Kawakami: The difference in Trey Lance, the Nick Bosa delay and other final thoughts from 49ers camp


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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was 90 percent of the way through a long, late, hot and occasionally sloppy practice. Some tempers flared. Some tedium hit. Many headliners sat out. Maybe I was questioning why I was at 49ers practice on Tuesday, my eighth training camp visit this year, and maybe I should keep that to myself (oops).

But then Brock Purdy and the first-team offense took the field for the last session and there was a different kind of bounce as they broke the huddle. And wham — Purdy found Kyle Juszczyk down the left sideline on a wheel route, followed that with a strike over the middle to Chris Conley, kept going with a throw to the right side to Brandon Aiyuk and finished it off with a soaring strike down the left side to Deebo Samuel, who hauled it in over his shoulder just past the reach of multiple defenders.

Touchdown. My, my, that woke everybody up.

The 49ers’ offensive players, who earlier whooped in celebration over lesser plays while they were mostly struggling against the defense, were relatively muted for this success. I think they were quietly contemplating what everybody else was: Man, this kind of thing with this kind of rhythm and pace might be pretty interesting to watch in the regular season and beyond. Oh and also: Isn’t this almost exactly what we saw once Purdy took over late last season?

This, folks, is why I go to 49ers camp so often. Just the feel of some clunky stuff leading up to something spectacular, or something very boring leading up to something that feels like it could be revelatory. It’s context. It’s information. It can be misleading sometimes, but it’s worth experiencing if you want to understand the team as thoroughly as possible. Nothing really matters until the regular season starts on Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh, but you go to training camp to widen your field of vision.

And yes, that crackling series might also be a warning about over-emphasizing what you see in practice. The first-team defense was without Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dre Greenlaw and Talanoa Hufanga. (Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle weren’t in this session for the offense.) And the defense had things under control until that point. Those were just four plays. But in a year or so, when I think back to this camp, I’m pretty sure I’m going to think a lot about those four plays, and I think Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch might be doing the same.

That was the main thing I was thinking Tuesday, which, with training camp set to end after Friday’s final exhibition game, was my final practice appearance. Here are some other big-picture thoughts on 2023 49ers camp:

Lots of stars, but maybe less depth than they’d like

McCaffrey, Deebo, Aiyuk, Greenlaw, Armstead, Bosa (when he signs), Hufanga, Juszczyk, Kittle, Trent Williams, Fred Warner, Javon Hargrave, Charvarius Ward … the 49ers probably have a better top 13 than any roster in the league. It might not be close.

Purdy played at a high level last year, so let’s say the 49ers’ top 14 is the best in the league, though I know there will be 49ers fans who disagree about Purdy, and if you grade him lower the whole thing gets shakier. Fine. But I’m putting Purdy in the top half of QB1s for now.

All of this is blatantly obvious at any 49ers practice, even when some of the top guys are sitting out. Over here, Deebo is racing through a 1-on-1 passing drill. Over there, Hargrave is moving the middle of the offensive line 4 yards backward and Warner is tipping every pass over the middle. The stars are everywhere. It’s certainly obvious on the 49ers’ payroll.

But the 49ers had to make some financial decisions last offseason and as a result lost a bunch of middle-tier guys, from nickel back Jimmie Ward to right tackle Mike McGlinchey to strong-side linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair to defensive end Samson Ebukam. And their replacements currently don’t look like sure things.

The 49ers can win just by riding their stars, no doubt. They’ve got more of them than anybody else in the league. But it’s always easier with quality depth, which I think the 49ers lack at multiple positions (starting with the OL). Also: What if a few stars get hurt at the same time?

Quarterback depth chart

I’ve said what I’ve said on Purdy. He’s QB1. He has to be QB1. It’s not even a conversation and hasn’t been since he was cleared for full-go practices at the start of camp.

Unofficially, I think a lot of this camp has been about Shanahan and Lynch deciding what to do with Trey Lance. Will he be Purdy’s main backup? Probably not; that job is likely going to Sam Darnold for Week 1. But interestingly, Shanahan on Tuesday said he might switch his QB2s from game to game this season depending on the matchup.

This, folks, is a huge hint that the 49ers still believe Lance has value, and not just theoretical trade value. The context is comparing Lance’s performance in this year’s camp to last year, when he entered camp as QB1 but wobbled throughout the practices, including one time when he lined up in the wrong spot and had to be moved to the right one by Juszczyk.

