SANTA CLARA — The 49ers wrapped up the first eight days of training camp Friday, the last six of which included pads. These sessions have provided some early indications regarding breakout players in 2018.
Who has stood out during training camp?
Goodwin has embarrassed one 49ers defensive back after the next throughout camp. It started over the weekend, when he shook Richard Sherman in individual drills before using his Olympic speed to dust the 30-year-old cornerback for a big gain.
At this point, you’ve likely seen the clip, which went viral.
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) July 29, 2018
Goodwin has been San Francisco’s most consistent, and undoubtedly most electrifying, receiver throughout camp. Each day, it seems Goodwin connects with Jimmy Garoppolo, whose deep ball is steadily improving, for a long gain.
This past Wednesday, Garoppolo hit Goodwin for a 50-yard completion. Fast forward to Thursday, during an otherwise sloppy offensive practice, Goodwin was the lone bright spot, blazing by cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon for two long gains, including a 75-yard touchdown up the left seam.
This much is clear: when Goodwin gets a step, cornerbacks aren’t getting it back.
But we knew this. Where Goodwin has noticeably progressed is in his route-running and ability to catch contested balls. He has transitioned from a pure deep threat to an all-around receiver capable of making all types of catches. During Friday’s practice, two defenders were draped on Goodwin as he ran a curl route during a two-minute drill. Goodwin retreated back to the ball and caught it out in front with his hands.
Goodwin has parlayed a career-best season, including personal highs in catches (56) and yards (962) in 2017, and a three-year contract extension into his second training camp with the 49ers.
Kittle fought through injuries during a successful rookie campaign that produced 43 catches and 515 yards in 15 games. He capped the season with a four-catch, 100-yard performance.
The Iowa product entered his second career camp fully healthy. His play has followed suit. Kittle has consistently connected with Garoppolo on intermediate throws as camp has progressed.
On Wednesday, he caught three passes in quick succession, all of which were about 10-to-15 yards. That included a leaping, one-handed catch with his left hand near the sideline.
“He’s got his explosiveness back,” Shanahan said Saturday. “He’s a physical guy who can block well, and he’s got a year in the system where he’s got a lot more confidence. So, he’s not thinking as much out there. He’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Kittle caught five total passes Friday, including a 25-yard touchdown over the middle. Kittle has been effective both out of the slot and on the line, whether he’s lined up with linebackers or defensive backs. Garoppolo’s quick release and accuracy on post and corner routes have meshed well with Kittle’s game. There have been several plays in which Garoppolo puts enough touch on the ball to loft over outstretched linebackers into Kittle’s hands.
Kyle Shanahan cited a more confident Breida as a major reason for his early success throughout camp. That much was obvious when Breida took the lectern after Wednesday’s practice, told media members he had gained 10 pounds to hit the 200-pound mark this offseason, then demanded the public relations staff get his weight changed on the website ASAP.
His play thus far has been convincing. Breida, always known for his shiftiness and speed, has hit holes in a hurry that have resulted in big gains. After catching just 21 passes as a rookie last season, Breida has been heavily involved in the passing game throughout training camp, frequently beating linebackers and safeties in coverage.
In 2017, the Georgia Southern product rushed at least 11 times in four of the final five games after going the first 11 weeks without a double-digit single-game rush total. In the final two contests, Breida compiled 23 carries for 146 yards. He also broke out a 32-yard reception in Week 17.
That increased workload figures to spill over into 2018, despite the Jerick McKinnon addition.
Coincidence or not, San Francisco’s first win in 2017 — a 31-21 home win over the New York Giants in Week 11 — aligned with Colbert’s first start at free safety. He dominated, laying down crushing hits, eliminating chunk runs by closing down the ballcarrier, and defending passes over the top — all hallmarks of a Cover 3 single-high safety.
Colbert has morphed from a seventh-round steal to one of the most promising young free safeties in the league. The Pro Bowl potential is there. His training camp thus far has validated that.
On Tuesday, Colbert picked off Garoppolo and returned it for a long touchdown. The 49ers quarterback targeted Marquise Goodwin on a play-action, and Colbert read Garoppolo’s eyes and snagged the pass. Two days later, he scooped up a Kendrick Bourne drop and returned it for a touchdown, once again.
Buckner is the massive, sprawling, agile force in which the entire 49ers defensive line is built upon. He led all interior defensive linemen with 19 quarterback hits in 2017. All signs point to him exploding in his third NFL season.
Buckner has been consistently disruptive throughout training camp. On Tuesday, he would have sacked Jimmy Garoppolo on back-to-back plays had hitting been allowed. The absence of hitting makes Buckner’s training camp hard to quantify, but he has spent the first eight practices living in the opposing backfield.
“He’s special,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said about Buckner Thursday. “As long as Buck keeps going in the way he’s going, he’ll make noise. He can disrupt an entire practice if he wants to. Fortunately for us, he always wants to. He’s a problem in there for offenses and we’re fortunate to have him.”