SANTA CLARA –Every snap by every quarterback was charted at 49ers training camp. Overkill? Not when reporting on a team that ran out of healthy quarterbacks, finished a win shy of the Super Bowl, and now has cast its 2021 first-round pick into limbo that is Garoppolo-esque.
Quarterbacks shared the spotlight all through camp, leading into Friday’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers. And, to think, neither Brock Purdy nor his three (two?) backups had to elude a pass rush by Nick Bosa.
If Trey Lance wants no further part of the 49ers’ quarterback carousel — and vice versa — it shouldn’t be a surprise, not after Purdy earned the starting role via last season’s heroics, and not after Sam Darnold beat out Lance for the No. 2 job.
Another year, another quarterback in limbo, though Lance likely won’t reappear on a side field like Jimmy Garoppolo did last August. No NFL team can match the 49ers’ endless quarterback drama. This camp, at least, was a lot more compelling than QB duels such as Jeff Garcia-vs.-Rick Mirer, Alex Smith-vs.-Shaun HIll, Brian Hoyer-vs.-C.J. Beathard, etc.
Here is what else Bosa missed out on the past four weeks, while he awaits the NFL’s richest contract ever for a non-quarterback? Let’s review:
Purdy wins by a landslide. He needed the work the most, in his first practices since March 10 surgery repaired his elbow ligament. He took all first-team reps, successfully followed a pitch-count plan, recaptured his arm strength, and showed the same command of Shanahan’s offense as last season’s rookie showcase. That’s best-case-scenario stuff.
Literally, it’s a runner, but also a receiver, a leader, and a dynamic playmaker: Christian McCaffrey. Imagine camp without him – and without Elijah Mitchell, the oft-injured running back who was out nearly 2 ½ weeks with a groin injury. McCaffrey’s rushing and receiving skills are an unmatched combination in the NFL. When he powered into 49ers defenders in practice, he wasn’t offended by Fred Warner’s aggressive tactics or anyone else’s.
A strong case could be made that Brandon Aiyuk deserved camp MVP honors for a second straight year. It’s tough, however, to repeat any title (see: 2023 Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC). Also, Deebo Samuel deserves honorable mention for his sound mind, body and spirit.
Warner seems deserving of this, but, when you’re not allowed to tackle anyone, phantom hits can only go so far. Instead, this award is bestowed upon the safety tandem of Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson Sr., thanks to their multiple interceptions and their own phantom hits.
Offense: Purdy, McCaffrey, Aiyuk, Samuel, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Colton McKivitz.
Defense: Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell, Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Jaylen Graham (or Oren Burks or Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles), Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, Hufanga, Gipson.
The 49ers have five capable tight ends to choose from behind George Kittle, so general manager John Lynch and his staff huddled Tuesday night to weigh how many to keep. Cameron Latu and Brayden Willis were drafted to challenge incumbents Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner, but the veterans were not outplayed. And Troy Fumagalli had such an impressive camp that even he could stick.
NEXT LINEBACKER CROP
Warner and Greenlaw are the NFL’s best linebacker duo. If either goes down, who’s next man up? The 49ers face a tough call. They have veteran linebackers in Burks (knee sprain), Flannigan-Fowles and Curtis Robinson. They also have a fountain of youth in Graham, Dee Winters and Marcelino McCrary-Ball. Six linebackers made last year’s final cuts. Ditto in 2023?
If football is won in the trenches, the 49ers better not lose their starters. The backup offensive line is a concern, to say nothing of relatively untested Colton McKivitz replacing Mike McGlinchy as the starting right tackle. Meanwhile, the defensive line looks stout on the interior, perhaps even more so because the edge-rushing prowess seems meek without Bosa. Veteran additions should be sought on the transaction wire next week.
MOST STUNNING PASSES
The 49ers waited until their second practice to unveil Purdy, and he promptly “let it rip,” Kyle Shanahan’s rallying cry. Purdy twice attempted 40-yard passes down the right sideline. True, they fell incomplete, but he overshot his targets without wincing at his arm.
MOST STUNNING STAT
It took until Tuesday’s practice for the first interception by a cornerback in full-team drills, made by third-stringer Tre Swilling on a Sam Darnold pass. Safeties, linebackers and even defensive linemen made interceptions, however, making for plenty of learning experiences for Purdy & Co. as Hufanga noted.
BEST LONG BALL
Darnold’s throwing talent typically surfaces in one or two long-range darts per practice, and, at the risk of being a prisoner of the moment, his best may have been a 50-yard connection Monday to Tay Martin, who is a dark-horse candidate to make the roster ahead of an injured Danny Gray.
Isaiah Oliver entered camp as a perceived studin free agency to fill the nickel back role. He’s struggled to make plays, especially in preseason games, and the 49ers are exploring other options, such as deploying Lenoir in a job-share capacity with Oliver.
BUY OR SELL
Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and cornerback Ambry Thomas drew a ton of praise all offseason and camp for turnarounds after 2022 disappointments. They’re not roster locks, however. Could Kinlaw lose his spot to T.Y. McGill or Marlon Davidson? Could Thomas bow out behind Oliver, Sam Womack III or a surprise cornerback (see: below)?
Cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, undrafted out of Texas, has such a presence he could make the 53-man roster. If not, Saturday’s muffed punt return could dissuade others to swoop in on a 5-foot-9 cornerback, thus helping the 49ers sneak him onto the practice squad.
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49ers’ Sam Darnold wins No. 2 quarterback job, Trey Lance could be on move
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Kurtenbach: Trey Lance or Sam Darnold for 49ers backup QB? Kyle Shanahan says ‘why not both?’
49ers’ Kyle Shanahan addresses Nick Bosa’s holdout as it nears one-month mark
Graham, the first-year linebacker, looks like a roster lock, despite being the last member of the 49ers’ nine-man draft class (No. 255 of 259 overall). At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he is a lean, mean tackling machine.
Saturday night’s heroics could help tight end Cameron Latu and kicker Jake Moody reverse course as they enter their rookie seasons. Latu struggled with drops and penalties all throughout camp, then delivered a fourth-quarter touchdown catch Saturday night. Moody was almost automatic in all camp practices, then missed two field goals in the preseason opener at Las Vegas and shanked his first point-after try at Levi’s Stadium before sneaking in Saturday’s game-winning field goal.
No starters went down with season-ending ailments in camp. Greenlaw (hamstring), Jackson (hamstring) and Kittle (groin) missed time, but all look ready by now. Lost to injury were defensive linemen Taco Charlton, Darryl Johnson and Daelin Hayes, plus cornerback Anthony Averett.