With 11 of the 49ers’ 12 training camp practices in the rearview mirror, I wanted to share some takeaways on the roster, the outlook for the season, and the general sense of the team. So let’s start this off with a bang.
1. This is the best roster the 49ers have had in at least a decade
It took a couple of practices before I felt supremely confident making such a strong statement, but once I reached that point, there was no looking back.
This team is absolutely loaded, from top to bottom, with above-average to elite NFL players up and down the 53 spots that will make up the final roster.
Not only is there an abundance of blue chip players (going to circle back to this momentarily), but the depth across the board is fantastic. There are difference-makers at every level of the roster, with suitable backups who are fringe starters at numerous spots as well.
This will be the hardest cut down to a final 53-man roster that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have had to do since taking over in 2017, and there are a number of positions where those difficult decisions will go down to the wire as the September 1st deadline approaches.
The depth is there, but top-end talent is what wins championships, and the 49ers have it in spades. Consider this; they have an All-Pro player at the following positions.
- Left Tackle
- Wide Receiver
- Tight End
- Kicker (they’re people too!)
That’s before accounting for Nick Bosa, who at worst is their second-best player and clearly among the best defensive players in the entire league.
Side note: Bosa hasn’t made an All-Pro team yet is ludicrous, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Then factor in players like Jimmie Ward and Arik Armstead, who may not have the All-Pro label on their resume but have years of game tape on record that puts them in the same conversation with those who did receive those accolades.
This team is stockpiled with some of the best players in the entire league at their respective positions, all playing at or near the primes of their NFL careers. There are no guarantees in life or the NFL, but if this team avoids catastrophic injury, I don’t see how they don’t win at least ten games in their sleep.
2. The 49ers have a true number one cornerback
I liked the Charvarius Ward signing when it happened. It addressed an area of need, and Ward was a player who I thought could step in right away and elevate the secondary.
What I did not know at the time, however, was just how incredibly talented Ward is. After watching him up close the last couple of weeks, I’m not sure how the 49ers could be anything but ecstatic with their decision to bring in the former Kansas City Chief’s cornerback during free agency.
Ward has been one of the best players on the entire field during camp, and his elite level of play has been consistent daily. He is not only dominating 1-on-1s and the team, period; he is making it look effortless.
Pairing a cornerback like Ward with an explosive defensive line like the 49ers is a recipe for fireworks on a defense with playmakers at all three levels. I will be very interested to see how the coverage looks change, with the defensive staff having the ability to funnel coverage to a player like Ward.
3. The offensive line is a question mark until proven otherwise
I’m not sure how I feel about projecting the offensive line as a whole outside of Trent Williams. You know what you’re getting out of Williams, who is not only the best left tackle in football, but I could make the case he is the single best player in the NFL now.
It appears there will be three new starters on the interior, with all signs pointing to it being Aaron Banks at left guard, Jake Brendel at center, and rookie Spencer Burford at right guard. I must emphasize that when I say question mark, that is not with a pessimistic undertone.
The reality of the situation is we don’t have any real sample size from these players at these specific spots to base any strong opinions on. Burford is a rookie who most played left tackle at a smaller school but possessed tremendous physical traits that the 49ers staff and players have raved about.
Burford has experience as a guard from his college days, but there is a big gap between playing the position at a smaller school compared what is being asked of Burford at the sport’s highest level. It is fair and realistic to expect there will be an adjustment period for Burford as he settles back into a role on the interior and the speed of the NFL game.
Banks was a top 50 pick just a season ago, but again there is no actual sample size to go off of at the NFL level to feel confident either way about how he will produce in a full-time starting role. The 49ers clearly saw something they liked when they invested a second-round pick into him, but as of now, whatever they coveted is still in a projection phase based on the lack of NFL reps Banks has at this point in his career.
Brendel is a 29-year-old vet who has logged 393 snaps at the center position since entering the league in 2016. Offensive line coach Chris Foerster has made it no secret he believes in Brendel. There just isn’t much on-field history in the NFL from Brendel to feel strongly about projecting how he will perform in 2022.
