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7 questions for 49ers to answer as training camp nears

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Folks, it’s almost here. The glorious return of midsummer football practice. The boys are back.

By Tuesday of next week, the hype trains will have rumbled back into town. Fan accounts will make the caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly transition from “training camp loading 🔋” tweets to “training camp SZN 😤” tweets.

Nature is, well, it’s not healing, but football is just about back. Here’s a look at what’s on tap for the 49ers and some of the more pressing questions they’ll hopefully answer by its conclusion.

Is this Jake Brendel thing for real?

This isn’t a shot at Jake Brendel. But the UCLA product has 250 career offensive snaps, just six of which have been with the 49ers. He’s replacing Alex Mack, a legendary center who retires with… more than 10,000 offensive snaps.

We just don’t know what to expect from Brendel, and the 49ers are entering this camp with him as the projected starter. He’s certainly got athleticism, expressed by his teammates and evidenced by a 90th percentile 40-yard dash and 3-cone drill at the NFL Combine in 2016.

But it’s a wild shift to go from a potential Hall of Famer and multi-time Pro Bowler, to a total question mark, who at age 29, isn’t a prospect you have time to develop.

Kyle Shanahan didn’t commit to Brendel as the starter during OTAs availability on June 7 — though he doesn’t ever really name starters — but expressed confidence in him and a unit that features two undrafted rookies in Jason Poe and Dohnovan West.

“We knew Mack retiring was a chance, was hoping he wouldn’t,” Shanahan said. “And it went all the way up into free agency and we don’t want to make a big thing and go chase stuff, especially with a player [Brendel] that we’ve had in here who has done a good job and he’s shown us in here that he can do it.”

The real question for the 49ers would seem to be whether anyone in this group is actually capable of starting, or whether they’ll need to make a move for a veteran like J.C. Tretter.

Having the likes of West and Poe in the mix, along with Daniel Brunskill’s experience makes it a situation that’s not quite dire, especially at this stage. But there is a lot of convincing yet to be done.

How is Trey Lance’s touch?

There’s been much ado about nothing as it pertains to Lance and the now-triggering “arm fatigue” subject. The reality is that everyone has too much time on their hands and too much of it is spent online debating things that don’t actually matter.

Does Lance’s arm get tired? Of course. No one can throw a football endlessly. But there’s little indication that he’s had any sort of consistent fatigue issues.

Lance looked encouraging last year. The 49ers have bet their future on him. He’s obviously the guy and all signs are the team has been increasingly happy with what it has seen from him.

But much of that took place behind the scenes, and he revealed that his finger injury last year prevented him from properly gripping a football for a few months. That led to him having to throw a bit differently than he was accustomed to.

So no one actually knows what to expect from Lance.

But if we’re talking about practical concerns, and areas where you’d like to see development, it’s in the short range.

One thing Jimmy Garoppolo was/is excellent at, is delivering the ball on time, accurately, in tight windows. He is not an elite quarterback, but he has elite touch on short throws.

Short throw accuracy doesn’t exactly getting the blood pumping, but it’s why Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk formed the “YAC Bros” moniker. The 49ers offense under Garoppolo has been all about those little precision passes which put receivers on a platform to run after the catch.

Part of that is Garoppolo’s lack of top tier arm strength and inability to attack the deep third of the field, where Lance clearly projects to open up the offense. You have to go with the range he’s comfortable with.

But Shanahan himself is an expert in precision, timing and little nuances, and you cannot expect that the 49ers will go away with much of what’s made them a contender for two of the last three seasons.

The other side of the sword, or the cannon attached to Lance’s arm, is that he didn’t demonstrate much ability to temper the pace of his passes. Everything was a fastball.

It’s like how some people are more comfortable playing shortstop than making the little forearm-heavy throw from second base. Lance is a shortstop. Garoppolo’s a second baseman.

So what you’d like to see is for Lance to show a bit more feel on shorter passes.

He can throw accurate passes, but if they are coming in as heaters, there’s a much higher potential for drops, deflections and turnovers. That’s an area he needs to show growth.

Can the new receivers hold onto the ball?

This is the Danny Gray, Ray-Ray McCloud section.

Both have sparkplug, game-jolting potential. Gray’s a true speedster who projects to fill the theoretical void Marquise Goodwin filled for exactly one season, as the true outside wide receiver who can “take the top off a defense.”

Part of the reason the speedster role struggled to take hold, perhaps, is that their starting quarterback wasn’t exactly touching the upper layers of the atmosphere with his deep passes. With Lance, that will almost certainly change.

But Gray is a raw prospect, and one of his major struggles was holding onto the ball.

In 2020, he had a drop rate of 8.3% (three drops on 36 catchable targets). In 2021, that drop rate jumped to 12.5% (seven drops on 56 catchable targets). 

Given that he’s got work to do as a route runner and doesn’t project as a stellar blocker, at least not initially — Shanahan and his staff are fairly demanding when it comes to the blocking requirements from their receivers — he’s going to need to, at the very least, hold onto the ball most of the time. His college tape doesn’t indicate he will, and he had a pretty egregious drop in OTAs.

Then there’s McCloud, who is a stellar special teams player and flexible offensive weapon, with one major caveat: he fumbles… a lot.

McCloud has 11 career fumbles in four seasons and at least two in each. You’d like to think, “Well, has that number declined in recent years?” Nope.

He had a career-high four fumbles with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. He also dropped six passes, for a 9.1 percent drop rate, which ranked 10th-worst in the league.

So, yeah. Let’s see if either, or even both, can hold onto the football.

What can Drake Jackson provide in year one?

