© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s begin with a reminder.
OTAs are important in many ways: establishing routine, rhythm, rapport, building conditioning, acclimating new players to the scheme, and providing competition amid a long offseason. OTAs provide a glimpse of position battles and forecast what is to come in training camp.
But those glimpses should not be taken as gospel.
Countless players have followed tremendous OTAs and training camps with bad seasons, and vice versa. Jimmy Garoppolo was long considered a poor practice player in New England, yet he enters his first full season as a starter with seven wins, no losses, and a recently inked $137.5 million contract.
Players have about five weeks off before training camp begins, which more closely resembles real football as pads are involved. It’s important to remember why OTAs are important, for those handful of aforementioned reasons, without drawing premature conclusions.
It is June 13. The season starts Sept. 9.
With all that considered, here are the takeaways from the 49ers’ final minicamp session on Wednesday.
Garoppolo and the offense working on righting wrongs
Both the offense and defense have been without key members throughout these past three-plus weeks of OTAs, just another reason to evaluate cautiously. For the most part, the offense has clicked, and Garoppolo has admitted comfort in his first offseason with the 49ers. He is not frantically cramming a full playbook’s worth of information into one week any longer.
Contrary to the regular season, mistakes during OTAs provide valuable teaching points, rather than game-changing events. Tuesday’s session was full of them. Four or five different times, offensive players jumped for a false start, a result of mixing up cadences.
To use Garoppolo’s words: “It sucked.”
“If I was just the offensive coordinator, I would have been very upset,” Kyle Shanahan said before Wednesday’s practice. “But fortunately, I’m the head coach so I was happy with the defense yesterday. So I was halfway happy.”
Garoppolo called a post-practice session with the offense to iron out the wrinkles. On Wednesday, Garoppolo stayed after practice again to work with tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne.
“What I like is we have guys that it bothers,” Shanahan said. “You don’t have to sit out there and ‘MF’ them and stuff. It bothers them, just like it bothers (the coaches).”
Shanahan put some of the blame on the coaching staff. Garoppolo took all of it.
“It’s all on the quarterback,” Garoppolo said. “I am the one doing the cadence. I have to make sure that me and all the other quarterbacks are saying it the same way, sounding similar to one another.”
The defense had the clear advantage Tuesday. Wednesday was more competitive, with the edge pointing to the defense again.
The 49ers offense cleaned up mental errors and moved the ball effectively downfield during 11-on-11 drills. Garoppolo overthrew on a few different occasions, perhaps to avoid throwing a pick, but he was accurate in intermediate throws, just as he has been throughout OTAs. On one play, he hit Jerick McKinnon on a Texas route for a huge gain. McKinnon’s speed has been eye-popping throughout these OTAs, and he burned Reuben Foster, an elite athlete in his own right, on that play Wednesday.
Where the defense prevailed, however, was during red-zone drills. Garoppolo threw four straight incompletions for a turnover on downs.
Before practice, Garoppolo was asked to identify an area in which the offense needs to improve. He talked about converting in the red zone. In his first three starts with the 49ers last season, they converted 3-13 red zone attempts into touchdowns. They finished strong, punching in eight touchdowns in their final 11 red-zone trips, during the final two games.
The defense is inherently at a disadvantage during OTAs because of the lack of contact, which erases the quarterback’s fear of being hit, making back-to-back days of tremendous practices all the more impressive.
Complementary receivers stepping up, providing valuable depth
Marquise Goodwin, the 49ers’ top receiver in 2017, missed his second straight practice on Wednesday with back stiffness. Trent Taylor has been held out of OTAs as he recently had bone spurs removed from his back. He is supposed to return by the start of training camp. Pierre Garcon has slowly eased his way back to the field after missing half of last season with a neck injury.
All the attrition has given the additional receivers valuable opportunities.
On Tuesday, rookie Dante Pettis was the best receiver on the field, catching four passes during 11-on-11 drills. On Wednesday, that title belonged to Aldrick Robinson.
Garoppolo targeted Robinson frequently throughout full-field and red-zone drills. Robinson caught three passes, including back-to-back snags on intermediate routes. He nearly caught a touchdown in the right corner of the end zone, but the ball was slightly overthrown.
Robinson, entering his sixth NFL season, has played for three different teams (Redskins, Falcons, and 49ers), with Shanahan coaching him at every stop.
“It’s just nice when you have guys who can do different things that you aren’t handcuffed in a game,” Shanahan said prior to Wednesday’s practice. “Similar to how Aldrick Robinson has been for us. He’s fast enough to do some of that stuff, but he also can do the things that other guys do which just allows you to overcome.”
When Pettis was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, many fans rejected the pick because he is not considered a prototypical big, ‘red zone threat’ that the 49ers are seemingly lacking. (Shanahan has long disputed the need for this.) But Pettis provides another dynamic playmaker for Shanahan to deploy in his diverse offense. Pettis has practiced at three different positions throughout these OTAs. Whether he is lining up outside, in the slot, sent in motion, or fielding punt returns, he provides value in several roles.
Bourne has been one of the most positive stories of camp. Add in Robinson and Aaron Burbridge, who have recently performed well, and the 49ers suddenly have a deep receiving corps, one year after it was a glaring weakness. The depth is important when injuries inevitably sprout up during the season.
“Injuries happen, rotations happen,” Shanahan said. “You leave a receiver out there all game, guys get tired and their routes aren’t as well. They stop blocking. They don’t become part of the run game. You only get five, sometimes six up on game day. You get one injury down, who’s up?”
Shanahan’s coveted linebacker duo finally playing together
One of Shanahan’s long-waited wishes has come to fruition recently: Malcolm Smith and Reuben Foster playing alongside each other.
“Those were two guys I really wanted to see play together last year,” Shanahan said.
Thus far, unique circumstances have prevented it. Smith missed all of last season with a torn pectoral. Meanwhile, Foster developed into one of the best linebackers and most promising young stars in the NFL as a rookie.
This offseason, there were multiple OTAs in which neither player practiced. Smith was briefly held out to nurse a groin injury. Foster awaited a verdict on domestic violence accusations that were eventually dismissed before returning to the team three weeks ago.
Foster and Smith have finally paired up in recent weeks to give a glimpse of San Francisco’s likely starting linebacker duo.
“They balance each other out very well,” Shanahan said. “So I think it’s a good tandem.”
Smith provides knowledge and experience at the Mike spot in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme. Foster provides a physically imposing, freakish presence at the weak-side linebacker position, to which Shanahan has a comparison.
“I always tell him that he’s like ‘The Waterboy’ out there,” Shanahan said. “He’s just flying around ready to hit someone.”
Similar to the wide receiver corps, depth has become a strength at linebacker. Brock Coyle was re-signed this offseason to a three-year deal. Korey Toomer, who started eight games on a tremendous Chargers front-seven in 2017, signed a one-year deal with the 49ers this offseason. Then, they used the first of their two third-round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft on former BYU linebacker Fred Warner.
Those are five players who are expected to step in and contribute. It appears Smith and Foster are the early frontrunners to start in Week 1.
See you in July
The 49ers wrapped up their offseason workout program Wednesday. Thursday is designated for meetings.
Players and coaches will split off before reconvening for training camp, which is tentatively scheduled to start on Thursday, July 26.
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow him on Twitter @bradalmquist13.