Here’s what stood out to me during practice Friday morning.
1. TE George Kittle. Starting quarterback Brian Hoyer threw more passes (five) to Kittle than to any other player. Kittle seems to be Hoyer’s favorite target, probably because none of the Niners linebackers can cover the rookie tight end. During seven-on-seven drills, Kittle easily beat starting middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman with an out route. Kittle even beat a safety (Jaquiski Tartt) during the same drill. After practice, a reporter asked starting outside linebacker Malcolm Smith which tight end has stood out. Smith said, “Kittle has done a good job. He has shown a little bit of elusiveness.” Expect Kittle to be one of the Niners’ leading receivers this season.
2. FB Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk is the starting fullback, but he spends most of his time warming up with the tight ends. That’s because he runs a wide variety of routes, as opposed to the other running backs who typically run shallow routes near the line of scrimmage. Today, Juszczyk ran a deep post route during 11-on-11s and nearly caught a poorly-thrown pass he had to dive for.
3. RB Joe Williams. Williams had the best run of the day. He found a small hole between the tackles, burst through the middle of the defense and high-stepped past free safety Lorenzo Jerome on the way to the end zone. It’s only a matter of time before Williams becomes the starting running back.
4. QB Brian Hoyer. Hoyer made two beautiful throws toward the sideline. Both times, he lofted long touch passes over the head of one defender and in front of another. These are the kind of small-window touch passes Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert could not make.
5. WR Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin made the most difficult catch of the day. He ran a deep curl route and dove back toward the ball to catch it between two defenders. He clearly is the second-best wide receiver on the team after Pierre Garcon.
6. WR DeAndre Smelter. Smelter made the second-most difficult catch of the day. He ran a deep fade route along the right sideline, then slowed down to catch a long pass that was slightly underthrown while the cornerback ran past him.
7. C Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah split time at center with the incumbent starter, Daniel Kilgore, and completely outshined him. Expect Zuttah to become the starting center by Week 1. He is much more athletic and better suited for Kyle Shanahan’s offense than Kilgore.
8. OG Joshua Garnett. Garnett was the starting right guard as a rookie last season. Today, he became the starting left guard, where I think he’ll stay this season. It makes sense to have the team’s best guard play on the left side of the offensive line because Shanahan likes to call runs that go that direction. Brandon Fusco will play right guard and Zane Beadles will be a backup.
9. OT Trent Brown. Brown seems to have lost weight since the end of minicamp, and he is taking all of the first-team reps at right tackle. He is not competing with anyone for playing time.
10. DE Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil participated in his first practice since signing with the 49ers and played exclusively with the starters. It seems the Niners intend to use him and Ahmad Brooks as the defensive ends on third down.
11. DE Solomon Thomas. The Niners’ first-round pick signed his contract just as practice began. But before he could join the team, he needed to complete his conditioning test, so he spent all morning jogging back and forth across a side field. He’s in excellent shape.
12. OLB Eli Harold. The Niners don’t want to overwork veteran outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks during training camp, so they had him split time with Eli Harold. And Harold made a great play. He read the quarterback’s eyes and swatted his pass into the hands of defensive end Ronald Blair, who intercepted the ball and returned it for a touchdown. Harold seems to have a good chance to make the final roster, considering how much he has played with the starters.
13. SS Eric Reid. Reid is the only player on the defense who can cover Kittle, the rookie tight end. On one play, Kittle lined up at wide receiver while Reid lined up directly across from him. Kittle ran a quick out route but couldn’t shake Reid, who jumped in front of the tight end and knocked the ball away.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. RB Carlos Hyde. Hyde is the slimmest he’s been since the Niners drafted him – he seems to be in terrific shape. Maybe that’s because he has to fight for his starting job for the first time since the Niners made him a starter in 2015. But he didn’t fight so well today, because he fumbled once. The quarterback pitched him the ball and he dropped it.
2. DE Aaron Lynch. Lynch played exclusively with the backups, just as he did during minicamp and OTAs. He seems to have lost a little weight – he looks lighter than 280 pounds. But he also looks heavier than Solomon Thomas, who says he weighs 276 pounds. I’m guessing Lynch will not make the team.
3. ILB NaVorro Bowman. Bowman is hesitant to plant and drive when he’s playing man-to-man coverage, so he gives up big-time separation. Today, he got burned by George Kittle, who ran a simple out route. Bowman looked as if he was stuck in mud. If Bowman wins a starting job during the preseason – no guarantee – I imagine the Niners would not use him during passing downs. They probably would platoon him with someone who’s better in coverage.
4. ILB Reuben Foster. The rookie first-round pick played with the backups and made a nice play when he intercepted a pass that was tipped right to him. But he also made a mistake when he fell for a run fake and had to scramble back across the field to chase wide receiver DeAndre Carter, who was wide open.
5. FS Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt played free safety in place of Jimmie Ward, who pulled his hamstring Thursday afternoon during his conditioning test. Tartt seemed lost in the deep middle of the field – free safety is not his natural position. He frequently broke a second too late on passes in his direction.
6. CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson was one of the two starting cornerbacks when practices began, but he injured his leg during team drills. The Niners can’t afford to lose any corners – that’s one of their weakest positions.
7. WR B.J. Johnson. The undrafted free agent injured his left knee during a non-contact drill.
8. QB C.J. Beathard. The Niners third-round pick completed only three passes all morning. A couple of his passes bounced in front of receivers, and he struggled throwing spirals. Beathard does not have the arm strength to ever become a starting quarterback.