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49ers camp observations: Offense torches secondary, Armstead shines


SANTA CLARA — Family and friends of 49ers coaches, players and team employees gathered in tents for the first padded practice of training camp on Sunday. Their view of practice was partially obstructed, so Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch invited them to stand closer on a coaching sideline. My oh my, have the times changed in a once paranoid 49ers world.

The major news of the day comes on the injury front. Eric Reid left an 11-on-11 team drill limping on his right leg, returned to the drill later, then was escorted to the locker room by a trainer. Shanahan doesn’t have an update yet. Vinnie Sunseri replaced Reid in the starting lineup, highlighting San Francisco’s depth issues in the secondary.

Here’s everything else we saw:

-Brian Hoyer and the passing offense torched an undermanned secondary. Hoyer had another 60-yard touchdown connection down the middle of the field with Marquise Goodwin. Pierre Garcon was routinely beating Rashard Robinson in coverage. Kyle Juszczyk was winning underneath against both linebackers and safeties. It was a clinic from a new, but experienced group of weapons on offense. Nearly every passing play from the first unit was a success.

-Are the 49ers happy about the big day on offense, or pausing for concern because the secondary looks overwhelmed? I would guess the latter. It’s been a rough start to camp for Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser at second cornerback. Goodwin has exposed both, and Sunday undrafted receivers like Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden Jr. were doing the same. Meanwhile, third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon’s development is going slower than expected. He’s yet to take a first-team rep. I don’t want to keep harping on this point, but an injury to Rashard Robinson would be devastating for this 49ers defensive backfield.

-While the secondary had its problems, the defensive front didn’t. Arik Armstead had three would-be sacks coming around the edge at the LEO position. He always stands out in a practice because of his 6-foot-7 frame, but Sunday was truly a day where his athleticism shined more than his size.

-Armstead, like his teammate Carlos Hyde, has undergone a body transformation. He’s lost 15 pounds transitioning from a two-gap defensive end to a LEO edge rusher. It’s early, but Armstead at 275 pounds looks like a much different player, which excites this coaching staff. The third-year pro said he started working out with a military trainer in San Francisco. Knowing it’s a make or break year for his development, Armstead studied a bunch of outside pass rushers around the league. Finally, his shoulder is fully healed, too. All positive vibes around Armstead right now.

-Aaron Lynch was also disruptive as a pass rusher and is off to a very strong start of camp. Elvis Dumervil was having his way against the 350-pound Trent Brown. DeForest Buckner was mirroring ballcarriers in the run game. It was a strong day for pass rushers.

-Another day of practice, another Reuben Foster pick-six, this time in 11-on-11 drills instead of 7-on-7. He timed a slant route and jumped the throw. His interviews are becoming just as entertaining as his play on the field. Said Foster of his second INT in three days: “I don’t have a thing for the ball, the ball has a thing for me.”

-Foster keeps finding himself around the ball, but he’s still with the third-teamers. Ray-Ray Armstrong and Brock Coyle have been locked in with the second-team as inside linebackers. People are noticing his playmaking skills, but for now, Foster will have to wait his turn. The 49ers are slowing their roll with Solomon Thomas, too, but the No. 3 overall pick is with the second unit and not the third.

-NaVorro Bowman obviously has been taking Foster under his wing. One teaching point early on: keeping Foster’s head upright. He had a tendency to lead with the crown of his helmet at Alabama. That’s a technique that’ll get you hurt quickly in the NFL. Foster’s first reaction to practicing alongside Bowman? “That’s a man! Have you seen his arms?!”

-Tim Hightower had another solid day working as the second-string running back. And while all the hoopla has been about rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida this offseason, Hightower is not going away. Shanahan told us he tried to sign Hightower both in Cleveland and Atlanta — exactly why Hightower views this chance with the 49ers as a golden opportunity. Hightower opened the 2011 season as Shanahan’s starting running back in Washington and was off to a blazing start before tearing up his knee. The fact that Shanahan still coveted Hightower after all these years means something to the 31-year-old.

-Daniel Kilgore is winning the battle at center by default. For the second straight day, Jeremy Zuttah had an issue with the center-quarterback exchange. That won’t be tolerated. It’s been a disappointing start for the former Ravens Pro Bowler.

-Although, Shanahan did tell us not to take stock into offensive line competition yet. But Joshua Garnett has been locked in at left guard, Kilgore at center, Brandon Fusco at right guard and Brown at right tackle. There’s a lot of time left to settle all of this.

-Three days in, and no first-team reps yet for Ronald Blair or Quinton Dial. Positions are supposed to be pretty interchangeable in this defensive scheme, but the 49ers have locked Tank Carradine into that big defensive end position, almost certainly keeping it warm until Solomon Thomas is ready. Blair had a solid rookie season but is still trying to work his way in with the starters from time to time. Dial has value as a nose tackle but will remain behind Earl Mitchell.

-Camp’s hottest competition during the first three days? Backup deep safety. Chanceller James picked off Matt Barkley on Sunday, one day after Lorenzo Jerome did the same. Jaquiski Tartt will be the primary backup for the position behind Jimmie Ward, but the 49ers won’t tolerate anything but excellence from that position in their new scheme. James and Jerome have both played well enough to make the 53-man roster early on, but it’s likely only one will make it.

 

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