Finally, Mike McGlinchey is in the final stages of completing his comeback from a torn quad tendon that ended his 2021 campaign midway through the season during a Week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. When healthy, McGlinchey is one of the best run-blocking tackles in the league and someone who brings a wealth of experience to an offensive line working through the growing pains of likely having three new starters on the interior.
It just remains to be seen how he will look physically coming off of an injury that has historically been a crapshoot when it comes to players’ bodies returning to their pre-injury form.
As of now, it will just have to play out. I do think the line has gotten noticeably better over the course of training camp, but it still is in a developmental phase when it comes to smoothing out some of the chemistry issues that come from playing with an entirely new group of players on the interior.
One thing that stood out as well as the interior was having some trouble pass blocking against the bull rush, noticeably more than any other pass rushing tactic—something to store away and keeps an eye on for when the regular season rolls around.
4. This is the 49ers’ best defense of the Kyle Shanahan era
This was another take that I really wanted to make sure I felt confident about before saying it with my entire chest, but I am here to do just that. I am putting ten toes down and declaring that the 2022 49ers defense is more talented than any of the previous three seasons, all of which finished as top five defenses in the league.
There really is no weakness on this side of the ball. They have the deepest defensive line in the league, the secondary is revamped, and the linebacking corps is the best in the NFL. They are absolutely stacked everywhere you look.
Let’s start with the defensive line, whose starting personnel grouping boasts three first-round picks and a player in Samson Ebukam, who contributed to a sack in seven of the last eight games to close out the 2021 season.
They go nearly 15 deep with proven NFL talent, and there is great depth at both the edge spot and along the interior. Kemoko Turay looks to be yet another slam dunk signing, showing a set of physical tools that make him a prime candidate to be the next player to have their career revitalized while working under Kris Kocurek.
Charles Omenihu is entering his second year in the system and looks as big and athletic as any other player on the defensive line. Omenihu has been logging a considerable amount of snaps on the interior and appears to be in line for a chess piece role where he can be deployed anywhere on the line to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Kevin Givens looks poised to take on the primary rotational role on the interior with Javon Kinlaw back and DJ Jones departing in free agency. Givens looks explosive off the line and has been flashing not only throughout camp but also in the reps he recorded when he got opportunities last season.
Speaking of Kinlaw, he looks to be in the best shape he has been in since entering the NFL. After being robbed of a considerable number of games due to injury, Kinlaw looks like a healthy player and ready to show why he was a top fifteen pick just two seasons ago.
The defensive line has been the most consistent group all throughout camp, and they’ve done so with their two best players in Bosa and Armstead, missing the majority of the team period drills.
Now let’s shift to the linebacker spot. The 49ers have the most talented trio of starting linebackers in the NFL, and the depth behind those three is as good as it’s ever been. Fred Warner is truly a one-of-one kind of athlete, possessing the ability to play at the line of scrimmage as well as any backer in the league while also being able to cover on the back end at an all-pro level.
And it’s not just running with backs coming out of the backfield or slow tight ends. Warner is able to pick up #2 and #3 and carry speedy slot receivers vertically up the seam as well as a slot corner or safety would. The 49ers have an all-pro in the box who also has the range to cover the back end the same way someone in the secondary could. That’s what makes Warner the best linebacker in football, unheard of versatility at the position.
Then you have Dre Greenlaw, who is a converted safety who has the range to patrol the backend while also thumping opposing offenses in the run game. Azeez Al-Shaair came along in a big way in year three last year and had games where he looked like the most impressive linebacker on the field even while playing next to the best player at the position in the entire league.
The depth is as strong as it's ever been, too, with players like Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles in line for the next man-up roles beyond the starting three. Players like Segun Olubi and Marcelino McCrary-Ball have had an outstanding camp but likely have no real path to the final 53 due to how log-jammed the position is.
Finally, the secondary. The addition of a player like Charvarius Ward changes everything. There will be a level of aggression on the backend that wasn’t there in prior seasons, and Ward is paired with one of the more talented number two corners in the entire league in Emmanuel Moseley.
Jimmie Ward continues to be the best man-to-man coverage safety in the entire league and I would argue the best in coverage in general. Ward’s ability to spin down into the slot and match up one on one with slot wide receivers and tight ends gives this defense tremendous versatility with the looks they can throw at opposing offenses.
