Here’s what stood out to me during practice at Levi’s Stadium Saturday morning.
1. LB Malcolm Smith. Smith is out for the season after tearing his pectoral muscle during a collision with NaVorro Bowman and Matt Breida. This is a significant loss for the 49ers, who were counting on Smith to be a starter — he is the team’s best linebacker when it comes to pass coverage. Smith’s injury means Reuben Foster probably will have to start as a rookie and Bowman probably will have to play in passing situations, where he is a liability.
1. QB Brian Hoyer. Hoyer was the best player on the field. He completed 17 of 22 pass attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns during the move-the-ball period of practice, which is when the offense starts at its 30-yard line and attempts to drive the length of the field. Hoyer also played well during a third down drill, when he converted four-of-eight third downs and consistently threw the ball past the first-down marker, unlike Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, a.k.a. Check-Down Charlie. On third-and-12, Hoyer completed a 15-yard pass to Marquise Goodwin. On third-and-8, Hoyer completed a 12-yard pass to Pierre Garcon. On third-and-6, Hoyer completed a 12-yard pass to Goodwin. And on third-and-4, Hoyer completed a 15-yard pass to Kapri Bibbs. If Hoyer stays healthy, I expect he will win nine games this season.
2. QB Matt Barkley. Barkley led the second-string offense to a 70-yard touchdown drive against the first-string defense. He completed four-of-five passes on that drive for 61 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson.
3. RB Matt Breida. Breida had a 12-yard run up the middle, a 7-yard run around the left end and a 20-yard diving catch down the sideline. He played better than every other running back. It’s easy to see why the coaching staff likes this undrafted rookie. He’s fast, he runs hard and he’s tough. He doesn’t slow down and brace himself before he gets hit – he throws himself into tackles. He almost certainly will make the team, and I’m guessing he will be the primary kick returner.
4. WR Pierre Garcon. Garcon gained 71 yards on six catches. His best catch came when he beat rookie linebacker Reuben Foster over the middle with a deep crossing route and gained 33 yards. Garcon is the best receiver the Niners have had since I started covering the team in 2011. He is a better version of Mohamed Sanu – Shanahan’s possession receiver last season in Atlanta.
5. WR Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin scored a touchdown and gained 92 yards on six catches. He is a better version of Taylor Gabriel – Shanahan’s deep-threat receiver last season in Atlanta. Shanahan has found better versions of a few players he had last season with the Falcons. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is another one – he’s a better version of Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco. I expect the Niners offense will rank in the top half of the NFL this season.
6. WR Aldrick Robinson. Robinson scored a touchdown and gained 78 yards on five catches. He clearly is the third-best receiver on the team behind Garcon and Goodwin. The fourth-best receiver is Jeremy Kerley, and the fifth-best receiver is rookie Trent Taylor.
7. The run defense. This offseason, running backs have had very little success against the Niners defense. Today, Carlos Hyde gained 11 yards on eight carries, Matt Breida gained 26 yards on seven carries Joe Williams lost four yards on four carries. I expect the run defense will be a strength of the 49ers this season, as opposed to last season when it was the worst run defense in franchise history.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. The pass defense. This has become the team’s biggest weakness. Today, the pass defense gave up 38 catches on 56 pass attempts – a completion percentage of 67.9. And the defense had a particularly difficult time defending play action. Most of the time when the offense used a run fake, at least one wide receiver would end up wide open. This pass defense could be one of the worst in the league.
2. LB NaVorro Bowman. During a one-on-one drill, Bowman gave up a deep touchdown catch to Carlos Hyde. Hyde didn’t juke Bowman or use any kind of move to create separation – Hyde simply ran past him. Bowman couldn’t keep up. He even had trouble turning his body to locate the ball in the air.
3. OG Joshua Garnett. Garnett missed practice with a knee injury which will require surgery, according to Kyle Shanahan. Like Malcolm Smith, Garnett could spend the season on I.R. Zane Beadles will replace him at left guard.
4. RB Tim Hightower. Hightower missed practice for the second day in a row after suffering an undisclosed leg injury on Thursday. The 49ers P.R. staff did not include Hightower in their injury report either of the past two days. Strange that the team is being so secretive about this injury.
5. CB Rashard Robinson. Robinson left practice early due to an apparent leg injury and did not return.
6. CB Akhello Witherspoon. Witherspoon replaced Robinson in the starting lineup and gave up a 19-yard touchdown catch to Aldrick Robinson. Witherspoon is not ready to contribute in any way during the regular season. He plays with no confidence.