The 49ers kick off training camp this week, with players meeting Tuesday and the first official full-team practice on Wednesday. Assuming Brock Purdy and Trey Lance make the final roster, there will be 51 other players joining them and an entire coaching staff leading the way. Recent headlines and media chatter make that hard to remember.
While there are several notable stories heading into the 2023 season, here are a few of the more intriguing ones to follow during camp.
Mason’s name appears here for several reasons:
1. The 49ers’ running-centric offensive scheme
2. The need to keep McCaffrey fresh
3. The inability of Eli Mitchell to stay healthy (despite his talent)
4. The flashes Mason put on display when given chances last year
What was most impressive about Mason’s rookie campaign was the success he had when defenses knew the run was coming and loaded the box. The 3rd and 3 against Seattle to win the NFC West title comes to mind. Not only did he get the first down, he sealed the game with a 50+ yard run late in the 4th quarter.
He runs exceedingly tough with great burst. His compact 5’11, 223 lb stature makes him a challenge to wrangle and bring down.
While Christian McCaffrey brings a bevy of offensive skills to the table, inside running in short yardage situations is not one of his strongest traits. Eli Mitchell was far more effective in that aspect last year; however, if Mitchell’s injury woes continue, the 49ers will need Mason to step into that RB2 role. Even with Mitchell healthy, the team will look to get Mason into the mix more based on his performance last year, and to help preserve Mitchell’s health.
Jackson didn’t have sky-high expectations as a second-round rookie last year; even so, his first year was a disappointing one.
After notching three sacks in his first six games, Jackson was a healthy scratch in five of the 49ers’ final six games and throughout the entirety of the playoffs. Coaches cited a lack of requisite strength and conditioning as the reason Jackson was unable to compete in the latter half of the long NFL season.
By all indications, Jackson took the benching and message to heart. His bulked-up physical transformation in 2023 has earned the praise of players and coaches alike; notably reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Nick Bosa. The 49ers need and expect Jackson to seize opportunity this year on the opposite end of Bosa. The addition of massive defensive tackle Javon Hargrave–along with 13 pounds of muscle and a year of NFL experience–should help Drake emerge as a force at defensive end. If he can make that leap, the 49ers defensive line can be one of the league’s very best.
There’s no denying that former RT Mike McGlinchey’s pass protection flubs often jumped off the screen and hit viewers in the face harder than the defender blowing by him. That said, McGlinchey had a solid if unspectacular career with the 49ers and was a stout run blocker.
Naturally, right tackle figured to be a key target for San Francisco in the 2023 offseason and draft...
Lynch and Shanahan are handing the keys to their 2020 fifth-round selection after inking Colton McKivitz to a two-year extension.
This is surprising, as McKivitz has started just three games for the 49ers in his career. Over the past several years, the 49ers have shown a penchant for this sort of thing on the offensive line. It’s become difficult to discern whether this move signals true belief in McKivitz or if it’s a product of Shanahan perhaps undervaluing the offensive line (outside of Trent Williams) as a position group. How long can the 49ers plug and play along the offensive line–especially given the historic number of quarterback injuries they’ve sustained?
It’ll be interesting to monitor McKivitz in camp. He may find himself in a battle with Jaylon Moore for the rights to starting right tackle.
With DeMeco Ryans off to a well-deserved head coaching gig in Houston, Steve Wilks takes over arguably the league’s best defensive unit. Whereas former coordinators Robert Saleh and Ryans were rookies stepping into their roles, Wilks is a veteran coach. He served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach with the Panthers in 2017, head coach of the Cardinals in 2018, defensive coordinator of the Browns in 2019, and then moved to the college ranks as coordinator for Missouri in 2021. Last year, Wilks jumped back to the NFL with Carolina as their secondary coach/defensive pass game coordinator before being promoted to interim head coach upon the firing of Matt Rhule.
