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John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were back at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara on Monday, both with their own, hot-off-the-press contract extensions and an empty auditorium to field virtual questions from not-in-person reporters. As odd as this setup will be for the foreseeable future, there was a tinge of normalcy as Lynch opened the press conference with a list of roster moves.
D.J. Reed’s season is over
The first move, though not surprising, is an unfortunate one. D.J. Reed, primed to enter his third season as the backup nickel corner to K’Waun Williams, won’t get to play a down. Reed tore his pectoral this offseason and will be placed on the reserve/NFI list, which, as Lynch said, will end his season. It’s a corresponding move for placing Richie James Jr., who was previously placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, onto the active/NFI list, as he recovers from a fractured wrist.
Both Shawn Poindexter, who suffered a torn ACL last preseason, and Kentavius Street (knee) will be taken off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and placed on the active roster. Street has struggled to stay healthy since being drafted in the fourth round back in 2018. He was activated towards the end of last season for the first time but was placed back on injured reserve in January. Poindexter is obviously an outside candidate to make the roster, but because of the need for an outside receiver, he actually has a shot if he can impress in camp. That, and the wide receiver competition, was broken down here.
Jordan Reed joins the equation
The most interesting move of the day, the 49ers signed Jordan Reed, a former All-Pro tight end with the Washington NFL franchise, who played under Kyle Shanahan as a rookie in 2013 and has been long-term teammates with Trent Williams. If healthy, he gives the 49ers arguably the top tight end duo in the NFL.
Of course, nothing is that simple. The reason, as John Lynch confirmed, that it’s a one-year deal and as Adam Schefter reported, it’s “incentive-laden” is because there’s a genuine question as to whether Reed should be playing football. In his college and NFL career, he has suffered seven concussions, the most recent of which, in the 2019 preseason, caused him to miss the entirety of the season. Reed had three diagnosed concussions in college at Florida and suffered four more in the NFL.
That’s a staggering figure on its own, but it’s even more concerning when you consider the number of undiagnosed concussions which players suffer regularly. NFL concussion protocols have tightened up, but there are handfuls of occasions throughout the year when players come back into the game too quickly, and are later diagnosed with concussions, or simply play through them. That’s without taking into account youth football and high school, where protocols often lag far behind, especially when players currently in the NFL were growing up.
But Reed decided to continue playing, and now he’s with the 49ers. It’s not on the 49ers to make that decision, unfortunately. If Reed wants to keep playing, he will, and San Francisco would be losing on an opportunity to sign, for a bargain, a potentially transcendental offensive weapon.
In Lynch’s view, “We got to a point where we felt the risk that we’re taking on was worth it with the potential reward.”
The risk for the 49ers is that you allow a player to do long-term harm to himself, but the football cost is minimal, as ugly as that statement is. For Reed, and this is not hyperbolic, it could mean a shorter life. But that’s up to him.
And if he does play, and does stay healthy, which everyone involved and not involved, including this writer, is hoping for, you could see this guy again.
I wish Jordan Reed didn’t have such an extensive injury history because he’s an absolute stud when healthy.
Look at how defenders talk about the newest 49ers TE:pic.twitter.com/nNzjAQ7Dc9
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) August 3, 2020
The challenges of the new training camp
With COVID-19 changing the nature of our world, the NFL has put in myriad new protocols to ideally, ensure player, coach and staff safety. Rosters are mostly cut down to 80 (some can stay at 90, but only with teams splitting up their workout groups in half) and preseason games being completely removed from the schedule.
Shanahan said last year the ideal number of preseason games is two. But without those preseason games, and a much shorter window to ramp up, and a coach who hates contact in practice, there are serious questions as to how you identify talent and prepare players for a season, while minimizing the risk of injuries brought on by the shortened window.
That leaves questions for positions like running back, with two new undrafted free agents in JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed and punt returner, with players like Brandon Aiyuk, Travis Benjamin and (insert your suggestions here, Dante Pettis, maybe?) in the mix.
“Evaluating running back, to me, would be a lot harder,” Shanahan said. “It’s hard to know how good a guy is gonna break tackles till you actually see guys try to tackle him; a punt returner and things like that.”
That might mean the unthinkable for Shanahan: tackling in training camp.
“We haven’t decided exactly how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to have to see that if we can’t make a decision,” Shanahan said. “And so there will be certain things in practice to where there could possibly be tackling. I’ve never done tackling before, never planned on it and I also don’t think you have to have NFL players just to get them ready to tackle. There’s a certain way we practice that our guys know how to hit and play low and pop a guy without bringing them to the ground. Bringing guys to the ground to me is where guys get hurt and you want to only do that on game day. But there might be certain drills and stuff you have to set up.”