Talanoa Hufanga has made great progress heading into year two and looks great in the cover 1 robber role they have been using him in to jump crossing routes and patrol the middle of the field closer to the box.
Tarvarius Moore looks to have his burst back after missing last season with a torn Achilles, and there are a couple of young corners with tremendous upside providing solid depth behind a stout starting unit.
There is no weakness on this side of the ball. All three levels are a strength, and I expect this unit to cause nightmares for opposing offenses week in and week out.
5. Exercise patience with Trey Lance’s development
This might be the toughest ask of all for 49ers fans, given a lot of the things mentioned above. This is as talented of a roster from top to bottom as any other in the NFL, and they look poised to be a contender right away, even with a 22-year-old first-time starter at quarterback.
It’s going to be difficult to separate celebrating the small victories with Lance’s development if it is not directly leading to the 49ers winning football games, but there are almost assuredly going to be growing pains as Lance navigates his first season as the number one option under center.
The 49ers took a major risk when they opted to insert a young quarterback that needs some fine-tuning into a championship-caliber roster that is clearly ready to win now. You can be assured that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t make that move unless they felt confident that Lance would be able to progress at a rate that won’t deter this incredible roster from reaching its full potential in the present.
In the big picture, that gamble could prove to be a win. Lance could hit his stride at just the right time, and even if there is more work to be done, we’ve seen how far this 49ers team is capable of going while being propelled by their defense and run game.
The challenge for fans will be tempering those expectations week to week and being prepared for the inevitable games where Lance isn’t sharp and has to work his way through the adversity that comes with facing the gauntlet that is a 17-game NFL schedule for the first time.
The thing to keep an eye on is the progress Lance will be making week to week because aside from the win/loss record, that is the most important goal heading into each game for the 49ers this season. Is the signal caller they moved mountains to acquire better this week than he was last week.
Did he learn from the mistake he made last time he put a ball in a spot he shouldn’t have? Is he able to identified a disguised coverage that caught him off guard previously? Is his decision-making accelerating, and how does he look working through his progressions? Are the mechanics and footwork improving?
If you are able to say yes to any of the questions above from week to week, it is still a net win despite what the final tally says on the scoreboard. The most difficult thing for fans will be having the ability to utilize that perspective in the weeks following a loss, particularly if Lance’s mistakes are a driving reason behind them not being able to pull out a win.
I can confidently say Lance looks much improved after the eleventh practice compared to where he was entering camp. He looks more comfortable more poised and has demonstrated an ability to make a mistake, learn from it, and come back out and not repeat it over and over.
For example, Lance was 4-12 during Sunday’s practice, but it was clear his mechanics had improved, and his ability to make quick decisions in the rhythm of the offense had as well. Those were the takeaways I had when the majority of the focus was on his 33% completion percentage that day.
The very next practice, Lance showed roughly the same level of consistency with his mechanics and decision-making but posted a 76% completion percentage on the day. The point is that the tangible growth from Lance was consistent, and that is the thing that matters most. Numbers have their place and absolutely add value, but statistics without context to the bigger picture are essentially worthless.
It was always going to be about the long term when the 49ers drafted Lance. That was a move made with the next ten years in mind, not just a hasty decision solely focused on what makes them better immediately in the present.
I see the Josh Allen comp thrown around a lot with Lance, and while a similar development with Lance would be a dream scenario, it also is important to remember it took Allen quite a bit of NFL experience before blossoming into the elite quarterback he is now.
Allen had 871 pass attempts and played in 27 games at the NFL level before he recorded a season with a completion percentage higher than 60%. These things just take time, and if the 49ers are able to win 10 games and make the playoffs the same way Buffalo did during Allen’s first full season starting, it still would feel like a net win.
There is so much to be excited about with the potential of this team with Lance at the helm going forward. Still, the important thing, for now, is maintaining that long-term perspective and being able to manage the ups and downs. At the same time, Lance works through the growing pains that nearly every quarterback in the NFL experiences as they break into a prominent role in the league.