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The innovative way Kyle Shanahan is changing how the 49ers watch film


SANTA CLARA — Summer break has commenced around the NFL.

The 49ers wrapped up their final mini-camp practice on Wednesday, signaling the end of the offseason program. Players will vacation and spend time with their families. Kyle Shanahan, who has been going 275 miles per hour since helping lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl, says his plan is normally lounging around Mexico, where he completely unplugs with his family.

“Don’t wear a watch around, don’t look at anything, just wake up when I wake up, go to sleep whenever I’m tired and just to hang out with the kids,” Shanahan said. “(I) try to be pretty anxiety free because I know it’s the calm before the storm usually.”

There are some final thoughts to clean out of the notebook before the entire Bay Area recharges for football season — sorry Giants fans.

1. Players continue to be in awe of the unique way Shanahan is breaking down tape

Brian Hoyer gave us a little anecdote Wednesday that illustrates the way the 49ers are thinking differently under their new head coach. When Shanahan is in front of the entire team, he’s breaking down specific plays for both the offense and the defense at the same time, which is a rarity. The goal is to educate players about more than their position. Certain plays in the first quarter are setting up another in the third. The way a slot receiver blocks on a running play can fool the entire defense.

Most of the 49ers players have never had information presented to them this way.

“I sit next to [LB] Dekoda Watson,” Hoyer said, “and he’s like, ‘Man, I never even knew half of this stuff like who has got a certain gap and how we’re trying to affect that gap.’ I think that’s one of the great things about Kyle as a coach, is that he is able to break it down to the simplest level whereas I think a lot of times in this league that people bypass that and they just want to tell you, ‘just do this.'”

Joe Staley is one of those players who has never watched tape this way. Ever. The left tackle went as far as saying Shanahan is the “smartest coach” he’s ever been around and that he’s finally “enjoying playing football again.” The 11-year veteran’s only qualm is that he didn’t get to play under Shanahan earlier in his career. During a film session on Wednesday, where Shanahan is just as likely to quiz a veteran as he is an undrafted rookie, Staley legitimately had the goosebumps. The expectations have been raised for what this team can accomplish in Year 1.

“I kind of looked over at (Daniel) Kilgore and said, ‘This is awesome,'” Staley said. “You kind of get like chills almost. It’s just cool to see football talked about that way. Instead of like, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta do your job.’ Then it’s like, ‘Yes sir.'”

Staley praised the front office for bringing in “football people.” Pierre Garcon, Brian Hoyer, Elvis Dumervil and a slew of new offensive line depth do not carry star power, but it’s easy to tell this is a sharper group of guys than it was a year ago. Players are expected to know everyone’s responsibilities on the field, and if they don’t, they probably won’t be playing.

2. This football team is becoming tighter

I’ve always found it interesting what Shanahan consistently says he learned the most in Atlanta: having a tight, close-knit football team matters. He mentioned how the Falcons almost had a college football type of atmosphere in the way players celebrated for each other after big plays, and how much they hung out off the field.

As you read above, Shanahan has made football an enjoyable experience again and that’s helped bring some of the guys closer together — maybe earlier than expected.

“I hear them talking about stuff on the weekends together,” Shanahan said.

Hoyer is taking it a step further. While most of the 49ers players will step away entirely from football, the quarterback is going to organize a throwing session in the middle of July with whichever receivers can make the trip. Dates and a location are still up in the air, but this is a group of new players taking ownership.

3. George Kittle was probably the breakout player during the offseason program

Fantasy football nerds stockpile this note: Kittle could be a 500-yard, 5 touchdown guy this season — if his cards fall right. He did not look like a rookie during the offseason program. Things could change once the pads are strapped on, but right now it wouldn’t be a shock if the fifth-round pick ended up starting Week 1. At 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, he really does remind me of former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley with the way he moves in space.

“You think of Iowa, you think of these big, blocking tight ends,” Hoyer said. “He has a really good football awareness, is what I would call it. A feel for where to break, how to break, read-zones. I’ve been surprised and, obviously, it’s a good thing for us.”

If it’s a coin flip between Kittle and some of the other well traveled veterans, it would behoove the 49ers to go with the rookie. They aren’t developing a whole lot of young talent for a rebuilding team. The only other rookies who would be considered for a starting spot are the first-rounders — Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster. That’s not to say they will shove the entire workload on Kittle alone, because Shanahan also likes Garrett Celek.

“Speaking of Celek, he’s done a great job,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been a fan of him throughout his career. I remember studying him a couple years ago when I thought he was going to be a free agent. I think it was last year, but they ended up signing him before he went to the market.”

Tight ends often roam free in Shanahan’s play-action passing game. There will be yards to gobble up.

4. Defense has another solid, playmaking day

I’ve missed some time being around the 49ers while covering the Warriors, but every time I’m in Santa Clara, the defense looks ahead of the offense.

On Wednesday, it was two pick-six interceptions that stood out from a pair of safeties. The first was from Eric Reid on Hoyer. The second, a leaping grab from undrafted rookie Chaceller James. It was a two-minute drill where the offense was supposed to drive and kick a field goal. Instead, the 49ers’ defense wound up scoring points. It might be hard to keep James off the 53-man roster. He’s shown instinctive playmaking skills.

It should be noted defensive coordinator Robert Saleh really looks comfortable in his own skin. One portion of practice he playfully called a timeout — knowing that Shanahan was supposed to be in charge of those. The move prompted laughter and smack talking. Bonding is half of what these practices are for.

 

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