With 12 training camp practices concluded, I’m going to put together a list of the players I thought stood out the most during the two weeks I spent at 49ers camp. I’m going to start with the offense first, then pivot to the defense. Finally, I’ll touch on some of the superstar players but attempt to shine more light on some under-the-radar players.
Aiyuk was quickly the player who shined the brightest and most often throughout the twelve practices. The meteoric rise of Aiyuk was fascinating to watch in real-time because the way he won wasn’t just convincingly; it was utterly dominant.
Aiyuk won at the catch point, devastated defensive backs with his release off the line, and provided the 49ers’ quarterbacks with the ultimate safety net while going against one of the more formidable defenses they will face all season.
Entering his third season in the NFL, Aiyuk looks locked in like never before. The work he put in during the offseason with Trey Lance paid big dividends, as those two were more in sync and in rhythm than any other player Lance targeted throughout camp. As a result, Aiyuk appears poised for a major step forward in 2022 and beyond.
Sermon mentioned during a presser after a practice that he was able to play faster due to having a year’s worth of experience within Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The eye test lined up with that as well, as Sermon looked much more comfortable and decisive when navigating the rushing lanes presented to him.
Sermon also looked much more comfortable as a receiver, showing off strong hands and an ability to make plays through the air. He had a couple of really nice catches on 3rd down in situational drills and was getting the majority of snaps in the red zone on the 12th day of practice.
When you combine Sermon’s big build and ability as a receiver, it becomes easy to project Sermon into a prominent role on third down if he proves he is capable of keeping Trey Lance on two feet in pass protection. All in all, a complete 180 from what I saw from Sermon in last year’s camp. Very impressed with how strong he finished this year.
One of the most fascinating athletes I have ever seen, Poe stole the show on numerous occasions with his reps from the interior of the offensive line. Standing at just over six feet tall, Poe showed an ability to get under the pads of the defensive linemen he matched up with and use his tremendous strength to anchor more effectively than any other interior linemen I saw during camp.
The 49ers’ defensive line had a field day going to the long arm and bull rush, both pass-rushing moves that are heavily dependent on raw power and strength. Poe was the only offensive linemen that it just flat out did not work against. His ability to drop his feet and not cede and ground against a loaded defensive line was beyond impressive.
I’m not sure where the 49ers envision Poe’s future in the long term, whether it is at guard or perhaps as the center of the future. One thing I do know as an absolute is that they need to figure it out quickly because Poe is a player who looks like he is ready to be a difference maker right now, and the sooner they figure out a role for him, the better.
McCloud was almost assuredly brought in this past offseason because of the value he brings as a return specialist, but I thought he had one of the more impressive camps at the wide receiver position.
Shanahan loves players who can create after the catch, and McCloud did that with regularity during 11-on-11s. McCloud also has an exceptional change of direction ability, a very shifty player who looks like a match made in heaven for the kind of open field looks Shanahan is able to scheme up for his wide receivers.
McCloud also displayed excellent ball skills, with his most impressive catch being a back shoulder ball deep down the right sideline while getting both feet down and maintaining possession of the ball through the contact on the ground. A semi-hot take, I expect McCloud to get a lot of the target share in the passing game as the third wide receiver behind Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel.
I always thought Turner had a chance at the final 53 simply because he is a veteran and adds value with experience on special teams. After watching him practice for a couple of weeks, he has to be a near lock to be one of the final six receivers that Shanahan typically keeps when the 49ers cut down to 53.
Turner showed a strong ability to win downfield, stretching the field vertically and horizontally. Turner also had one of the most impressive catches of training camp, hauling in a deep ball down the right sideline with one hand while his left arm was tangled up with the defensive back in coverage.
Similar to McCloud, Turner is a player who has the speed and shiftiness to step in and be a difference maker after the catch, which he showcased on a touchdown catch during team drills where he racked up over 40 yards after the catch to outrun the defensive backfield into the end zone.
- Trent Williams - Williams is the best player in the NFL in my book, and while he had an absolutely dominant camp, I don’t think that comes as any surprise to anybody who’s watched him play before. I can count on one hand how many times I saw Williams get beat during camp and still have a couple of free fingers left over to spare.
- Jordan Mason - I was extremely impressed with what I saw from Mason over the course of camp. While I don’t think he is elite in one specific area, I think the total package equates to a very good running back who belongs in the NFL. Mason ran with conviction, made decisive cuts, and had a respectable amount of burst to pair with the power. At the moment, there is a logjam at the running back position, but Mason has a great chance to make a case for himself with the reps he will get during the preseason.
Now let’s shift to the defensive side of the ball.
