For the first time in what seems to be years, the the San Francisco 49ers head into the start of training camp on July 26 with a solid foundation and few question marks.
Competent head coach moving on to his second year with the franchise? Check. General Manager with a plan in place? Check. Franchise quarterback? Check. All positive signs for a team that has ran through several different coaches and quarterbacks since firing Jim Harbaugh in 2014.
The biggest change to San Francisco’s training camp this season will be the fresh sense of hype and hope. There is no doubt that since the arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo the 49ers have been trending upwards in the eyes of the football world, and at a rapid rate. Now, the biggest question mark heading into 2018’s camp, is can Kyle Shanahan and Garoppolo live up to the hype?
The Jimmy G Factor: At this point, we are all well aware of Garoppolo’s story — A 26-year old Eastern Illinois product and former second-round draft pick became Tom Brady’s backup, started and won two games for the suspended Brady in 2016, got traded to the 49ers in 2017 and proceeded to go 5-0 as a starter before being rewarded with a massive contract extension this offseason.
All those accolades are great, but they do come with an asterisk? Garoppolo hasn’t faced this type of pressure in his short career. When he filled in Brady in New England, the Patriots were just happy he didn’t turn the ball over.
Last season when he got to San Francisco, he had the “he’s still learning the offense” label. Plus the 49ers were 1-10 before Garoppolo went under center, so there wasn’t much hope. You can now throw all that out the window.
Garoppolo will have had a full offseason to work with Shanahan. He should have better chemistry with the 49ers offensive weapons, plus an upgraded offensive line. There will be no excuses for Garoppolo heading into camp.
With these heavy expectations comes scrutiny. How Garoppolo leads this team in camp will be judged, every ball that hits the ground in camp will be tweeted, every interception will be written about. Garoppolo hasn’t made a mistake yet, but can he handle the “franchise quarterback” label? Training camp will be our first glimpse.
Sharpening Skills: Garoppolo lead the 49ers to 5-0 record with arguably one of the worst skill position groups in the NFL last season. This training camp, there will be some fresh faces for Garoppolo and Shanahan to toy with.
Veteran Pierre Garcon will return from injury and rise to the top of the leaderboard as Garoppolo’s potential favorite target. Garcon, along with Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne, will form a versatile group of receivers that fit the 49ers’ offensive scheme, but two rookies could make the biggest impact as pass catchers in training camp.
The 49ers traded up in the second round of the draft to select Dante Pettis out of Washington. In college, Pettis showed that he’s arguably the ideal receiver for Shanahan’s offense: His skills play anywhere on the field, he’s a creative route runner, he’s a serious yards-after the catch threat and he has knack for making the big play in the red zone. Where Shanahan lines up Pettis on the field will be something to keep an eye on as camp progresses.
Another rookie making some headway is seventh-rounder Richie James out of Middle Tennessee. Seventh-round picks aren’t often expected to make an impact except for maybe on special teams or the practice squad. From rookie mini-camp to OTAs, James’s name has circulated with serious buzz. James is small at 5-foot-10, but he packs a punch with his speed and his elusive ability with the football. James will vie for a roster spot as one of the final receivers, which should be a fun camp competition. It’s clear that Goodwin and Garcon have cemented roles on this roster, and the 49ers used a second-round pick on Pettis, so he will take up a spot. The final spots will come down to a combination of Taylor, Bourne, James and Aldrick Robinson.
A Former Foe: As interesting as it will be to see Garoppolo take over as the leader on the offensive side of the ball, it could be just as interesting to see what kind of a leader Richard Sherman will be on defense.
The former Seattle Seahawks defensive back — long a thorn in San Francisco’s side — was seen running drills and working with young players throughout OTAs, which shouldn’t change in training camp. Sherman will help oversee the development over a group of young defensive backs that have lofty expectations of their own.
Ahkello Witherspoon will look to make the jump from budding rookie to lockdown corner in year two. Behind Witherspoon and Sherman is a group young, hungry safeties that could match the talent of San Francisco’s once-feared group of Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Adrian Colbert is in a similar boat as Witherspoon, looking to take that next step in his career. The unit fills out with Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, staples of the 49ers defense over the past few season who, along with Sherman, will be looked to for veteran leadership in a young group.
In the Trenches: One of the more entertaining things to watch in training camp is one-on-one drills between the offensive and defensive lines: Strength and technique versus power and finesse. These drills are not only entertaining for fans (who will be able to see 10 open practices in July and August), but will prove to be valuable to the 49ers from an evaluation perspective.
San Francisco added to key figures this offseason to bolster Garoppolo’s protection by drafting Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey in the top-10 and signing center Weston Richburg in free agency. McGlinchey, Richburg and veteran Joe Staley will form a formidable foundation, but a combination of Josh Garnett, Laken Tomlinson, Erik Magnuson and Jonathan Cooper will make up a guard unit that has some question marks.
Garnett, Tomlinson, Magnuson and Cooper will be tested daily as they will face the 49ers strongest position group in camp. The 49ers will find out quickly who has the chops to protect Garoppolo as the guards practice against a trio of first round picks from the Pac-12 — Arik Armstead, Soloman Thomas and potential All-Pro defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
San Francisco 49ers open practice dates: