SANTA CLARA — San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said that linebacker Malcolm Smith — who has missed practice since straining his hamstring in the preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys — will be ready for the regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
“He’s going through practice today and everything looks good for game day,” Saleh said before practice on Thursday. During practice, Smith was limited, but he will in all likelihood start at the WILL linebacker spot, alongside rookie MIKE linebacker Fred Warner, while Reuben Foster serves a two-game suspension.
Safety Jimmie Ward (quad) practiced without restriction on Thursday, as did Smith’s fellow former Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman. He, too, is all-systems-go for the opener, and his surgically-repaired torn Achilles looks, to Saleh’s eye, like it’s ready for the rigors of an NFL season.
“You’re looking at the footwork to see where he is at and all that stuff, and he looks great,” Saleh said. “He does. The speed, I know there was a lot of talk about the go-ball in his very first rep and all that stuff, but I haven’t seen speed deficiency. We haven’t seen speed deficiency. But, his communication, his instincts, his quickness, all of it looks fantastic. He’s ready to go and we’re excited to have him.”
While Warner — drafted in the third round (70th overall) — will be handling communication for the front seven, Sherman has been the intermediary between the defense and the coaching staff, since he seemingly has one foot in each world.
“The cool thing with a vet — and really it’s just vets in general — I can imagine being on offense, special teams, whatever it is, the great ones do a great job communicating with the coach so everybody is on the same page,” Saleh said. “I think sometimes with young teams where you get lost, it’s always coach to player and there’s no dialogue so that way we can find the best way to put players in the position they need to be.”
Sherman, who not only serves as a coach on the field, but also chimed in with scheme suggestions while sidelined with a hamstring issue early in training camp. He returned to that role during the 49ers’ third preseason game against Indianapolis, once he came off the field.
“Sherm does a great job with communication and being able to get on the sideline like that Indianapolis game, like, ‘This is what I saw,’” Saleh said. “He’s speaking to you because he was on the football field, he saw it. So that dialogue is always great. Him being able to do that and having that veteran presence and all that stuff is always beneficial.”
Sherman’s experience will be crucial against a Minnesota roster stacked with skill position standouts and a new toy in free agent quarterback acquisition Kirk Cousins.
“They’re very talented. Their skill guys are very talented. They’ve got a good scheme,” Saleh said. “I know Kirk, obviously the quarterback is special. From a talent standpoint, they’re very good. So, from that standpoint, just the challenge of it all is being able to execute on our end. Guys are on it. Guys have been communicating great in practice. They’re really locked into the game plan.”
A year removed from reaching the NFC Championship game — courtesy of the Minnesota Miracle — they have arguably one of the more intriguing backs in the conference in Dalvin Cook, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry and ran for 354 yards in just four games as a rookie.
They have a Pro Bowl tight end in Kyle Rudolph.
They also have dynamic Stefon Diggs, who averaged 13.3 yards per catch, scored eight touchdowns and was 151 yards away from 1,000 yards receiving despite not once catching more than eight balls in a game during the regular season. Arguably Minnesota’s best weapon, though, is Adam Thielen.
Despite only catching nine touchdowns over the last two seasons, Thielen — who turned his ankle on Tuesday during practice, but should be good to go — has racked up 2,243 yards in those two years.
Last season, as the Vikings’ slot receiver, he caught 91 balls for 1,276 yards, averaging 14 yards per catch for the second straight season.
Now, they all have a top-flight quarterback to get them the ball. Cousins has surpassed 4,000 yards passing each of the last three seasons — throwing for a career-high 4,917 in 2016.
“Whenever you get a quarterback like Kirk, just the precision and the efficiency at which they operate, their timing, he elevates everyone just by making things go more efficiently, being pinpoint with his accuracy,” Saleh said. “He’s an elite quarterback. Them having him is going to be beneficial for them.”
Given the ability Cook has, San Francisco will be on the lookout for run-pass options, but Saleh cautioned that in a Week 1 game, there’s 75 percent what you expect, and 25 percent you don’t.
“We feel really good about what we have,” Saleh said. “I’m sure they’re going to throw some wrenches in their scheme. I’m sure they’re going to have some trick plays or something that we haven’t seen, but we feel really good about our scheme and the way we do things. We feel like we’ll be prepared for whatever they try to throw at us.”