Here’s what stood out to me during practice Monday morning.
THE NOT SO GOOD
1. LB Reuben Foster. Last week, NaVorro Bowman described rookie Reuben Foster as an aggressive “downhill” linebacker. In this context, “downhill” means Foster wants to explode into the backfield and tackle the running back behind the line of scrimmage. This is a good quality for a linebacker to have, but also one the offense can take advantage of. And that’s exactly what the 49ers offense did today during Foster’s first practice with the starters – he replaced Malcolm Smith, who tore a pectoral muscle on Saturday and is out for the season. On the second play of practice, Brian Hoyer faked a handoff and Foster fell for the fake. He sprinted “downhill” toward the running back while Hoyer fired a pass over Foster’s head and hit Marquise Goodwin 15 yards downfield where Foster should have been standing. You can bet opponents will try to use Foster’s aggression against him during the regular season.
2. CB Rashard Robinson. Robinson appeared to injure his left shoulder early during practice. He walked off the field and disappeared inside the 49ers facility, presumably for treatment on his shoulder. He returned to the field shortly after, but watched the rest of practice from the sideline. The Niners can’t afford for Robinson to miss any time during the season. He is their best cornerback.
3. The entire offense during a hard-count drill. For the first time during training camp, Kyle Shanahan made the offense practice playing from its 1-yard line. During this drill, he made the quarterback use a “hard count,” which meant the offense was supposed to go when quarterback yelled, “Hut!” for the second time, not the first time. Apparently, this drill was too complicated for the 49ers offensive players. They committed four false start penalties during the first-nine reps. After the fourth false start penalty, Shanahan screamed at the offensive players and ordered them to start the drill over again, which they did. Then they committed two more false starts.
1. RB Carlos Hyde. Throughout training camp, Hyde has performed much better as a receiver out of the backfield than as a ball carrier. Today, he finally ran the ball well. He gained 37 yards on eight carries – 4.6 yards per carry. His longest run was a 13-yard gain through a big hole between the tackles when the offense was backed up against its 1-yard line. But his best run came during an outside-zone play to his right. Hyde quickly spotted a hole inside the tight end, cut up field without hesitating and gained eight yards. After the play Shanahan yelled, “There you go!” He had waited all offseason to see Hyde run that outside-zone play correctly.
2. TE George Kittle. Kittle missed the past week with a pulled hamstring, but today he returned to practice and immediately returned to the starting lineup. Kittle is the rookie to watch on the 49ers offense. He gets far more work with the starters than any of the other first-year players. He technically isn’t the starting tight end, because he doesn’t play when the 49ers are in 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end). But he usually plays when the 49ers use 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends), and he almost always is on the field when the 49ers use 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end). He is the offense’s primary pass-catching tight end. Don’t be surprised if he catches 60 passes this season.
3. TE Vance McDonald. McDonald caught two touchdown passes during a red-zone drill, and he beat strong safety Eric Reid both times. First, McDonald beat Reid with a quick out-route to the left. On the very next play, McDonald beat Reid with a slant route. McDonald seems to have lost his starting job from last season – he mostly plays with backups – but I doubt he will lose his spot on the 53-man roster. He clearly is the third-best tight end behind Kittle and Logan Paulsen
4. WR Jeremy Kerley. Like McDonald, Kerley also caught two touchdown passes during the red-zone drill. Both times, he beat starting slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, who had shut down Kerley most of training camp until today. Kerley beat Williams with a slant route and a comeback route.
5. DE Solomon Thomas. Thomas made two tackles for losses as the big defensive end for the second-string defense. I expect he will replace Tank Carradine as the starting big D-end by Week 1.
6. DE Arik Armstead. Armstead recorded a sack after he beat right tackle Trent Brown to the inside immediately after the center snapped the ball. Brown never touched him. Armstead also deflected a pass which Dontae Johnson intercepted and returned for a touchdown.