SANTA CLARA — There’s no need to freak out about a practice in May, but Tuesday wasn’t exactly the best day of work from the San Francisco 49ers’ offense.
There were miscues, dropped passes and very few plays that will translate into big gains on Sundays in September. The good news: Most of the poor plays were coming from the second unit.
That’s fine, says Kyle Shanahan. That’ll make the classroom work more vital come Wednesday. Here are my observations.
1. Matt Barkley is not a lock to be the No. 2 quarterback
If there’s one player who wants Tuesday’s practice film burnt to the ground, it’s Barkley. His second unit was struggling to complete passes. He looked uncomfortable in bootlegging scenarios, an absolute staple of this offense. His one interception came on a tipped pass into the hands of Lorenzo Jerome. But the 26-year-old was nearly picked off two other times and fumbled a snap in the backfield.
“We’re going to play the best guys,” Shanahan said when asked about Barkley after practice.
Don’t get me wrong, rookie C.J. Beathard wasn’t exactly Tom Brady at practice. But the moral of the story is that if Barkley struggles in training camp and the preseason, the 49ers have very little riding on him. They don’t owe him a roster spot, especially if Beathard continues to develop.
Hoyer has no plans on losing the starting reigns, but this is the NFL. Injuries happen. It was obviously different regimes, but the 49ers have made drastic quarterback changes in each of the last two years. Barkley is viewed as a safety net for now, but if practices like Tuesday continue, the 49ers very well could look for another quarterback on the open market.
Speaking of Hoyer, I asked him about Beathard. He’s been impressed that the rookie is asking the right questions in the meeting rooms. Hoyer can tell the 49ers aren’t working with a toddler who doesn’t know how to operate in the huddle either. Hoyer said Beathard is further ahead than most rookies he’s been around.
2. Don’t take this NaVorro Bowman stuff seriously
Shanahan told us Tuesday that either Bowman, Reuben Foster or Malcolm Smith won’t receive significant playing time in 2017, and “that’s a good problem to have.” What will likely happen: San Francisco will start the year off with Smith and slowly ease Foster into the lineup once he’s ready for a full workload.
No matter what’s said publicly, there’s no way a player of Bowman’s caliber is spending time on the bench, let alone being unseated by a rookie or a well-traveled linebacker in Week 1.
“I won’t be on the sideline,” Bowman said matter of factly. “I’ll tell you that right now.”
Here’s my take: As a first-year head coach, Shanahan has to set a standard for the entire roster. He can’t tell the cornerback position group they have firm competition and tell the inside linebackers they are already penciled in. Competition helps foster a stronger practice atmosphere. Plus, Shanahan knows Bowman can play along during OTAs, training camp and the preseason.
Manufacturing a fake competition at linebacker plays into Shanahan’s No. 1 rule plastered in the locker room, which says protect the team. Shanahan’s protecting the team by having competitions at every single position.
3. Shanahan spent much more time with the entire team Tuesday at practice
The last time we saw Shanahan at a practice, he was knee-deep explaining to his wide receivers why they should run a route a particular way. That’s where he’s most comfortable. That’s where he’s used to being during an OTA.
On Tuesday, Shanahan bopped all around. The first half of practice was spent next to defensive line coach Jeff Zgonia, where the two overlooked run fits. The head coach was also seen in an offensive line drill.
4. 49ers have completely overhauled their approach in the locker room
Daniel Kilgore is entering his seventh season with the 49ers. He’s never seen quite an approach like the team is taking in the weight room. Each day, there are certain lifting competitions between players and the results are tracked on screens. Video is also shown of the lifting.
“They’ve (brought) competition into the weight room,” veteran Daniel Kilgore said. “Who can run the fastest? Who can bench the most? … It’s cool. It’s something different. I’ve been here for seven years now, we’ve never had that.”
5. Kyle Juszczyk could catch 50-60 passes this season out of the backfield
San Francisco’s resident ‘offensive weapon’ was a standout on the field Tuesday. On a play toward the end of practice, Brian Hoyer bootlegged to his left, found the fullback in the flat and watched his new teammate race down the sidelines.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how people categorize him,” Hoyer said after the OTA. “So much about this game is matchups — when we put a personnel group on the field, how does the defense play it? It’s been really cool to see how we’re starting to use him, to see his skill set really. The best thing about it is he’s really smart. You can line him up all over the place.”
6. Foster does not participate in team drills, Solomon Thomas also absent
Just like he did during rookie minicamp, Foster spent most of the day watching practice with assistant coach DeMeco Ryans. However, Foster did get his share of mental reps. In a slowed down drill where upside down trash cans simulated offensive linemen, the 49ers went through various gap assignments
Thomas, on the other hand, was 20 miles up the road still holed up at Stanford. NFL rules prohibit him from participating until classes end at Stanford in late June. He’ll miss an equivalent of 12 practices. While they are busy changing the overtime and celebration rules, the league should really take a look at this rule. Thomas’ class schedule is not intense and he would benefit greatly by learning from his veteran teammates.
7. Strong chance the 49ers keep four running backs
It’s entirely impossible to judge the success of running plays during a non-contact OTA, but the entire backfield was running with a purpose. Even those who aren’t garnering a ton of attention — Kapri Bibbs and Tim Hightower — made some plays with their feet on Tuesday.
Carlos Hyde and Joe Williams are locks for the roster, but after that, it’s anyone’s best guess. I’ve heard undrafted rookie Matt Breida has looked impressive. If he can play special teams, he’ll have every chance to make the team. But again, don’t count out Bibbs or Hightower yet. It’s way too early.
8.Notable players during OTAs
-Keith Reaser saw most of the first-team repetitions at outside cornerback. That was surprising to see over Dontae Johnson. Later in practice, Johnson worked his way back with the first-team, but it appears Reaser has the upper-hand starting in the spring. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon did not receive a first-team rep.
-Jeremy Zuttah started the day at center but aggravated a leg injury. Kilgore filled in the rest of the way.
-Joshua Garnett started the day with the second-team but eventually worked his way back with the starters. It would be disappointing if the first round pick from a year ago did not earn the right guard spot. Newly signed eighth-year pro Brandon Fusco actually started the day over Garnett.
-Victor Bolden Jr. continues to be a standout undrafted receiver. Watch out for his name this preseason.