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49ers rookie report: Brayden Willis is the real deal

Breaking down how each rookie performed during the first week of camp, from Ji’Ayir Brown to Jake Moody.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

With the 49ers entering the dog days of training camp, their rookie camp is getting their first authentic taste of the grueling days of August leading to the regular season. I did a quick write-up on my observations and what I have seen from a handful of the rookie class during their first preseason in the NFL.

Brayden Willis

Selected by San Francisco with the 247th pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, Willis looks to be another day-three pick that the 49ers knocked out of the park. While there is room to grow as a blocker, Willis has flashed a receiving ability that gives him a serviceable floor from day one.

He has an excellent feel for getting open during team drills, wasting no movement getting to his landmarks, and crisply getting in and out of his breaks. He had one rep in particular that stood out to me during an 11-on-11 period, where he was lined up inline and was able to create separation on a crossing route by adequately selling the run action.

It may not seem like much, but those are the key details that will get him on the field sooner rather than later. Willis also had an impressive one-on-one rep where he showed tremendous body control to go up and grab a back shoulder fade deep down the left sideline.

Even on the plays where he wasn’t getting the ball, he stood out with his ability to get open against zone coverage and offer his quarterback a viable option. It should be noted how difficult the transition from college to the NFL is for most tight ends, so patience will be essential. However, what Willis flashed as a pass catcher is promising early on.

Cameron Latu

I saw Latu flash very little during the team periods for the first couple of days I was at camp. On Friday, he turned that around by putting together an impressive one-on-one period that followed with a strong performance in 11 on 11’s

His most impressive catch to date came over the middle with safety Tayler Hawkins draped all over him in tight coverage. Latu was moving toward the right hash and had to go down well below his knees to catch a ball in stride that Hawkins was also contesting.

He displayed tremendous hand strength through the catch point to hang on to the ball through significant contact by the defensive back before turning upfield for a nice gain. Once again, tight ends typically take time to find their footing, so I am okay with what has been a relatively quiet camp so far for Latu.

D’Shawn Jamison

The undrafted rookie out of Texas has been arguably the most impressive 49ers rookie thus far. The biggest thing that stands out is how he carries himself among the other veteran defensive backs. Based on the eye test alone, you would have a hard time believing he is about to enter his first season in the league.

He’s quick, has good instincts, and has yet to look severely over-matched at any point of this camp I have seen. He had an incredible pass breakup on a ball intended for Chris Conley during team periods, flashing tremendous closing speed to break on the ball and eliminate a would-be first down during a move-the-ball period.

Jamison is making a solid case early that he deserves a spot on the final 53-man roster and will be a crucial name to watch in the three scheduled exhibition games as the preseason approaches.

Ji’Ayir Brown

After being taken with the 49ers’ highest pick back in April, he has more pressure to perform right away than any other rookie on the roster. While I haven’t been blown away by his performance thus far, he has also been solid in many regards. Particularly, his closing speed to the flat.

The sequence from Brown that has impressed me the most came during back-to-back plays during an 11-on-11 team period. On the first, Brown took a bad angle to wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who was turning upfield after catching a pass over the middle. Samuel was able to quickly maneuver around Brown and run untouched into the end zone for a touchdown.

On the next play, Brown was on an island as the last defender standing between the ball carrier and the end zone after an extremely well-blocked screen to the right side. Brown positioned himself perfectly and made the stop in the open field for a minimal gain. His ability to rebound immediately following a problematic rep was an extremely encouraging sign of his maturity.

I also would argue that he could be a player who flashes more in an actual game environment than during practices. He got an opportunity to get snaps with the first-team defense that was without Talanoa Hufanga on Saturday and looked good in his action with the top unit.

Dee Winters

As camp has progressed, Winters has noticeably begun to flash more frequently. The biggest thing that has stood out to me is his versatility. He has shown to be a capable linebacker in the traditional responsibilities at the position while also displaying tremendous upside as a pass rusher.

He’s utilized an extremely effective swim move to win multiple reps while getting after the quarterback. Winters also notched an impressive tackle for loss on a running play during an 11 on 11 period that was sure to impress the defensive coaches evaluating that day’s practice film.

Ronnie Bell

The seventh-round pick out of Michigan has been among the most frequently targeted players on the 49ers roster during training camp. Bell’s six receptions are tied with Willis for the most among the team’s rookie class.

His most impressive catch came during an 11-on-11 period when he was targeted deep down the left sideline. Bell had defensive back Tre Swilling all over him and was able to bring down the ball while absorbing contact at the catch point before turning upfield for an even bigger gain.

The 49ers’ wide receiver room is extremely deep, so it might take a strong preseason from Bell if he is going to challenge for a spot on the final 53-man roster. His early performance in camp has been encouraging though, nonetheless.

Jalen Graham

Graham has shown off his defensive back background, displaying an ability to cover significant ground in a very short time. He has made a handful of plays that stood out during team periods, including a sack and tackle for loss.

The upside is clearly there, but the 49ers are so deep at linebacker that it will be interesting to see if either of their rookie draft picks at the position make it to a final 53-man roster. That position could be log-jammed due to the number of veterans with special teams experience who might edge them out.

Robert Beal Jr.

Beal Jr. has not participated in the last few practices, with what is presumed to be an injury-related absence. He has been on hand and appears to be moving around without any noticeable restriction. He was wearing a catapult tracker on Friday, indicating he is doing some form of exercise during practice even if he isn’t participating with the team.

Beal Jr. did flash some intriguing pass-rushing traits early on in camp but faces an uphill battle to a significant role in year one based on how deep the 49ers’ defensive line group is.

Jake Moody

I had to save the most anticipated for last. This one takes little nuance, Moody has an electric leg and was regularly splitting the uprights from over 50 yards away. The most impressive by far was a 57-yard field goal that Moody drilled to end Thursday’s practice.

This not only would have been good from 65-plus yards out, it split the uprights and drilled the play clock positioned directly in the middle of the uprights. Quite literally a perfect kick: