10 Takeaways from San Francisco 49ers training camp

Aug 10, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 10:31 am

Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers works out during training camp at SAP Performance Facili...

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 04: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers works out during training camp at SAP Performance Facility on August 04, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

After 11 training camp sessions, the 49ers are hitting the road for joint practices with the Las Vegas Raiders to end the week. Then, the two squads will face off for their first preseason contest of the 2023 year Sunday.

But before we get there, it’s time to reflect on what stood out at the 49ers training camp this year, especially with so many questions hovering over the team. Falling short of their goals in 2022, could 2023 finally be the year they get over the hump?

Only time will tell, but for now, here’s where they stand.

1. Brock Purdy is QB1

Heading into joint practices with the Las Vegas Raiders, Brock Purdy is the 49ers’ QB1. And it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Despite being only five months removed from UCL surgery, the former Mr. Irrelevant has looked back to his old self, throwing with the same velocity he had in January. While there is of course some rustiness in practice (leading the QBs in interceptions), his ability to take risks and process plays hasn’t wavered in his time away from the field.

And that’s the key to continued success with San Francisco.

“For me, it’s like I feel like normal when I’m out there. So I feel like I just got to get into a rhythm and play go through progressions and just play quarterback,” Brock Purdy said.

The coaching staff also feels that Purdy is progressing nicely, making plays in practice that remind them of his 7-0 run deep into the postseason.

“Brock’s the real deal. He knows how to play,” Kyle Shanahan stated about his QB.

It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against the Las Vegas Raiders in joint practices this week, considering he isn’t back to 100% yet. But that’s okay for Shanahan, using this time to get his young pupil back in sync with the offense.

“I don’t think anyone’s back to where they were exactly last season. Gaining through training camp, a lot of guys have more practices than [Brock Purdy]. But he’ll get there. He’s doing some good things…we’re not worried about Brock,” Shanahan said.

As for Purdy, he carries himself the same as he always has: Cool, calm and collected in practice. So much so that he didn’t even hear Shanahan’s praise of him this week.

And while Brock Purdy appreciates the endorsement, he admits that he’s a long way from the finished product.

“Yeah, I appreciate that. But for myself, I know what I have to do. I have to do better at areas and keep chipping away, and keep growing as an offense to keep pushing this offense to get to the level that we want to be,” Brock Purdy stated. “We all expect a lot of great things and high things out of ourselves this year. And so that’s where I’m at, trying to just continue to get on pace and on track with receivers and skill guys and timing and go from there. Yeah, the ceiling here is high and we all expect that out of ourselves. We expect to be great and that’s how I look at it.”

A championship mentality was instilled in the young signal-caller.

So what does that mean for Trey Lance & San Darnold?

Both men are battling it out for the backup QB spot this preseason. And so far, both men have delivered in their own ways.

Lance has been inconsistent some days, having accuracy in the middle of the park but then missing routine, short check-downs to his halfbacks. But the days that he is on fire (and there were a few) are eye-opening, to say the least.

At the end of the day though, the former third overall pick carries the same demeanor into this season that he did last season.

“For me, nothing’s changed,” Trey Lance told the media. “The last three years I feel like I’ve attacked it the same way. I feel like I’m in a much better spot myself, personally, this year than I have been the past two years. But mindset-wise, mentally for me, I feel like if I’m not putting that same pressure on myself in practice, then the games are a lot harder.”

Darnold is in a similar boat, wanting to make every opportunity count with his fourth NFL franchise.

And while both men have starting experience, the 2023 season will be meant for growing as a player from the sidelines. Who knows, maybe the QB dominos will fall for an opening on another team, or maybe an injury crisis occurs again.

Point being: A lot can happen over the course of a season.

2. BA & Deebo are the Best WR Combo in Football

If there’s one thing we learned from the 49ers 2023 training camp so far: Brandon Aiyuk is turning heads.

The fourth-year wideout has been the talk of the town for the second year in a row, looking to take another leap in 2023. It’s hard to imagine that, simply because of the Red & Gold’s crop of talent makes single-game takeover quite difficult.

But it’s possible for Aiyuk, nonetheless, with teammates and coaches alike singing his praises the last few weeks.

“From year 1 to now, his confidence level is like through the roof,” WR Deebo Samuel said about his counterpart. “I mean, he walk in, he walk out everyday, like, nobody can guard him. And when you walk around with that type of attitude, you take that out there to the field, I mean, it can only translate. So he’s took his game to another level and it’s very exciting to see.”

“He’s been obsessed this offseason with football. You can tell he enjoys talking about it, he enjoys preparing for it and he’s truly become a pro and the results I think will keep showing,” Kyle Shanahan told the media.

“I like Aiyuk, man. Also Deebo. Those guys are special,” rookie safety Ji’Ayir Brown said. “The way Aiyuk gets in and out of breaks, reads defenses and makes plays on the ball…One of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL.”

Aiyuk himself attributes his success to hard work over the years.

Starting his collegiate career at Sierra College, the wideout faced an uphill climb to make the NFL. But thanks to God-given talent, he got an offer from Arizona State University, and the rest is history.

Now ready to “take off”, BA looks back at last season’s success with fond memories. But he’s also locked in on the mistakes he made as well.

“Just looking back on it, you get to see some of the success and then also some of the stuff that didn’t go well,” Aiyuk explained. “Then you just look at that, and you really can see where you can take it to. It wasn’t just about seeing success, but seeing opportunities missed, and what it could look like [if] those had been made.”

Those mistakes came few & far between for the shifty WR last season, but they happen. At the end of the day though, Aiyuk has Samuel to help him get better.

Samuel is coming off a down season himself, one barred by contract controversy in the 2022 offseason. Showing up in the best shape of his life this year, the South Carolina native is determined to make amends in 2023.

“How we look at it, like, we’re our own competitors. We’re not competing with nobody else but ourselves,” Deebo Samuel said. “We just got to keep continuing to get better and not pay attention to the outside noise, just compete with ourselves.”

And because of that mentality, Aiyuk appreciates his Pro Bowl counterpart as well.

“I love having him as a teammate just because you have somebody around you that motivates you,” Aiyuk said about Samuel. “And I said it before, I get to watch him do the stuff that he does, the way he goes about his business and that motivates me to be better. And I’m sure he’d say the same thing.”

The partnership has indeed made them better. Here’s an example.

On Day 4 of training camp, Brandon Aiyuk caught four touchdown passes. In one session of Redzone drills. It didn’t matter who was in at QB, they were looking his way, hitting slants & out routes for six all day.

In fact, the Rocklin native has been so dominant in practice that the cornerbacks often get chippy with him. Aiyuk chatters back of course. Some words get said, it happens, this is football after all.

But it’s the idea of making each other better that fuels the 49ers on the field, regardless of position.

“It’s a big help. I value him as a top-5 [wide receiver] in this league,” cornerback Deommodore Lenoir said about Aiyuk. “Any tips and things I can work on, he tells me just to [make] me better because we all got the same goal, we’re on the same team. And we got one goal, just to win.”

As they say, iron sharpens iron. And this 49ers team, especially the wide receiver room at the top, so that to a tee.

3. The 49ers really aren’t in a Rush to get Nick Bosa Back

San Francisco has exercised extreme patience with the contract negotiations for Star pass rusher Nick Bosa. And after two weeks, I kind of get it.

Let me explain.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is entering the final year of his rookie deal, set to earn a mega deal the likes we’ve never seen. The highest-paid defensive player is Aaron Donald of the LA Rams at $31 million annually. Bosa and CAA Sports are looking to blow that figure out of the water.

Obviously, the 49ers are going to pay him. It’s just about finding the right balance to help their cap situation heading into 2024.

“We have to strike the right mix of patience & urgency. I don’t like this. I don’t like not having one of our best players here. But I also understand it and understand we’ll have to exhibit some patience,” general manager Lynch said recently. “I remain confident that we’ll come to an agreement and get things taken care of.”

I now raise a question: Do the 49ers even want Bosa at training camp right now?

Frankly, that seems to be the case.

“I don’t know if Bosa’s ever done a training camp, and he’s done pretty good,” Kyle Shanahan said with a smirk the other day.

A disastrous situation for San Francisco would be their star defensive end going down with an injury in the preseason. Bosa himself has talked about preserving his body for the long grind of the regular season, so why even risk it?

Shanahan & the coaching staff of course want him in Santa Clara. But if there’s one person that is always in game shape, it’s Nick Bosa.

“It’s a little different with D-linemen. Everybody wants people here, and you want to do that stuff, but it doesn’t affect the team as much from the [defensive end] standpoint. I have as much confidence in Nick as any player I’ve ever been around in terms of how he prepares and everything.

“I know they’re going to get it right, both sides, and I’m excited for when I do see him,” Kyle Shanahan said. “We don’t want to have our star guy out there in August, when we know we’ll need him in December & January.”

His teammates have also hinted at this process, with Arik Armstead staying in contact with him. The players get it. Because at the end of the day, he’s probably the best player on a roster full of elite talents.

“He knows how valuable player he is. And he knows he’ll be compensated for it,” Armstead said. “So, I don’t think he has a worry in his mind and I don’t think we’re here worrying either. The Niners have a great track record and have taken care of people who do things the right way and are exceptional players. And I’m sure that will be taken care of, he definitely deserves it.”

4. Depth in the Secondary?

The 49ers’ biggest weakness of the last five years has been the secondary, giving up big plays left & right. Some of that changed when Charvarius Ward arrived.

“Mooney” joined San Francisco on a three-year deal in 2022, taking hold of the top cornerback spot straight away. Having the most tackles in the group last season (87), Ward established himself as a legit No. 1 CB in the NFL.

Now entering Year 2, Ward has some lofty goals for 2023, hoping to make his way if the CB pecking order shortly.

That mentality has rubbed off on other members of the secondary, like Deommodore Lenoir.

Lenoir, 24, took over the CB2 role after Emmanuel Moseley tore his ACL in Week 5 last season. Struggling a bit at first, the Oregon alum grew into the role, putting in strong performances in the postseason.

That strong finish to 2022 has only translated to 2023, showing out in training camp as well.

“DMo, he been ballin most days,” Ward stated about Lenoir. “He has made a lot of plays on the ball. It’s a lot of good coverage…he’s a hyena.”

“He’s a dog, he’s a real dog, Aiyuk said recently. “[The coaches] challenged him since he got here, and I think he stepped up to the challenge ever since. Not a lot of people can lead, a lot of people shy away from a challenge. But he stepped right into it; he’s become a good player.”

New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has also liked what he’s seen from Lenoir, feeling confident in his starting CBs at the moment.

“I feel like he definitely has the potential. And it’s not just so much one individual, but he needs to progress and grow from last year. I think he has the skillset and we just really trying to hone that and just pull the best out of him along with all the others,” Wilks explained.

In fact, “The DB Whisper” has been pleased with a lot of the progress made by the secondary. Guys like Ambry Thomas, Isaiah Oliver, and Samuel Womack have all made strides this summer. That in turn, makes for a strong secondary.

One that can be a strength, not a weakness, for the 49ers.

“The depth that we have across the board, inside and out, man, that’s what I’m talking about. Never been around anything like this,” Steve Wilks said. “We’ve done a tremendous job starting with [general manager] John [Lynch] and [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] building this roster and getting us the guys that we need to play and succeed with. So, I’m excited about that.”

5. Steve Wilks fits the 49ers like a Glove

Speaking of Steve Wilks, the team loves him.

When DeMeco Ryans left the 49ers for the Texans in the spring, a lot of questions arose about how the best defense in football would rebound. In only a few months, the unit seems to be even stronger than it was last season.

And that has all to do with Steve Wilks and the coaching staff around him.

“Coach Wilks is an OG, he’s real smart, got a lot of knowledge in the game,” Ward said about his new coach. “I like his scheme, he kinda adding his own wrinkle to things, but it’s still mainly the same defense. I feel like he got a lot of knowledge amongst the [defensive backs], I get a lot of 1-on-1 work with him. And hopefully, he’ll take me to the next level and all the other DBs as well.”

“He’s a real technician,” Lenoir said of Wilks. “He’s just helping us kick 45 [degrees] because that’s what we had a problem with. As I said, working, opening the gate, having us turn and run…”

The former Panthers interim head coach has fit seamlessly into the Santa Clara mix. His fiery yet disciplined demeanor has already gotten a lot out of his defense. You’ll routinely see him get elated for a defensive stop in practice, throwing fist pumps with sheer excitement.

You can tell he loves what he does and that’s important for a new coordinator coming into an already-made team. If the players see pushback, or that you don’t care about their ways, they won’t embrace you.

Thankfully, that’s not the case, with Wilks speaking Shanahan’s language fluently.

“I think that’s the key thing that you just said is having an open mind to learn,” Wilks said. “I’ve been around quite a bit. I’ve done a lot of different things, but it’s not my way it’s the 49ers’ way. So easy transition from the spring to now and just trying to continue to build onto the things that we’ve established in the spring.”

“Well, that’s stuff we talk about all the time and we all have philosophies and stuff and Steve knows mine. I have a pretty good idea of his,” Kyle Shanahan stated. “Those are the things you discuss throughout interviews and things like that, how we see the defense going forward. And there’s some days we try certain things. There are some things we want to just look at stuff and how it goes, but we’re always communicating with that stuff.”

His expertise comes in the secondary, working 1-on-1 with all the DBs. That has made the whole unit better, especially at the top with Ward & Lenoir.

It’s also important to note that Wilks allows defensive line coach Kris Kocurek to do his thing in the trenches. With a steady hand for the last several years, coach Kris has turned many outcast DLs into blue-chip players that get multi-year deals.

Like they say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

There’s still a whole season to be played, but based on training camp returns, the 49ers hit a grand slam when they signed Steve Wills this offseason.

6. The Third Linebacker Spot is Open Season

Recently on a Reddit message board, a Tennessee Titans’ fan asked 49ers Faithful why the team let linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair walk in free agency. The former 49er has been killing it in Nashville, becoming the team’s best LB so far.

The reason is that they have Fred Warner & Dre Greenlaw on the roster. But behind them, there are also talented prospects just scratching the surface.

Whether it’s veterans like Oren Burks and Marcelino McCray-Ball, or rookies like Dee Winters and Jalen Graham, San Francisco has options for that No. 3 spot in the middle of the park. So far, the whole group has shown flashes, making the final selection very tough for coaches.

The linebackers know the preseason could be their one chance to make an impression with the playoff contender. Meaning every day has to be another step forward.

“Definitely the opportunity is there for me, that third spot at linebacker. For me, I’m excited, I’ve been waiting for opportunities for a while and it’s here,” LB Oren Burks said recently. “So like I said, I’m focused on every day continuing to get better, put my best self on tape for the coach to see, get evaluated and compete.”

Like the rest of the defense, the 49ers feel deep in that position. It helps when you draft well, but guys that have been in their system for a few years are starting to turn the corner, making for tough competition over the next few weeks.

“Consistency across the board is the key for us at all positions. It’s a tight race. [LB Oren Burks] O.B., Burks is doing a tremendous job. [LB] Marcelino [McCrary-Ball] made a great play at the end of the practice. And then you also see [LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles] Flan. So, I like the mere fact that when, when Fred and Greenlaw take a day off, I feel like we’re not missing a beat. So, that’s definitely encouraging. I’m excited about the backups and how they’re performing.”

Currently, Burks leads the race for the No. 3 spot. But a lot can change once the preseason is over.

7. Two Javons = More Problems

The 49ers addressed a major hole in the defensive line this offseason, signing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a massive deal.

The standout bull rusher inked a four-year, $84 million deal with San Francisco in March, joining forces with the team that he beat in January. And while defensive linemen aren’t allowed to really hit anyone in camp, his raw talent is apparent right away.

The 305-pound specimen is outrageously strong, using power and agility to get past his opponents. Guys of his stature are typically slower run-stoppers.

He can do it all, showing up on all three downs of the game.

That versatility allows Wilks & the defense to use him in a variety of ways, making the whole unit that much more interchangeable.

And it also makes life easier for Nick Bosa when he returns.

“I mean, the more guys that are there, the better. The less you can put on one person, the more space there is. What Nick Bosa does on the edge for guys having to kick out so far helps out the inside guys…But that’s our whole goal when you can’t just do it with one, you can’t usually do it with two, you have to have a lineup of them and they have to keep coming. They have to be in shape, they have to stay healthy. We feel when we have that, we’re pretty hard to beat,” Steve Wilks explained.

San Francisco has also gotten a bump from homegrown players, especially Javon Kinlaw.

The fourth-year DT has battled injuries the last two seasons, playing 10 games in 24 months. Now back to full strength, Kinlaw has made strong impression in camp, blowing past the OL on several drills.

He just looks so much better, from a physical and mental standpoint, on the field.

“I think he’s fresh. I think he’s healthy. You’re seeing a lot of explosion off the line, violent hands and really he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Wilks said. “I love when I see him, when the play is down the field, and he turns and runs about 30 to 45 yards down the field, it’s phenomenal just to see a man of that size move the way he does. So, I’m happy right now where he is and hopefully, he can continue to progress.”

It’s been a battle for the big man from South Carolina, not getting his fifth-year option extended to him. That means that Year 4 is do or die for his 49ers tenure, one that the whole coaching staff is rooting for success.

“Every year we’re hoping he can come back and have the health and play the way that we always knew he was capable of. Every year it’s just heartbreaking with how hard he’s worked and what happens with him. And this year, it’s been so encouraging. It’s the first year that he’s gone from February, all the way up until now with no setbacks…You know how much it means him…It’s hard when you have those three years where you don’t have good luck, and to see him having the results of the effort he’s put in, you’re really pulling for the kid,” Kyle Shanahan said about Kinlaw.

The 49ers have also gotten help from other rotational guys and will need to if they want to make another deep run.

But it’s the play of both Javons that will be the key to San Francisco’s defensive success. If Hargrave is as advertised, and Kinlaw takes a big step forward, this defense is going to be a problem.

8. Moody is Money

At the time of the 2024 NFL Draft, taking a kicker in the third round seemed absolutely ludicrous. Frankly, it still does.

That’s why when the 49ers took Michigan’s Jake Moody with the 99th overall pick, many people were not too pleased. But through the first part of training camp, he’s delivered and then some.

Moody has been money on the practice field, missing two field goals total in the last two weeks. And both of them were from 50 yards-plus. He closed out Tuesday with two kicks from 60+ yards away, both went through the uprights.

The kid has a cannon for a leg, hitting 60-yarders with ease. San Francisco brought in veteran Zane Gonzalez to compete with him, and it’s only made him better. Obviously, he still has to pass the in-game test. But from the looks of it, he should have no problem carving out a nice, long career in the NFL.

When the 49ers let Robbie Gould walk in the spring, it definitely turned some heads of the fanbase. But once again, they seemed to have done the right thing for the franchise.

Congrats, Faithful.

9. Rookies Making Strides

Speaking of rookies, the 49ers had 11 draft picks this year. That’s a lot. So naturally, some of them are going to work out, and some won’t.

So far, most of them have impressed. Here are the standouts (besides Moody): S Ji’Ayir Brown, LBs Jalen Graham & Dee Winters.

Brown especially, impressed many of the veteran DBs on the roster. A former captain, the Penn State alum has the makings of another great safety for the 49ers. Unfortunately, he’s stuck behind Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga at the moment.

But that’s okay, soaking up all the knowledge he can from the vets and Wilks. And he’ll get his chance to shine in the preseason, one that many are watching closely.

“I think he’s a grown man…I think in the preseason, he’s gonna be smacking people around. He a dawg,” Charvarius Ward said about Brown.

The rookie linebackers have also had their share of good plays, firmly in the battle for rotation spots. While that might not seem like much, finding talent that you want to grow in the later rounds is always a bonus for any franchise. San Francisco has had success with that over the years, including Greenlaw, a former fifth-round selection.

While it could take time, both Graham & Winters have shown abilities to be successful in the 49ers’ scheme.

“I think they’re making progress as well,” Wilks said about the new LBs recently. “When I was talking about Jalen the other day, he’s so athletic and that’s what we loved about him coming out of Purdue. Could run, could cover in the slot, but he had a couple of plays the other day that were phenomenal for us as far as just being physical, coming downhill on an offensive lineman using his hands. So, that’s always encouraging because that’s what we pride ourselves on, being a physical defense.”

But the rookie that has shined the most, isn’t even one that was drafted by the 49ers.

Meet undrafted rookie CB D’Shawn Jamison.

The Texas alum has been a standout in the secondary, making at least one play a day on the football field. His ability to close distances and come up with pass breakups is uncanny for a rook.

To be frank, he plays like a veteran, and that’s hard to come by for a 24-year-old.

“Very impressed, very impressed,” Wilks stated about Jamison’s play. “And I think some of the receivers were talking about him the other day. He has definitely made strides from the spring and just came back and built on his repertoire and just his toolbox. I think the one thing that he’s doing with his technique, he’s staying more square in his backpedal, which is allowing him to be able to see and visualize more of the field-route concept, see the quarterback, and he’s doing a great job of breaking on the ball, his man-to-man technique, he’s great at the line of scrimmage and he’s doing a good job at the top end of the route, the point of emphasis that I talk about all the time, that’s where we’ve got to win. So, you see him doing a lot of good things.” 

UDFA’s are long shots to make any NFL roster, much less one as talented as San Francisco’s. But if there’s one thing we know: The 49ers exhaust all avenues for the best talent on the team, cutting running back Trey Sermon last season in favor of UDFA RB Jordan Mason.

Could Jamison be the next one? It’s absolutely possible at the moment.

10. It’s Time to Hit Somebody for Real

Final thought: If there’s one thing we learned from Tuesday’s practice, it’s that these guys are ready to play football for real.

Tuesday’s scrimmages were lousy, to say the least, with six dropped passes by the pass catchers. Off days are bound to happen, but Saturday’s training camp session felt very similar. Maybe because the team is ready for a new challenge?

Yeah, let’s go with that.

Regardless, the 49ers are ready to take their talents to Sin City for joint practices with the Raiders. A series of days that will include going against a familiar face in Jimmy Garoppolo.

While no one poked the elephant in the room during media availability, you can tell that the team is pumped to start playing real football.

“I haven’t tackled nobody since December of last year. So, definitely looking forward to getting back to it. Show off my tackling abilities to the [49ers]. And let them see what I’m all about,” Ji’Ayir Brown said.

“It’s my first time in an NFL jersey against another NFL jersey and it’s football, I love football,” rookie tight end Brayden Willis said. “Just going out there in a game-type atmosphere is gonna get me fired up.  So I’m excited, excited for the trip with my guys and I’m excited to see what we do.”

The real work starts now for San Francisco, pushing to make every day count on their quest for Super Bowl trophy No. 6.

Could this be the year?

It all starts with joint practices against another team, beginning to find out what they are truly capable of this season.

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