Nothing like that happened this year. Lance’s accuracy still isn’t ideal; he definitely looked hesitant in the first preseason game in Las Vegas and a lot better last weekend against Denver. He looks like a regular NFL QB, generally. Which wasn’t the case last camp. Overall, it’s all been much smoother for Lance year over year. There’s growth. And that’s very important to note.

Basically, Lance has been good enough this summer to make himself a real option in the event that Purdy gets hurt and Darnold falters. If Shanahan needed to see that Lance was one of his best 53 players, Lance absolutely proved it.

And what about Brandon Allen? He hasn’t gotten an 11-on-11 rep in a while, didn’t play Saturday and might not play Friday. I don’t know if the 49ers can sneak him onto the practice squad, but at this point, it looks like they’ll have to try.


Kyle Shanahan hints 49ers’ No. 2 QB battle won’t end in training camp

Who’s making plays?

During camp, you don’t know what the play call was on a given play. You don’t know if the defense broke down and made it easy or if the receiver or running back just was doing something exceptional. You get misled a lot by stuff like that. You miss stuff. I sure missed Purdy’s showcase plays last camp.

But when it’s the same guys making big plays multiple times a practice, that’s worth something. And if they keep doing it in the preseason games, you know something could be happening.

For instance, last week, when I lost sight of the ball and just heard a bunch of defenders exclaiming in frustration, the play continuing and a bunch of offensive players cheering, I figured that must either be Deebo or rookie receiver Ronnie Bell, because Bell is doing it almost every day. And it’s about as high a comparison as can be made on this team. And yes, it was Bell bullying his way to a big gain. Then Bell lit it up on Saturday against the Broncos.

Also, the veteran Conley just seems to glide to open areas. The QBs definitely look his way. It’s no shock that he’s getting some reps with the first-team offense in practices and games. After the injuries to Ray-Ray McCloud and Danny Gray, I think Bell and Conley both have great shots to make the opening roster.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting that rookie tight end Cameron Latu continues to get a lot of reps and balls thrown to him in practice and games, even after his flurry of drops recently. That’s a sign that the coaches see something in him and are, for now, looking past the drops.

On defense, Javon Kinlaw has been an eyebrow-raiser all camp. He’s mostly going up against the backup OL, so it’s all relative. But Kinlaw has mostly remained healthy, he’s obviously in great shape, he looks fast and he’s even gotten some defensive end reps.

And safety Ji’Ayir Brown and linebackers Dee Winters and Jalen Graham — all rookies — just keep showing up. Given the way the 49ers like to play their linebackers (and the way the game is going), I concentrate on the coverage drops and lateral movement. And Graham, who played some safety in college, just flies.

Aiyuk is moving to another level

It’s always good to be reminded how this stuff looks and feels up close. These guys are moving fast. They’re large. Then the ball goes up and sometimes it turns into ballet. On Tuesday, Aiyuk sprinted downfield in a 1-on-1 passing drill, felt the coverage on his back, located the toss from Lance, then somehow leaped, twisted his body, warded off the DB and made the catch near the left sideline.

He landed about 10 feet away from me. I would’ve sworn that ball was going to sail far over his head. In fact, I was ducking a little. But Aiyuk came down with the ball then laughed a little afterward.

“Oh my God!” the DB muttered in frustration and admiration. Or maybe I said it? Likely, it was both of us.



Brandon Aiyuk has arrived, and it could make the 49ers even more dangerous

Bosa is missed, but there’s no evidence of team-wide panic

Everybody in camp assumes that Bosa will be signed and back in uniform before Week 1, which is less than three weeks away. Everybody thought that at the start of camp and everybody still believes it.

“It’s going pretty much exactly how I expected it to go,” Shanahan said Tuesday of the Bosa situation.

There’s some odd double-leverage on this one. Bosa has massive leverage on the 49ers because he’s one of the most irreplaceable players in the league and they can’t expect to get back to the Super Bowl without him. But the 49ers have some indirect timetable leverage: They don’t feel the pressure to get him to practice immediately because they know he always stays in shape and because he usually doesn’t practice much in camp, anyway. And he’s never played a snap of preseason football.

The two sides both like and understand each other (as far as I know) so much that there’s none of the rancor that can lead to a long and bitter holdout. But sometimes these huge negotiations can use a little angst and tension to push the thing through ASAP.

“The TK Show”: Go to Tim Kawakami’s podcast page on Apple, Spotify and The Athletic app.

(Photo of Trey Lance and Ronnie Bell: Stan Szeto / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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