SANTA CLARA — On well-manicured practice fields behind Levi’s Stadium, the grind is underway.
A new regime headed by Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch sold the San Francisco 49ers as a land of opportunity, and that sales pitch is playing out in real time. Reporters got our eyes on a competitive Week 1 of OTAs.
The good: Brian Hoyer has total command of the offense, there’s a stable of hungry running backs pushing Carlos Hyde, and a surplus of depth on the offensive line is apparent. The defense won the day and players keep saying this scheme will allow them to play more freely.
The not so good: Joshua Garnett was mostly with the second-team, Jaquiski Tartt was not included in many of the first-team sub-packages, and the oft-injured Marquise Goodwin came up lame after a 7-on-7 drill.
My full observations from Tuesday are here. Let’s take a deeper dive on some players who can channel this positive momentum from May into starting reps come September.
Surprise, surprise. It was Reaser, not Dontae Johnson, mostly lining up opposite of Rashard Robinson at outside cornerback. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, the 5-foot-11 Reaser has never started a game in his NFL career. He did log 353 snaps a season ago (30.6 percent of the snaps) as a sub-package cornerback. But like most of his teammates, his play was mostly uninspiring in 2016.
Reaser looked comfortable and confident on Tuesday. Techniques taught by defensive coach Jeff Hafley are clearly starting to show. If Johnson does fall out of favor with the coaching staff, Reaser will still have to beat out 2017 third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, but it’s likely the 49ers will want to ease the rookie into the fold. Even if Witherspoon is flashing promise throughout training camp and the preseason, it’s wise to play it safe with young cornerbacks.
From last week: How effective Reaser and the other cornerbacks play will end up impacting the 49ers’ win/loss total more than any other position on the roster.
Starting won’t matter as much as how many times he’s targeted by Hoyer, but right now Goodwin is in line to see many footballs thrown his direction. Despite not possessing your typical wide receiving body (he’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, 179 pounds), Goodwin was getting separation and made a big play Tuesday on an intermediate crossing pattern hugging the sideline. He’s so quick, defenders can lose him in space.
I reported there was stiff competition between the Redskins and 49ers for his services in March. At the NFL combine, I kept heard many thought the Bills squandered his talents in Buffalo. There are coaching staffs who want to get their hands on the speedster to see if they can unleash a beast.
Others, though, will point out Goodwin’s durability. He’s missed 24 of 48 games the last three seasons. Counting on him to take on a more featured role in the offense is a dangerous proposition — literally. Jeremy Kerley will have his own role, but should Goodwin go down, he’d be the next man up.
Looks like this one might be set in stone. With Aaron Lynch mostly lining up as a defensive linemen, Brooks has very little competition at SAM linebacker. On Tuesday he was regularly flipping sides, dropping in coverage, blitzing the quarterback. What’s amazing about Brooks is he continues to survive various regimes. There are very few constants in Santa Clara. Brooks has been a pillar — through quests from championships to the fall from grace. He’s not a star, but his role will be important in this defense.
“He’s getting (the reps) because he deserves them,” Shanahan said. “Watching how he played last year and then going into this offseason, you never know when a guy who has been around a bunch, if they’re going to feel that they need the offseason like other people do and Ahmad’s been here every day and he’s needed it just like everyone has anytime you’re learning a new scheme.”
Seeing Fusco lined up as the first-team right guard was a head-scratcher at first, but it’s starting to add up. The agile 306-pounder swiftly moves in space, whereas the 315-pound Joshua Garnett is more of a mauling power blocker. In the past, Shanahan has valued athleticism from his guards over strength.
Garnett shouldn’t be written off just yet, but it’s a reminder that Shanahan and Lynch’s football philosophy is a stark contrast from Trent Baalke’s. It would be a shame to waste a first-round pick from 2016, but Shanahan has made it clear the best players will play.
“All we have to go off of is watching tape from what they’ve had in the past,” Shanahan said. “We want to balance everyone out, give everyone opportunities at each position. We need to see for ourselves, doing what we’re asking them to do, the techniques and the schemes and find out what the best place is for guys. There’s a number of guys we’re moving around.”
To me, it felt like the LEO position was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. But the 49ers are committed to giving Armstead a spin as the hallmark pass rusher, and honestly, why not? His size on the football field is something to marvel about. Now it’s up to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to put the 23-year-old in positions to make plays. If there’s one thing this San Francisco defense needs, it’s big plays. If Armstead can perform like DeForest Buckner did a year ago, and Buckner himself makes a bigger leap, now we’re talking.
Other competitions where it’s too early to tell: Linebacker: Reuben Foster vs. Malcolm Smith; center: Jeremy Zuttah vs. Daniel Kilgore; right tackle: Trent Brown vs. Garry Gilliam.