SANTA CLARA – Mystery lurks amid the 49ers’ defense, aside from whether Nick Bosa shows up as the NFL’s richest non-quarterback before the Sept. 10 season opener.
The door is ajar for a few surprises. None come with full-time work on the NFL’s top-ranked defense last year. Any spot whatsoever should be coveted on the 49ers’ initial 53-man roster, which comes due Aug. 29.
“Everybody is still trying to fight for certain positions,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said after Tuesday’s energetic practice.
After losing 34-7 Sunday at the Las Vegas Raiders, the 49ers play out their preseason at Levi’s Stadium, on Saturday against the Denver Broncos (5:30 p.m.) and on Friday, Aug. 25 against the Los Angeles Chargers (7 p.m.)
Here are the spots to watch for perhaps a backdoor way onto the roster:
Isaiah Oliver “isn’t a guaranteed starter,” as coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday, so it wasn’t a surprise to see several players rotate at nickel back in Tuesday’s practice.
“It’s a Rolodex of players, to be quite honest,” Wilks said. “We put (rookie D’Shawn) Jamison inside. We put Demo (Lenoir) inside on certain reps, and A.J.’s been doing a great job. We’re trying to find the mix. We love the competition.”
Lenoir has been entrenched as a starting outside cornerback, but Wilks gave him a look at nickel against Brock Purdy and the first-string offense.
“He got back there today and it was like he was playing nickel all offseason,” Wilks said in praising Lenoir’s communication, recognition and adjustment while also working to stop the run when needed.
A year ago at this time, the 49ers cut first-string nickel back Darqueze Dennard, and that opened the door for rookie Sam Womack III, who lost that job after two games. Jimmie Ward reluctantly manned it the rest of last season, and once he left for the Houston Texans in free agency, the 49ers hired Oliver, whose $2.9 million guarantee at signing still makes him a safe bet to make the club. Oliver saw time also with first-team defense in Tuesday’s practice, and Wilks said he wants more consistency out of all defenders.
Womack and Ambry Thomas have served as the second-string outside cornerbacks in camp, and both have enhanced their standing, including with their tackling in Sunday’s 34-7 preseason-opening loss in Las Vegas. Parker and Qwuantrezz Knight are listed behind Oliver on this week’s depth chart.
Potentially, Lenoir could start on the outside, then bump inside as the nickel back while the 49ers bring in Womack or Thomas on the outside with Charvarius Ward.
Oren Burks sprained his knee (posterior cruciate ligament) in a collision Friday with Raiders star Davante Adams, so competition will intensify there for the honor of serving next to Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. It’s fair to say the No. 3 linebacker spot is not guaranteed for Burks.
Jalen Graham, the ninth and final member of this year’s draft class, has raised eyebrows. He played the second-most defensive snaps Sunday (37), and, “he showed up,” Wilks said. Can he skip the queue of incumbents ahead of him: Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Curtis Robinson, Marcelino McCrary-Ball?
“With O.B. being out, it gives other guys opportunities to step up and make plays,” said Wilks, who noted that rookie Dee Winters “flashed” in his NFL debut, too.
SPECIAL TEAMS ACE
George Odum’s shoulder sprain (near his collarbone) means he can practice but must avoid contact until Week 1. Odum led the NFL with 15 special-teams tackles last year and was having a solid camp. The 49ers can’t be eager to move on from him. Any temporary fill-in must also dazzle on special teams.
Odum is also an option at safety, where three spots are sewn up by Talanoa Hufanga, Tashaun Gipson Sr. and Ji’Ayir Brown. Now is when Knight and Tayler Hawkins must make their move beyond practice-squad potential, and Wilks referred to both of them as among his favorites. Hawkins impressed with his improvement since the spring, and Knight is not just “entertaining” but flexible to play multiple spots.
A four-man rotation on the interior certainly could feature Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Kevin Givens and Javon Kinlaw. The latter two started Sunday and didn’t fare so well against the Raiders (no one really did, of course). Marlon Davidson, who came over from Carolina with Wilks, had three tackles. T.Y. McGill made a couple big run stops in Tuesday’s practice.
Considering that all projected Week 1 starters sat out — 31 players in all did not play — then anyone who saw action may be endangered on the roster.
Kinlaw has excelled in offseason workouts with career-best health. Production in practice and games will determine who much longer the 49ers want to stick with the 14th overall player drafted in 2020. Same goes for the No. 3 pick in 2021: Trey Lance, who’s vying for a backup quarterback spot with Sam Darnold and Brandon Allen.
#49ers practice report, non-QB edition:
Moody 5/6 FG: long of 59, miss 61 WL
Hufanga pick6 vs Purdy juggled like vs Rams
Nickel-back role auditions
Trent Williams practiced through early ankle issue
Gray 40yrd catch from Sam
Rehab: Kittle, Elijah, Dre pic.twitter.com/y02YYbPEZK
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 15, 2023
* * *
Purdy, after sitting out Sunday’s game, returned to action and completed 16-of-20 passes, one of which Talanoa Hufanga intercepted for a would-be pick-6. … Sam Darnold rotated first as the No. 2 quarterback, and his highlight on a 5-of-6 day was a 40-yard completion to Danny Gray, who returned from a tight hip last week. … Trey Lance was 4-of-7, scrambled a few times and finished with an overthrow of Ronnie Bell . … Brandon Allen was excused from practice; he flew to Florida after Sunday’s game for the expected birth of his second son.
#49ers QB practice report:
Purdy 16/20, threw pick-6 to Hufanga on short toss to Fumagalli
Lance opened w/ on target to Latu. Couple scrambles OB later as he escaped pocket and surveyed. Was 4/7, overthrew Bell at end
Darnold 5/6, hit Danny Gray on 40-yarder pic.twitter.com/xFlFgSKOOx
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 15, 2023
JAKE MOODY REBOUNDS
Rookie kicker Jake Moody made 5-of-6 field-goal attempts in practice as he rebounded from Sunday’s debut, in which he missed his two field-goal attempts. Moody made good Tuesday from 59, 34, 56, 53, and 43; his only miss was a 61-yard attempt wide left.
Returning to practice were defensive ends Drake Jackson and Robert Beal, the latter of whom pressured Lance on his overthrow to Bell on Tuesday’s final throw. … Left tackle Trent Williams practiced through an early ankle issue. … Doing conditioning on the side field were tight end George Kittle (groin), running back Elijah Mitchell (groin) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (hamstring). … Bell said of Sunday’s debut: “I felt like I was comfortable and that was a goal of mine. When you turn on the film and watch for assignment and alignment, I was comfortable and doing the right thing. (As a punt returner), I thought I did a good job squaring up the ball and making a clean catch. But I could have done better.”
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