The Shanahan-Lynch braintrust has drafted three edge rushers. One was Solomon Thomas. The other was Nick Bosa.

So, where on that scale does Drake Jackson fit in? He’s not a top-three pick like the Thomas or Bosa, but was viewed as having a first-round pedigree, despite his 61st overall selection.

He’s got excellent size and athleticism, and expressed a zeal to learn from an already deep edge rusher room.

Here’s defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s scouting report on him from OTAs:

“First off, the pass rush ability, the bend on the edge, ability to win one-on-one on an edge, ability to flatten out at the top of his rush, and then the second burst,” Kocurek said. “You got your first burst where you get off the football and you’re into the blocker and then once you beat the blocker, then you have a second burst to the quarterback where the sacks show up and the second burst just jumped off the tape. Then he has really long arms to elongate along with that second burst that I could see becoming a really productive NFL pass rusher.”

Jackson will have to compete with the likes of Samson Ebukam, Kemoko Turay, Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder Jr. for snaps, which will not be an easy task. It’s as deep an edge rusher room as the 49ers have ever had, which probably gets said (accurately, for the most part) every year.

What will happen with Jimmy Garoppolo?

This feels like a situation where the parents agreed to stay together until the kids went off to college. Well, the kids are out of the house. So… where’s Jimmy going?

Signs point to the 49ers releasing Garoppolo.

If he was willing to take a sizable pay cut — there are no indications he’s willing to — then keeping him around as the backup might be more appealing. That’s despite the obvious, massively heightened awkwardness that situation would create.

This is a team which has shown a stubborn willingness to live in those awkward spaces. Kyle Shanahan doesn’t care what you think.

So while Garoppolo is likelier than not to be cut once he passes a physical, it’s not absolutely out of the question for the 49ers to retain him as their backup.

He’s a solid quarterback. Quarterbacks — as he’s evidenced too many times — get injured. Having someone who’s not Nate Sudfeld is a solid insurance policy.

This is all to say it’s very unlikely Garoppolo returns to the 49ers, especially after the goodbyes and the way he and his agent, Don Yee, sprung his shoulder surgery on them out of the blue.

But there don’t seem to be many, if any, trade suitors, since that surgery.

And while the $24-ish million that would be saved from cutting him could obviously and well may be used on a Deebo Samuel extension, there’s incredible value to having open cap space, especially as a contender.

Having spare cap space could allow the 49ers to roll that money over to next season, into free agency, or for a Nick Bosa extension, acquire a disgruntled star by fitting them into cap space, or even acquire draft picks by taking on an unfavorable contract.

There is substantial leverage in having extra money lying around. Much of the value of having a rookie quarterback is maximizing the cap space that comes with their rookie contract, and the 49ers would be eschewing that again if they kept Garoppolo.

Will Deebo Samuel get an extension?

When Deebo Samuel is on the field, he’s a borderline MVP candidate.

The 49ers just need to make sure he’s committed to them and committed to his health. He missed nine games (and played just one snap in another) in 2020 and had some injury issues coming out of college.

When he came into camp healthy last year after a proactive offseason, it was a revelation.

That said, the greater concern might be the way he and his agent, Tory Dandy, tried to force their way out this summer. It was abrupt and bizarre, with the 49ers’ front office expressing a level of confusion about his trade demands.

It seemed the 49ers didn’t make an offer as quickly or as satisfactorily as Samuel wanted, so he asked out, trying to get to a team that would give him that contract. The request came in very late in the summer, as opposed to around free agency, when it may have been more viable to execute.

But San Francisco has shown it pays its star players. The Paraag Marathe machine can be a slow and methodical one, often getting deals done near training camp, but the deals tend to get done.

So, for Samuel’s side to react the way it did, it left some scratching their heads.

How can you be assured he wants to be with the 49ers, that he won’t suddenly ask for a trade again?

Right now, the team has all the leverage. While you’d expect the two sides to come to an agreement, the 49ers can call Samuel’s bluff at this point, and at worst, franchise tag him next season.

It would not be a popular move in the locker room, nor would Samuel or his representation be thrilled about it.

But the new CBA effectively removed the ability to hold out. If Samuel tried that, he could lose a year of accrued service time, and would become a restricted, not unrestricted free agent at the end of his contract.

There was some trust lost this offseason, and the leverage is with the 49ers. You should expect them to work to get a deal done, but they’re going to be (understandably) cautious.

How will the offense adapt with Trey Lance at the helm?

This is more of a big-picture question that will evolve throughout the year and present more clearly in the regular season.

But training camp is a time for experimentation and might show glimpses (not all of which we’ll be able to report) of how Shanahan and his staff are trying to grow the offense.

They put together a playbook last year which incorporated some wrinkles for Lance, but wasn’t tailor-made for him. When he did get that first chance in Arizona, Shanahan just about ran him into the ground with an outrageous number of designed runs up the middle.

Lance suffered a knee sprain in that game, and didn’t get another chance until Week 17, when he got his first career win against the Houston Texans. Here’s a KNBR breakdown of that game.

The core tenets of the 49ers’ offense are to attack with an outside zone run game (though they mix in plenty of inside zone, gap scheme and other runs, too) and create defensive expectations that you exploit. There’s been a lot predicated on timing and attacking the middle of the field, because that’s where Garoppolo has thrived.

With Lance, you wonder how much the 49ers’ staff will create running opportunities for him, and whether they’ll look to put safeties in conflict with deep throws more consistently.

This is the first time since Robert Griffin III that Shanahan has had a quarterback capable of beating the defense consistently with his feet. You’d like to imagine he’ll find creative ways to take advantage of that.

 

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