SANTA CLARA — With Jed York in attendance on the sidelines, a relatively low key Day 1 of training camp came and went Friday morning for the 49ers.
Highlights, observations and thoughts:
-The 49ers eased Reuben Foster into the rotation at WILL linebacker behind Malcolm Smith and Ray-Ray Armstrong, giving him just one first-team rep in 11-on-11 drills. But during his very first 7-on-7 drill following shoulder surgery, Foster picked off a deflected pass from C.J. Beathard and raced the other way toward the end zone as the buzzer sounded.
-Let’s not overreact about one play. The 49ers’ coaching staff really likes Smith in this scheme (he’s sneaky in coverage), but it’s clear instinctual plays like this from Foster will catapult him up the depth chart. The rookie showed burst in defending the run from sideline-to-sideline. Foster was picked by John Lynch to become a playmaker and he delivered in his first practice.
-Jaquiski Tartt started in place of Jimmie Ward at deep safety. Ward was unexpectedly put on the PUP list Friday morning after tweaking his hamstring during the conditioning test. It’s fair to say the 49ers didn’t plan very well for this. Most of Tartt’s reps in the spring came at strong safety behind Eric Reid — a more natural fit for him, in my opinion. Tartt assured reporters Friday he’s capable of the role.
-Shanahan downplayed the severity Ward’s hamstring, but this should make the team pause to evaluate how they handle the position in case of injury. Isn’t Reid a better deep safety than Tartt? And then Tartt a better box safety than he is deep? The team probably doesn’t want to play musical chairs for a minor injury. Still, Shanahan noted exactly what most us of think of Tartt’s skill set: he can run and hit — but can he play fast in this system at the most important position? It’s a good challenge for the 25-year-old to begin camp.
-The good news is that two undrafted prospects both are turning heads at deep safety. Lorenzo Jerome (St. Francis) was second in line behind Tartt, followed by Chanceller James (Boise State). James nearly had a diving interception next to the sidelines.
-The reps were all split pretty evenly at running back behind Carlos Hyde, but it was surprisingly Tim Hightower who emerged as the second option to open camp. Was this a nod to a veteran Shanahan loved in Washington? Or was this the 49ers actually sensing the 31-year-old could build upon his productive season a year ago in New Orleans (548 yards on 4.1 YPC)? Rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida have come with much fanfare, and they’ll get their crack. Especially without shoulder pads on, this situation is way too early to predict.
-Marquise Goodwin flashed his unique skill set multiple times during a productive practice. Donning black track short-shorts, Goodwin kept squeezing his 5-foot-9 frame in and out of traffic and has electric speed once the ball is in his hands. He’s not your typical receiver and cornerbacks are having trouble keeping track of him in the middle of the field. His development into a consistent threat could be the main factor that takes this offense from average, to above average.
-Kyle Juszczyk told us something unique: he’s meeting in both the running backs and the tight ends rooms. In Baltimore, Juszczyk met almost entirely with the running backs group. But the 49ers have billed Juszczyk as an offensive weapon, not a fullback, and his growing knowledge of both positions allow Shanahan to line him up wherever. The 26-year-old told me some of the routes he’s running in Shanahan’s system are similar to what Devonta Freeman ran the last two seasons in Atlanta. Freeman secured 127 combined receptions for the Falcons in two seasons with Shanahan.
-Incumbent offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore (center), Joshua Garnett (left guard) and Trent Brown (right tackle) held most of the first-team reps to open camp. Brandon Fusco saw much of the action at right guard, meaning Zane Beadles could be the odd man out. Kilgore will be fending off Pro Bowler Jeremy Zuttah, while Brown will battle former Seahawk Garry Gilliam.
-Wasn’t the best day for rookie tight end George Kittle, who had multiple drops. His athleticism is there, but if he doesn’t practice with reliability, the 49ers won’t hand him the starting job. I keep hearing Garrett Celek has a better chance to make the roster than most have predicted.
-Nothing spectacular or dreadful to report from Brian Hoyer. He had a couple of nice connections with Pierre Garcon over the middle of the field, a couple of passes that were mistimed. It seemed like very basic, Day 1, installation type of plays to open camp. Still, it’s evident this isn’t Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick. Accuracy is rarely an issue with Hoyer and practice runs more efficiently because of it.
-Rashard Robinson is without question the most vocal player on the field. He’s constantly talking junk to wide receivers, or pumping up his fellow members of the secondary. On a broken up pass against Aldrick Robinson, the cornerback hopped up from the turf and yelled, “No A-Rob! Not today A-Rob!” The 49ers need more of this. It gives practice more of a game feel. Robinson is turning into one hell of a parting gift from former GM Trent Baalke.
-Dontae Johnson started at second cornerback. Keith Reaser worked into the mix. Doesn’t seem like rookie third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon is really in competition to start at this point.
-Trent Taylor is probably a safe bet to start the season at punt returner. Don’t rule out either undrafted receivers Victor Bolden Jr. and Kendrick Bourne yet, but Shanahan wants to give Taylor as many opportunities as possible. Taylor’s also been lining up at outside receiver quite a bit. He won’t be solely a slot guy in this offense.