Ward is undeniably on the short list of players I would immediately place in the “most impressive player from camp” discussion. He looks to be every bit of the true number one corner the 49ers signed him to be this past offseason. Time and time again, Ward locked up opposing wide receivers, logging multiple interceptions and not ceding any kind of ground to receivers looking to gain separation.
It will be interesting to see how DeMeco Ryans and the defensive staff decide to use Ward because of the versatility he brings. Will he travel with the opposing team’s number one receiving options? Will the coverage get funneled through him? Will they be more comfortable sending pressure and pressing at the line of scrimmage?
All of these discussions are only possible because of the skillset Ward provides to this defense. I cannot wait to see the battles he is going to have twice a year with players like DK Metcalf, DeAndre Hopkins, and Allen Robinson.
Omenihu was a difference maker for the team last season, logging two sacks in a playoff win in Dallas back in January. But this year, Omenihu has received a promotion of sorts, as he was consistently the first man up after the starting four on the defensive line throughout the duration of camp.
Omenihu has athletic traits that are off the charts, and he looks like the prime candidate to fill the role Arden Key took on last year as an edge rusher who has the ability to kick inside and terrorize guards from the three-technique on passing downs.
One of Omenihu’s most intriguing physical traits is the length he has. Omenihu used his long arms to swat down balls at the line of scrimmage multiple times during team drills, and it felt like almost every single day, I had something in my notes about Omenihu blowing up a play with a pressure or a sack.
I intended to focus more on the lesser-known players and not spend too much time on the all-pro level players the 49ers have on their roster. I had to make an exception for Warner after the performance he had during this camp. He is currently in the midst of redefining what the prototype is for a position that is essentially the quarterback of the defense.
I think the biggest takeaway I had with Warner during camp was that he has made so many difficult plays look so routine for so long that I have almost grown numb to just how impressive it is. Whether it’s setting the edge to blow up an outside zone run behind the line of scrimmage or carrying a slot receiver or tight end in coverage 20 yards upfield without ceding an inch of separation, Warner just makes it all look so easy.
The 49ers have an all-pro linebacker who fits run gaps with the best of them while also being able to cover like a safety, and dare I say cornerback, and take away the middle of the field for opposing passing attacks. Warner is the best linebacker in the sport and arguably the most important piece on a 49ers defense with Nick Bosa.
Givens was the player I was looking forward to watching the most during camp. I thought his tape over the last couple of seasons was extremely impressive, and the only real reason he didn’t see more snaps was because of the logjam of talented players in front of him on the defensive interior.
Similar to DJ Jones, Givens could be classified as a bit undersized for the interior, listed at 6’1 285 pounds. He plays much bigger than that, however, and regularly made plays in the run game to obliterate rushing chances for the offense before they even had a chance to develop.
Givens utilizes his quickness and burst off the line to rip through gaps on the interior and wreak havoc as a pass rusher as much as he does against the run. Over and over again, he dominantly won his reps during one-on-one’s and solidified the substantial role he will see on the defensive interior this season.
Ebukam took on a very difficult task last season when he was faced with playing an entirely new role in a scheme that he had never taken an NFL snap in. The 49ers banked on the athletic ability, hoping once it clicked for Ebukam, they would have a dynamic edge player opposite Nick Bosa. That happened down the back stretch of the season when Ebukam contributed to a sack in seven of the last eight games to close out the season.
Ebukam picked up right where he left off during camp, regularly disrupting the offense off the edge and showing a diverse range of pass-rushing moves to win during one on one’s. I was most impressed with his ability to cause problems for Trent Williams when the two were matched up.
Ebukam won a couple of times against Williams, which I believe is the most difficult task to accomplish during a 49ers practice. But even when he didn’t outright win, Ebukam was clearly forcing Williams to work at a level he wasn’t required to for the majority of his reps throughout camp. Anyone who gives Williams problems is more than deserving of a spot on this list.
Nick Bosa - Bosa regularly looked like the best player on the field, and the only reason he is an honorable mention is due to the fact it’s hard to be a riser when the consensus was you were one of the best players in the sport when you entered camp. Time and time again, Bosa blows me away with how polished he is for a player who is still just 24 years old and looks to be in the better shape than at any other point during his NFL career.
I feel confident when I say that Ward is the best coverage safety in football, and all he did during camp was solidify that belief for me. It’s not just the coverage ability for Ward. It’s where he is able to do it from. He can play in two high shells, be the lone defender in the deep third, and most importantly, spin down and match up with slot receivers and tight ends near the line of scrimmage, which is an invaluable weapon in the modern NFL.