© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – Last year, the 49ers had six players unable to play at the start of training camp (three on the physically unable to perform list, three on the non-football injury list). This year, there will be four on the PUP list. Progress? Maybe. At the very least, the team, after a pair of injury-riddled seasons, has overhauled its strength and conditioning and training staff and put the focus firmly on health.
The team fired its strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright and head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson following the conclusion of the 2018 season, and brought in Dustin Little, previously with the Denver Broncos, as head athletic trainer, as well as Ben Peterson, as head of player health and performance, Dustin Perry as the head of strength and conditioning, Shea Thompson as the director of performance monitoring/assistant strength and conditioning, and strength and conditioning assistants Aaron Hill and Mike Nicolini.
That health will shape the 49ers’ season, and already has, to a degree:
Garoppolo is good to go
While general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were addressing media in a joint press conference, they revealed that Jimmy Garoppolo was simultaneously in the process of being cleared for action. The first words from Garoppolo as he addressed media later in the day were, like much of what he said, short and sweet:
“It’s officially official. Yeah, we’re good to go.”
Jimmy Garoppolo is cleared to play: “It’s officially official.” pic.twitter.com/wEIOl6IO3b
— KNBR (@KNBR) July 26, 2019
Despite being cleared, Garoppolo, along with linebacker Kwon Alexander, will not play in the 49ers’ preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys on August 10 according to Shanahan, in order to ease them back into action.
4 players to start on PUP list
Some relatively surprising news jumped out at the start of Lynch and Shanahan’s press conference, as Lynch revealed that Jerick McKinnon had a “flare up” in his knee a week-and-a-half ago, leaving him on the PUP list at the start of camp.
The other three players to start camp on that list were mostly expected, in center Weston Richburg, who’s recovering from knee and quadriceps surgery, Garrett Celek, who had back surgery, and Jimmie Ward, the one other question mark to be on the list, with a broken collarbone. Below are the 49ers’ expectations for that group, in order of who is expected to return earliest:
- Jerick McKinnon
- Injury prognosis: Described as a “flare up” in his knee, but the 49ers expect him back quickly after a long rehab stint from his torn ACL a season ago. Shanahan was extraordinarily positive about McKinnon’s rehab, saying he, “… has worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen to come back from this injury.”
- Timeline: Unclear exactly when, but likely in the first half of camp and ready to go by Week 1 of the season
- Jimmie Ward
- Injury prognosis: Ward is still recovering from the broken collarbone he sustained in OTAs
- Timeline: The 49ers expect him to be back a couple weeks into camp around the time of the team’s second preseason game against the Denver Broncos on August 19
- Weston Richburg
- Injury prognosis: Richburg had surgeries on his knee and quadriceps, and played through those injuries for much of the duration of last season
- Timeline: The “goal” is to have Richburg back by Week 1 of the regular season
- Garrett Celek
- Injury prognosis: Celek also dealt with a concussion, but the reason he has yet to be examined and finish his concussion protocol is the back surgery he’s had; he’ll deal with the concussion protocol once he’s cleared for the back issue
- Timeline: It’s not good for Celek, whose return Shanahan said would, “for sure be after Week 6”
49ers added another guard, tight end
John Lynch confirmed towards the end of his and Shanahan’s press conference that the team has added center/guard Dillon Day (a likely product of Weston Richburg’s PUP status), and would add a tight end as well after cutting backup center Erik Magnuson on Thursday. The team also cut defensive lineman Cedric Thornton.
After the 49ers concluded their media discussions for the day, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that the tight end would be Niles Paul, a special teams-focused tight end who played under Shanahan with the Washington Redskins and adds depth with Celek out for the foreseeable future.
Paul, 29, spent three seasons with Kyle Shanahan in Washington. https://t.co/ZcH11l7asF
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) July 26, 2019
Sherman feeling renewed after playing through stapled heel
Richard Sherman was far from fully healthy last season, and detailed the pain he played through with sutures in his heel after recovering from an Achilles tear. Sherman said that while “mechanically” he could accomplish the movements he needed to in order to get through a game, he was in severe pain while doing it.
As he described it, last season was like driving a car with nails in the tires: “Technically your car is still rolling, but you’ve still got a nail in the tire.”
The staples came out at the end of February, Sherman said, and with the staples gone, the pain went too.
“Once we got that removed, it gave me peace of mind, more than anything, that once I put this foot in the ground I’m not going to have pain after, I’m not going to have pain following this cut,” Sherman said.