Wilks’ specialty is secondary which–hopefully–should pair nicely with guru Kris Kocurek overseeing the 49ers vaunted defensive line for a fifth straight year.
We saw the Niners defense get more aggressive under Ryans than it was with Saleh, leading to a significant uptick in turnovers. How this unit and scheme transforms under Wilks will be something worth watching; in particular, the defensive backfield.
The 49ers enjoyed their strongest performance in literally decades from the secondary last season. Highlighted by a breakout performance from free safety Talanoa Hufanga, an unexpected career year from veteran strong safety Tashaun Gipson, and Charvarius Ward demonstrating lockdown capability at cornerback.
Rookie Ji’Ayir Brown was lauded as a potential steal for San Francisco in the third round of the 2023 draft. The 49ers love Brown, as evidenced by the trade up to select him and their effusive praise of the free safety after the selection. Brown was a playmaking turnover machine at Penn State. Will he push Gipson for the starting role or will Wilks and company look for other ways to incorporate Brown? There have been rumors of installing three-safety defensive sets into the playbook–something to watch for in camp.
Deommodore Lenoir is penciled in as the starting cornerback opposite Ward, but don’t be surprised if second-year Samuel Womack challenges for it. Lenoir was solid in 2022; however, he has a tendency to give up big plays. Womack showed some incredible potential last year at a position notoriously hard on first-year players–a second-year surge may be hard for Lenoir to fight off.
How the rest of the secondary plays out will be a fun watch too. San Francisco brought in Isaiah Oliver from Atlanta to replace Jimmie Ward at nickel corner and nabbed a promising prospect in Darrell Luter Jr. with a fifth-round draft pick. Luter will be starting on the PUP list as reported last week; with what injury and for how long remains to be seen. Ambry Thomas has had an up-and-down two years in San Francisco–he could be on the bubble in this crowded group.
The Rookie Kicker
There were collective gasps and groans when the 49ers took kicker Jake Moody in the third round of this year’s draft. Early picks spent on special teams are far from a crowd pleaser, especially when the 49ers have had so much success from rock solid Robbie Gould in recent seasons. Moody’s selection signals the end of 40-year-old Robbie Gould’s tenure with the team. It’s clear the Niners wanted to get younger and cheaper at the position. That’s sound reasoning, but letting Gould walk and inserting a rookie on this roster may be far riskier than some may be accounting for.
Several critical regular and postseason games have been decided by Gould’s foot. He secured victory against the Saints in a high-scoring, Week 14 thriller in New Orleans. Gould punched the team’s ticket to the NFC Championship game in 2021 by launching a 45-yard field goal through the uprights in blizzard conditions at Lambeau Field. Just last year, Gould scored 13 of the 49ers’ 19 points to beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The list goes on and on.
The longtime veteran’s rock-solid consistency and ability to deliver in the most high-pressure situations, both at home and on the road, cannot be understated. Yes, he’s lost the longer distance leg strength and routinely fails to reach the end zone on kickoffs, but where he continues to excel in point scoring far outweighs those shortcomings.
Moody has a strong leg and, in many ways, was the Michigan Wolverines’ Robbie Gould during his collegiate career. He’s the school’s all-time leading field goal kicker. In 2022, he made 26/32 field goals and flawlessly converted all 53 of his extra point attempts. His 59-yard field goal against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl is the longest in Michigan history. There’s a lot to like here.
The 49ers have a win-now roster that has heavily relied on Robbie Gould to win games, earn postseason berths, and survive in the playoffs. There is an extremely high bar set at this position. In Gould’s wake, Moody inherits an incredible amount of pressure and unfair expectations as a rookie. Much like quarterback, kicker is just as demanding mentally as it is physically. The mental aspect is probably even more crucial.
The hope is that Moody is the 49ers’ long-term leg; however, the short term of next season is what looms most eminently and imminently. How he fares in 2023 could have a significant influence on the rest of his career, and that starts with his training camp performance.
No pressure, Jake.