SANTA CLARA — Every throw, run and word by Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance is getting overanalyzed a week into training camp.
So what about the other 88 players? Some are thriving behind the scenes of the quarterback theater. Some are quiet, too quiet.
Here are five other areas catching my attention:
1. TIGHT END (G)ROOM
George Kittle hasn’t been targeted enough in the red zone in his career, and he had only three overall receptions his first five practices this camp. Then the pads came on, and Kittle totaled five catches (and more targets) in the past two practices.
“It’s very hard for me to be myself when I’m not in shoulder pads,” Kittle explained. “I’m a violent, physical person. If I don’t have shoulder pads, I don’t feel I can protect myself, whether it’s my shoulders or my teammates. I try to be physical when I get pads on.
“Now I get to be in shoulder pads the rest of the season and that’s what I’m excited about. Football is actually here.”
The bigger question remains which two or three other tight ends will emerge — you know, in case injuries rob Kittle of games like half of last season. MyCole Pruitt‘s calf injury pushed more reps to Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner and rookie Josh Pederson, who got cut Wednesday.
Jordan Matthews‘ conversion from wide receiver to tight end is intriguing, and his red zone work this week was exhilarating. Matthews worked out in Nashville with Kittle this summer, then followed Kittle’s advice and made strides against the blocking sled. “You can tell how much he studies, how much it matters to him,” Kittle said. “He has his foot in the door and he’s not going to let it slam shut on him.”
Joshua Perkins, formerly of the Falcons and Eagles, was signed Wednesday in the 49ers’ scramble for tight ends.
2. SAFETY TANDEM
The secondary appears the biggest 49ers’ concern, mainly because of their dearth of healthy and proven cornerbacks. A revitalized pass rush will help if that carries into the season, but so will a strong safety tandem.
Tavon Wilson, an under-the-radar signing in free agency, has paired with Jimmie Ward to make an impressive duo. Wilson has filled in as the first-string strong safety in place of Jaquiski Tartt, who opened camp on the COVID-19 reserve list and is overcoming a serious toe injury. Also, Tarvarius Moore was lost to a torn Achilles two months ago.
When Ward plays close to the line, Wilson plays well in coverage, and he nearly intercepted Garoppolo on Wednesday. Wilson stopped a run for no gain in Tuesday’s first padded practice. “You can tell he’s a true pro and he’s a leader,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said of Wilson, a 10th-year veteran who’s played with the Patriots, Lions and Colts.
Kittle is loving Wilson’s veteran approach in coverage, saying: “He knows how to get away with stuff. That’s fantastic for me, to get reps against a vet that knows how to play the game. He’s super smart, too. He made a couple fantastic plays (Tuesday) filling gaps (against the run).”
3. DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH
Comebacks by Nick Bosa (knee) and Dee Ford (back) are looking extremely encouraging. Samson Ebukan‘s “soreness” kept him out of two practices, but he and Arik Armstead are going to have big roles. So discovering other pass-rushing options remains a key priority this camp. Among those showing glimpses are Arden Key, Anthony Zettel and, with a six-game suspension looming, Jordan Willis.
Less glamorous but vital are the interior defensive linemen, and the 49ers look loaded with big dudes who will make for an intimidating rotation. Incumbent starters D.J. Jones and, when angry, Javon Kinlaw are looking real good. Veterans Zach Kerr and Maurice Hurst are looking like quality additions. Kentavius Street’s newfound consistency (and health) have made him a favorite of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
Coach Kris Kocurek’s defensive line group is always a tight-knit bunch that’s constantly in touch, including on a text message thread. How are the newcomers being accepted? “We all click, because we’re all good guys,” said Jones, adding that Key is moonlighting as their comedian.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE CONTINUITY
The 49ers’ first-string unit looks much improved from recent years, and it hasn’t strayed from the quintet of left tackle Trent Williams, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Alex Mack, right guard Daniel Brunskill and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
But what about second-round pick Aaron Banks? He’s logging second-team reps at right guard, much the same way Trey Lance is at quarterback. Banks will have to earn his promotion. Fellow rookie Jaylon Moore is faring OK at left tackle on the second string, although Shon Coleman finally surfaced in that spot this week.
As for Mexican offensive tackle Alfredo Gutierrez (from the NFL International Player Pathway program), he’s lining up on the third string, rotating from left to right tackle. He has NFL size (6-foot-9, 332 pounds) and looks like he’ll need plenty of grooming as a pass blocker en route to the practice squad.
5. PLAYING CATCH UP
Camp started slow in the 49ers’ competition among wide receivers behind stable starters Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, the latter of whom rested a tight groin Tuesday.
Mohamed Sanu emerged as a popular target with revitalized speed the first week of camp. Trent Sherfield, who was brought in from Arizona for his special-teams abilities, looks like a capable receiver, as Lance proved on a deep shot Tuesday.
Jalen Hurd is easing into team drills and showing nice burst with his surgically repaired knee. Another X-factor is Jauan Jennings, who opened camp on the COVID reserve list.
River Cracraft is hustling and diving for passes. Kevin White occasionally flashes his 2015 first-round form (including drops). Richie James has been up and down, as usual. James’ return specialist role is getting challenged by Aiyuk and others, including Nsimba Webster. Austin Watkins Jr. isn’t gaining traction as an undrafted rookie, for now.
Getting almost as many targets as the wide receiver are the running backs, and they all have shown great hands, including rookies Trey Sermon (minus a drop) and Elijah Mitchell, plus improved fullback Josh Hokit. Also, Raheem Mostert certainly looks capable of surpassing his career high of 16 receptions in a season.