calling a lot of these pressures during the season, which directly contributed to the 49ers finishing with a top-five defense for the third straight season, despite the revolving door at the cornerback position all year. Will be watching intently to see what Ryans has been cooking up the last few months during the offseason.
#4 - What will this new look secondary look like?
With the departure of Jaquiski Tartt and K’Waun Williams, the 49ers are now faced with the task of replacing two players who have started at their respective positions during the entire duration of Kyle Shanahan’s tenure in San Francisco. Adding in the free agent signing of Charvarius Ward, and now the 49ers find themselves piecing together a secondary with at least three new starters going into week one.
Who is going to replace Williams as the primary slot corner? How does Talanoa Hufanga adapt to an increased role in year two? Is there a competition for the starting outside corner spot opposite Ward? Answers to all these questions are far from clear at this point, and I am eager to get some more clarity moving forward with how this unit will look as we get closer to the season.
#5 Interior offensive line vs. first-team defense in 11 on 11s
The interior offensive line appears to be the only real area of concern for most people evaluating and projecting the 49ers roster heading into the 2022 season. Similar to the secondary, two key veterans need to be replaced following the departure of Laken Tomlinson in free agency and the retirement of Alex Mack.
2021 second-round pick Aaron Banks appears poised to slot into the left guard spot, and all indications are that Daniel Brunskill is the right tackle until further notice. That leaves center as the only real unknown at this point, with Jake Brendel appearing to be the lead candidate at this moment.
Don’t sleep on any of the rookies, though, as Donohvan West, Jason Poe, and Nick Zakelj all bring a set of skills to the table that presents an intriguing case for any of the three to win the job during camp.
The first real test any of these players on the interior are going to get will be against the 49ers' defense during 11-on-11s, which I believe will be the moment of clarity that truly reveals who has a realistic shot of running with the first team when the regular season rolls around.
There is so much more that I am beyond excited to soak in during the coming weeks, and I can’t begin to express my excitement as I prepare to cover my second training camp for Niners Nation. I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend these practices and do what I cherish more than anything on this earth. Watch and analyze this magnificent sport that we all hold so near and dear to our hearts.
Buckle up, 49ers fans, football season is officially here, and the ups and downs that are sure to come will create memories that will ring eternal.