Photo Credit: Chris Mezzavilla
Thursday was as quick, efficient and as businesslike as Kyle Shanahan probably could have hoped for. It was the 49ers’ final practice before basically real game action against the Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday’s preseason opener, and the 49ers accomplished a number of things.
It was the (perhaps underwhelming) debut of veteran safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and a resurgent day from wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who Kyle Shanahan may or may not have lit a fire under with some “time is ticking”-type comments on Tuesday.
Hurd missed Tuesday’s practice because he didn’t feel right, Shanahan said. But he also emphasized that time is running out for Hurd. And on Wednesday, Hurd returned to practice, though wasn’t significantly involved. On Thursday, he looked like the potential dynamo who flashed for a couple touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys before losing both of his first two seasons to back and ACL injuries, respectively.
In a score-the-ball drill (that’s what I’m calling it), the 49ers had their quarterbacks start from what looked like their own 20 or 25-yard-line. Trey Lance followed up Jimmy Garoppolo (we’ll get to that later) with a shaky start, missing Hurd deep to his left in what looked like a throwaway under pressure. Then he failed to complete a pass to Richie James Jr.
On third down, Hurd came through over the middle, with Lance hitting him on a rope to move the chains. Lance targeted Hurd on the very next play in nearly the same spot, for nearly the same sort of gain. It was a dangerous throw from Lance, and a first-team defensive back might have made a play on the ball, but he managed to thread the needle, putting enough heat on it to get through to Hurd, who made an impressive catch in tight coverage. Hurd had at least two other catches on the day.
Hurd also motioned, a la George Kittle or Kyle Juszczyk in an F role, where he shifted to the right side of the offensive line as an in-line blocker. He got to the second level and made a key block, which might have impressed Shanahan — who demands a lot out of his receivers as blockers — as much as anything.
“I was impressed when he got some balls, made some plays,” Shanahan said. “He’s coming along. The stuff that I said the other day wasn’t anything that was a shot at him. That’s the reality of injured players. I don’t think people realize that. You have guys who are talented enough to make your team itself because it’s not about just getting to the 53 there’s a lot. Those are the stressful decisions John and I have.”
I’m of the opinion that Shanahan’s comments were intentional — truthful, but intentional — to light a little bit of a fire under Hurd, who answered the call on Thursday.
Now, will Hurd definitely make the roster? No. It still seems more likely he doesn’t, at least at the moment, and he’ll have to prove himself in both of the latter two preseason games. But Thursday was a pretty sizable step in the right direction for a man who can’t afford to lose any more time.
Let’s go back to that score-the-ball drive for Lance, because it was the most significant part of practice. After his second completion to Hurd, he threw the ball away towards River Cracraft on the right side of the field, and then made one of his two worst throws of the day — along with a mis-timed and misread short throw to Wayne Gallman that he inexplicably missed — a deep ball down the right sideline towards Jauan Jennings, which was overthrown and which Deommodore Lenoir nearly made a play on.
Lenoir, by the way, has been extremely hit or miss, like when he got burned and looked lost on a deep ball Josh Rosen completed to a wide open Travis Benjamin, but he’ll occasionally close on the ball well and make a few nice pass breakups. It’s odd the 49ers haven’t repped him at slot corner, but defensive backs coach Cory Undlin told KNBR that he and Ambry Thomas are basically swimming right now, and another position is too much to throw at the rookie at this point in time. B.W. Webb is the 49ers’ current backup corner.
Lance finished his score-the-ball drill by doing, well, just that. He hit Ross Dwelley for a short completion, and then on what would have been fourth down, found Dwelley again over the middle for a touchdown.
Shanahan tried to make that offensive group run up to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball and stop the clock, but poked fun at Ross Dwelley for throwing the ball to the referee, who dropped it as time expired. Always hand the ball to the ref when you can, Shanahan said, because “those guys drop it way too much.”
Lance went 4-for-8 in that series with a closing touchdown, and had an impressive start to practice. Jimmy Garoppolo, meanwhile, had a less-than-impressive start to practice, but lived up to his reputation as a “gamer” — i.e. performing better in game or game-like situations — running a stellar score-the-ball drill.
He went 7-for-8 in that period with a closing touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk with four seconds remaining on the clock. He found Trent Sherfield, who is clearly going to make the team (probably fourth in the pecking order, just behind Mohamed Sanu), and then George Kittle twice on those short stick routes which Kittle runs so well. Kittle said he learned quite a bit from Darren Waller and Travis Kelce, who are masters of manipulating empty space.
Garoppolo’s lone incompletion was a eye-catching pass breakup from B.W. Webb on Mohamed Sanu along the left sideline. He also found River Cracraft, splitting both Jimmie Ward and Jason Verrett. One point of note was Trey Sermon catching the penultimate pass in the red zone, which came after a spike. Sermon might be the red zone guy, and if he’s not, he’ll at least be part of a timeshare in that role.
The first team concluded the day running the exact plays they’ll be running against the Chiefs. I can’t get into detail on those plays, but you’ll see Garoppolo throw the ball.
Absent from practice were K’Waun Williams and Arden Key, who were dealt “friendly fire” contusions to the hip and thigh, respectively, and who Shanahan said could have practiced if need be. Nick Bosa and Javon Kinlaw were both absent, while Darrion Daniels and Senio Kelemente returned to practice. In addition to Clinton-Dix, defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes — yet another former Raiders defensive lineman — debuted.
None of Bosa, Armstead, Hurd or Dee Ford will play. It seems unlikely that Kinlaw, Williams and Key will either, and Azeez Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Samson Ebukam and MyCole Pruitt will also sit out. It’s going to be quite a bit of second- and third-stringers on Saturday.