Richard Sherman on the pain he played through last season with staples in his heel: “Mechanically, I could do it, but it’s like driving your car with a nail in the tires. Technically your car is still rolling, but you’ve still got a nail in the tire.” pic.twitter.com/bZpVSWCxfg
— KNBR (@KNBR) July 26, 2019
Buckner ready to lead defensive line expected to “wreak havoc”
For John Lynch, his expectations for a defensive line which already had a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in DeForest Buckner and which added a Pro Bowl edge rusher in Dee Ford and a Pro Bowl pedigree (if healthy) edge rusher in second overall pick Nick Bosa, are clear:
“I want them to wreak havoc on the league.”
The now-veteran and key cog on that line is Buckner, who said he was well prepared for what’s expected of him and the rest of the line.
“The guys are up for the challenge,” Buckner said. “Like you said, there are a lot of expectations and I think we should live up to those expectations. That’s how I approach every year, guys have to dominate at the point of attack.”
As for Nick Bosa, the 49ers did not seem overly concerned with the pulled hamstring he suffered in OTAs. Being just the second summer that rookies were actually allowed to participate in OTAs, Shanahan said he wasn’t worried that Bosa missed all that much. He’ll be ready for the start of practice on Saturday.
Kittle enjoyed his yards record
There’s not too much to report on the George Kittle front, other than that the affable Pro Bowler enjoyed his yoga-filled, “excellent” summer and soaked up his NFL record-setting 1,377 receiving yards last season as a tight end.
“I actually hit about three-straight weeks of yoga, which was really fun,” Kittle said. “Slightly more flexible. Can’t you tell I’m limber now?”
George Kittle on new wrinkle in his offseason routine: "I actually hit about three-straight weeks of yoga, which was really fun. Slightly more flexible. Can't you tell I'm limber now?"
*Does some sort of airplane stretch motion
Reporter: “Well… not by that.” pic.twitter.com/uexX1NKDFZ
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) July 26, 2019
Kittle, who described himself as a “happy guy,” said it was nice to reminisce on the achievement with his family (his gloves and jersey are in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio) but has firmly shifted his focus towards improving this season. He got some tight end work in over the summer, said he has an iPad full of other tight end footage and is stoked for his favorite part of football, “moving a man from point A to point B against his will.”
“It’s fun seeing clips and stuff like that,” Kittle said of the record. “It’s an experience my family and I will never forget, but as soon as OTAs hit and then after OTAs, I’m just looking forward at what’s coming up next, because I think we’re going to have a lot more fun this year. Whether it’s individually or as a team, I just think it’s going to be a blast.”
“Horizontal leadership” among descriptions 49ers give for leadership approach, locker room culture
The 49ers had some interesting descriptions for how the locker room is led on Friday. While defining an entire team’s collective leadership approach isn’t the simplest of propositions, the answers belied the reality that the 49ers locker room, for better or for worse, is not one dominated by a select voice; at least, not in the way it would seem in place like Green Bay or New England.
Instead, there are a few core veterans who are the clear leaders, like Joe Staley, Buckner, Sherman, Kyle Juszczyk, and by default, Garoppolo. All appear to have a different approach, with Sherman being the obvious loudest voice.
Buckner said he needed to become more vocal in that locker room this season, and defined what he called the “horizontal leadership” the 49ers have.
“I’m one of the leaders in that room and I’ve gotta be more of a vocal leader and I also try to help them lead by example,” Buckner said. “I try to get those guys riled up and a lot of other guys in that room. It’s kind of like horizontal leadership in that room.”
A reporter responded, “Horizontal leadership?”
“Yeah,” Buckner said. “Everybody’s a leader. Everybody can speak up and speak their mind. When we have to hash things out, we do and when guys are telling us to bring the energy up, we all respond the right way.”
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) July 26, 2019
Garoppolo’s leadership style is being, well, Garoppolo.
“I’ve always tried to be myself and never change too much,” Garoppolo said. “I think guys in that locker room see right through if you’re trying to be fake, so I just try to be myself.”
Sherman acknowledged the loudness that comes from him, and the awareness that it may not always be a good thing, and adaptability is necessary.
“Everybody plays their role and my role is what it is,” Sherman said. “I’m a loud guy, I get energy going. I’m an instigator of sorts. But it works out, it gets guys motivated for better or for worse… sometimes you need that in practice, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s time for me to shut the hell up and sit there and go through practice like the rest of them.”
Staley credited Sherman, and his renewed health, as being a massive locker room boon.
“I think the mentality, having Sherm come back completely healthy, that culture that he came from in Seattle is almost that bravado, ego kind of stuff, that rubs off on a lot of younger players,” Staley said. “Not just saying it. Not just saying it to be fake, but living that life and having confidence and practicing that way on the football field, I think that carries a lot. That’s what training camp is about, creating our identity on the football field.”
