There are still two practices left for the 49ers open to the media for training camp. At this point, there isn’t much new news daily. The good players are good. Trey Lance is consistently inconsistent while showing steady improvement every day. And the role players are starting to make a name for themselves.
Each performance impacts another player on the roster. Today, we’ll review the winners and losers from training camp, including three players who fall under the “I don’t know what to do with” category.
Aiyuk has grown as a player. There’s no denying that. It’s evident he put in the work this offseason with Trey Lance. Aiyuk responded the correct way after a scuffle with Fred Warner last week. If anything, that helped the third-year receiver lock in and took his game to another level.
Aiyuk has been outspoken and supportive of Lance. It may not seem like much, but for a generally reserved player, it shows Aiyuk’s evolution.
Above all, Aiyuk has been reliable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a deep route down the sideline or a 10-yard route; Aiyuk has helped inflate the completion percentage of whoever is throwing him the ball.
Aiyuk seemingly made an acrobatic catch each practice. He gives the quarterbacks confidence in him no matter where the cornerback is. Because of that, Aiyuk is the overall winner of camp.
If Aiyuk is the winner of camp, Charvarius is a close second. It might’ve taken the offense a week to complete a pass against their prized free agent signing.
Ward will allow DeMeco Ryans to be more aggressive both in the secondary and with his looks up front. Having a competent cornerback is one thing, but having a playmaker at the position is another. Ward broke up a pass or had an interception just about every day in practice. And this is coming against the team’s best wideouts.
The trickle-down effect of Ward is already coming to fruition. He’s learning he can be even more aggressive than usual with a tenacious defensive line. As a result, expectations for Ward should be sky-high.
The 49ers have over 20 rookies in training camp, and none have been more impressive than their fourth-round pick. We knew there would be a positional battle at right guard but figured it would come between Jaylon Moore and Daniel Brunskill. No player has received a rep with the first team at right guard other than Burford. And based on his play, nobody should.
Burford looks the part in 1-on-1s when he has no help. During team drills, he’s effective on combo blocks, has more than enough athleticism to excel in the running game, and continues to improve his awareness in pass protection.
The interior offensive line was a significant question mark heading into camp, but Burford’s emergence should help quiet those worries for the time being.
Thomas finished the season on a high note and gave the coaches enough confidence to insert the rookie last year as a starter during the playoffs. How much of that was a necessity due to Josh Norman’s inadequate play compared to Thomas’s ascension? If the first week of training camp is any indication, it’s the former.
Thomas has gone from CB2 to a guy who lost first-team reps when Ward or Emmanuel Moseley are sidelined to Samuel Womack and Ka’dar Hollman — and that’s with Jason Verrett sidelined.
Giving up receptions or getting beat is natural when you play cornerback. However, the second-year corner out of Michigan has been on the other end of what feels like every big play from the offense. At times, Thomas isn’t in position. Other times, he is but fails to make a play on the ball.
The good news is the 49ers improved their depth at cornerback this offseason, and that’s rearing its head. But, unfortunately, Thomas doesn’t appear to be a part of the rotation.
Listing Jennings right after Thomas is harsh, considering the wideout hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s more about what the other pass-catchers have done with their opportunities.
During the past few days, Ray-Ray McCloud made a name for himself in the slot. Before McCloud, Danny Gray was the big-play threat for a few days. There was even a stint where Malik Turner received more targets with the first team than Jennings.
The 49ers are more dangerous with speed on the field. Turner isn’t. a burner, but he can separate down the field. As the offense shifted to more of a down-the-field and outside-of-the-numbers passing attack, Jennings became an afterthought.
Unlike Jennings, Brunskill is a victim of his competition and his play. Brunskill has rotated with Jake Brendel throughout camp at center. Unfortunately, fumbled exchanges have been an issue.
That’s not to say they’re all on Brunskill, but there was one where he snapped the ball in the dirt that led to him and Lance staying after practice to fix the issue.
Brunskill isn’t getting beaten left and right. He’s holding his own as much as anyone could against the Niners’ defensive line. But there’s still plenty to be desired as a run blocker, and the fumbled snaps can’t be overlooked.
The group of running backs should be listed as “winners.” Each of them looks to have added weight, but that didn’t take away from their speed. They all are more decisive than a year ago and got better the longer camp went on.
Still, I’m not sure what to make of the talented group until I see them tackled during the preseason. The 49ers have a good problem at running back, and that’ll drive fantasy owners crazy all season.
Elijah Mitchell is the starter as long as he’s healthy. He’s the closest thing to a game-breaker, and his big-play ability gives him a leg up on the rest of the competition.
Ty Davis-Price is inching closer to RB2, while Trey Sermon is in the mix for carries and the RB3 battle. During the two-minute drill, it’s JaMychal Hasty in. When the third team was in during Saturday’s move-the-ball period, it was as if they couldn’t wait to turn and hand the ball to Jordan Mason, who is bound to be among the league leaders in rushing during the preseason.
Suppose you can figure out what to make of the running back room; more power to you. At this point, I can’t, but that’s not a bad thing.
I have a good idea about Lance’s skill set, how he’ll perform this season, and how he can improve as a player. There are so many unknowns and outcomes that it’s tough to tell how the season will play out for the first-year starting quarterback.
His talent is immense. The 49ers will be a better running team due to the threat of Lance as a runner. That’ll open up passing lanes off play-action and 1-on-1 opportunities on the outside. And that’s before you get into the creativity of Kyle Shanahan.
The question becomes how Lance handles adversity. The 49ers will cruise to a playoff berth if he learns from his mistakes. Those mistakes are inevitable. So far, so good in practice, but those are in controlled environments.
I’m not worried about Lance’s completion percentage or efficiency numbers as he’s not asked to do the same thing as Jimmy Garoppolo. The pressure is on Lance to keep the offense on schedule and be better in the red zone. Until we can see those play out in a game, it’s difficult to make any sweeping judgments about Lance.
Jackson started out working with the 3s and was quickly promoted after beating the likes of Alfredo Gutierrez, Sam Schlueter, and a couple of others, making it an easy decision. Jackson is fast. Like, a first step that’s noticeably tough to deal with for opposing tackles. Jackson relies on that speed, and it has worked against everyone not named Trent Williams or Mike McGlinchey.
Jackson might be able to help the 49ers as a rusher inside. But he won’t see the field if he doesn’t improve as a run defender. Some of the offense’s longest gains have come running at Jackson. That’ll be something to keep an eye on during the preseason and throughout the first half of the season as the rookie figures out how he can win as a pro.