San Francisco 49ers: Early Takeaways from 2016 Training Camp
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers have officially begun training camp and still have a lot of questions yet to answer. But there are some early takeaways worth evaluating as camp competition heats up.
Regular NFL action is now back on the calendar as the San Francisco 49ers have officially kicked off their training camp sessions for the upcoming 2016 season.
It’s important to note training camp, and the competitions taking place therein, will be judged by the Niners coaching staff in its entirety and not based on a handful of days’ worth of practice.
But there are some notable observations worth pointing out.
San Francisco enters 2016 with more than a few questions to be answered. There are concerns about the defensive line, now with nose tackle Ian Williams (ankle) on the shelf for the season. Starting jobs along the offensive line and at inside linebacker are up for grabs.
How will the wide receiver depth chart pan out and, of course, who wins out as the 49ers’ starting quarterback? Will it be Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick?
Yes, training camp will be important for San Francisco this year — perhaps a bit more than most other NFL teams.
And here are some of the first-take observations.
DeForest Buckner Gets First-Team Reps
Rookies don’t always work out with first-team units, and such was the case with San Francisco’s first-round draft pick, defensive end DeForest Buckner, during OTAs and minicamp.
But with Williams out for the year, Buckner was slated in with former University of Oregon teammate Arik Armstead with the first string, per Chris Biderman of USA Today’s Niners Wire.
Had Williams stayed healthy, Buckner might have been relegated to more of a backup role in sub packages and on a rotational basis. With Williams unable to go, Buckner slides right into the first-team unit.
If this pairing stays true, the 49ers defensive line will likely have Buckner and Armstead bookending the group, and defensive tackle Quinton Dial will anchor the nose position.
The Inside Linebacker Position Is Wide Open
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman will start in 2016. There’s no question about that. But who starts alongside him is an open-ended question.
San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil made it clear earlier this offseason he would employ a three-way competition for the open slot between linebackers Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong.
And O’Neil is keeping to his word.
Here’s what Joe Fann of 49ers.com wrote about the competition thus far:
"As O’Neil alluded to, Gerald Hodges started next to NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite started on Sunday and O’Neil said that Ray-Ray Armstrong will take the first-team reps on Tuesday.The defensive coordinator made it clear that no one would win the starting job until pads come on."
Wilhoite held this position for the majority of the 2015 season, but a minus-16.5 grade, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), last year points out why O’Neil hasn’t settled on giving Wilhoite his job back just yet.
RT Anthony Davis Slimmed Down and Back in Action
No-longer-retired right tackle Anthony Davis is back with the 49ers after a one-year hiatus from the NFL, and he’s slimmed down quite a bit too.
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Davis is now weighing in around 332 pounds — considerably less than the 365-370-pound range he was in back in 2014.
Davis — along with San Francisco’s other first-round draft pick, offensive guard Joshua Garnett — worked with the third-team offensive line unit on the first day of camp. This isn’t much of a shock, as both players missed good chunks of the 49ers’ previous offseason programs.
Worthy of note, Barrows pointed out there was no bad blood between Davis and fellow linemate Joe Staley, about whom Davis had made some remarks on social media some months ago.
If things go according to plan, the Niners O-line will probably look something like this:
- LT Joe Staley
- LG Zane Beadles
- C Daniel Kilgore
- RG Joshua Garnett
- RT Anthony Davis
That’s a considerable upgrade over what was seen last season.
Let the Quarterback Competition Begin
The biggest story, of course, will be how the competition at quarterback goes between Gabbert and Kaepernick.
Gabbert appears to be the likely favorite to win out the QB battle, at least according to a variety of offseason reports, but the camp competition has varied results throwing off any premature speculation.
According to Biderman, Gabbert was picked off by defensive back Jimmie Ward in 7-on-7 drills — a play in which Ward returned the interception for a touchdown. Fann described what happened:
"Jimmie Ward opened a 7-on-7 period with a pick-six. The play was very similar to his interception against the Chicago Bears in 2015. Ward jumped a pass intended for Ellington near the right sideline and took off towards the end zone. Reaser and Nick Bellore also recorded pass breakups in the period."
Gabbert did finish with a 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerome Simpson, which was the longest completion of San Francisco’s two days of practice so far.
But Kaepernick hasn’t been left out of the mix.
"For what it’s worth, Kaepernick was the first one on the field with the starters going against the first-team defense.Gabbert went against the starting defense in the second half of practice, with Kaepernick working behind the second-team offensive line.Two days into camp, it looks like a relatively even competition between the two."
While many believe Gabbert will still take the edge, head coach Chip Kelly appears to be sticking to his word and giving both quarterbacks a chance to prove themselves at camp.
And neither has solidified himself as the bona fide starter either, although two days don’t exactly reveal much.
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There will be even more risers and fallers as training camp continues, and the 49ers are nowhere close to finishing up answering the questions facing them in coming weeks.
But there are a few good signs along the way, which is about as good as it gets during this preliminary phases of training camp.
Next: What to Look for in 49ers Training Camp
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.