Coming from Shanahan down, Sherman described it as a culture based on being competitive.
“Kyle coaches a competitive culture, and he himself is competitive,” Sherman said. “He’s such a young coach. He gets overanxious. And in practice… there will be situations where you expect the defense to win and then Kyle is just in one of those moods where it’s like, ‘Well, no. I’m not going to allow this to happen this way,’ and he’ll maneuver it in a different way, so it’s competitive from the coaching staff all the way down to the last man on the roster. I think everybody understands that this year.”
… but winning now is the universal priority
Shanahan issued what essentially was an edict that there’s no more, “well, we tried” or “it was a growth year” mentality to be had in Santa Clara.
“Now it’s time to win some games,” Shanahan said. “We need to get better. Our guys feel that and I think we feel that.”
Staley, the longest-tenured 49er, is fully on board with that.
“It’s time to win, obviously,” Staley said. “Anything but winning, especially this season, is unacceptable.”
Both Garoppolo and Sherman, and seemingly every 49er understands (or will quickly understand) the urgency that is required this season.
“He’s right, bottom line,” Garoppolo said. “That’s what this game is about. It’s about production, going out there, getting wins.”
Sherman talked about the reality of practice squad players starting for the 49ers in key games last season, acknowledging the benefit that the experience gained will bring into this season. But that period of focusing on growth for the future has ended.
“It’s action,” Sherman said. “It’s time to stop talking and go out there and put it on tape.”
Team has high hopes for oft-injured Jason Verrett
Three seasons ago, cornerback Jason Verrett played 14 games and made a Pro Bowl appearance as a second-year player with the Chargers. In his last two seasons, following an Achilles tear, he’s played a combined five games. The now 28-year-old Verrett was so disappointed with his inability to stay healthy that he considered retirement this year. Now he’s a 49er, and it’s clear he’s welcome.
“We’ve had conversations, seeing as I just went through an Achilles and he’s going through it,” said Sherman. “Just the mentality of coming back, the confidence level, the trust that you have in your own body that it’s going to react the way you expect it to, maneuvering confidently into your cuts and into your workouts and not having fear of it rupturing again… it’s tough but he’s in a great place now.”
As for what Verrett can actually bring, Sherman spoke about a player who sounded much like himself.
“He’s a dog. He’s rugged,” Sherman said. “He’s going to be in their face, he’s going to be tooth-and-nail, he’s going to claw. He’s going to grind it out. He’s going to be just the kind of player that he was before the injury… a lot of people in this organization and people who haven’t seen him play will see a corner that they didn’t realize was as talented and as good as he is. But he’s also that. He’s scrappy, he’s in your face. He’s not going to back down to anybody.”
The reality of Verrett’s injury history means he can’t be relied upon to be an every-down corner. Shanahan realizes that, but he also acknowledged that Verrett, from his standpoint, after being evaluated by team doctors, looks fully healthy
“We just have to be smart with him,” Shanahan said. “We all know there’s a history, but with the way he looks right now, you wouldn’t know that… we’re going to have to protect him from himself.”
The addition of a healthy Verrett could be a massive coup for a 49ers secondary that was woeful last season; a product largely of injuries, inexperience, and in some cases, a lack of talent.
That’s not dissuaded Sherman, who, if you’re following, is a fairly confident guy.
“We have high expectations, period, as a secondary,” Sherman said. “Obviously, outside of this room, people think what they think, but we have a tremendously talented group. I think on the other side, those guys are going to compete at the highest level and the best man wins. Ahkello had an incredible offseason in OTAs and Jason looks great with the drill work that he’s been doing. I think they’re going to ease him into camp, but when he’s healthy and they’re both healthy, they’re two great, talented players.”
Shanahan and Lynch like each other, they promise
There have been some reports that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t get along. That doesn’t seem to be the case, and as for the Bleacher Report story which reported that scouts were unhappy with Shanahan and Lynch, Shanahan dismissed it – while not explicitly – as a likely exasperated remnant of the Trent Baalke era.
Shanahan, who acknowledged that leaks simply will happen when you have a staff of 200-to-500 people, said he’s happy because that source is no longer in the organization, which is driven, of course by Shanahan and Lynch.
“We really do like each other,” Lynch said. “Number two, more importantly, we communicate real well. We communicate real well on every facet of this football team.”
Shanahan stated that same sentiment, albeit with a bit more bite.
“For anyone to question our relationship is the stupidest thing ever,” Shanahan said. “Hang around us.”
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) July 26, 2019
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