3 things to watch for at 49ers OTAs next week

May 19, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: 9:04 am

Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers during warmups before the game against the Seattle Seahawk...

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 18: Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers during warmups before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi's Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

It seems just like yesterday that the 49ers were wrapping up their 2022 season, but here we are, heading into the end of May.

The San Francisco 49ers will begin Organized Team Activities (OTAs) on Monday, May 22 and Tuesday, May 23. The Red & Gold will have a series of workout dates until June 8th, then mandatory minicamp commences on June 13. It’ll be a busy four weeks for the 49ers before taking the final hiatus leading into Training Camp in late July. 

But before we get there, let’s preview a few storylines to watch for next week with San Francisco.

The 49ers Quarterback Battle

A 49ers offseason wouldn’t feel right without a little quarterback controversy. No? Maybe it’s just me then.

Regardless, San Francisco is set for a scorching summer of QB roulette, this time featuring the talents of Trey Lance and Sam Darnold. Lance is coming off a major injury to his lower body, fracturing his right ankle in Week 2 of the 2022 season. While Darnold just got there, signing a one-year deal with the Red & Gold. 

Both players are expected to compete for the starting job through training camp, especially with Brock Purdy not set to be fully cleared from offseason elbow surgery until the start of the regular season. While there’s not much to go on thus far, Lance seems to have a slight edge entering June, getting a full offseason of work in after a finger injury limited his development. 

“He was able to get such a better base in these last two months that I think Trey is the best that we’ve [seen] him right now,” coach Kyle Shanahan recently said. “Yeah, we got to get into OTAs and practice, but when you watch his feet, his timing, how he’s throwing the ball, he’s in such a better place now than he was last year at this time.”

This time last year, the 49ers were ready to move on with Lance as the starting QB. Things changed, that’s a given, but their coaching staff still feels confident he can flash the potential that made him the third overall pick in 2020. That doesn’t mean Purdy isn’t still the “leader in the clubhouse,” as general manager John Lynch put it, just that they have faith for 2023.

“We were ready to go with Trey,” Shanahan stated. “And Trey was going to go through a lot [last] year, and I believe he would have gotten to a level where he did similar stuff [to Purdy]. He missed that [opportunity]. Brock came in and did it. Now, I truly believe Trey can go do that. But Brock’s already done it. And that’s a very good thing for us to have.

It’ll be interesting to see how the starting job unfolds for the Red & Gold. Purdy is expected back by Week 4 of the regular season, set to begin a throwing program in mid-June.

For now though, it’s Lance versus Darnold for QB1. Get your popcorn ready.

“We know what we have [in Purdy]. I truly believe in my heart what Trey can be. It still takes time and you’ve got to go do it. In the meantime, we have a guy sitting here who already has done it. That’s a very good thing for the Niners,” Shanahan added.

Javon Kinlaw & Drake Jackson’s Development

San Francisco addressed the biggest weakness on the defensive line with the Javon Hargrave signing in March. Poaching him from the Eagles with a massive four-year deal, Hargrave is an exceptional running mate for DLs Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa. Despite being 30 years old, his production has stayed consistent over the last few seasons, a force in the run & passing game.

But the 49ers need additional reinforcements to come up big in 2023. Two players primed for that are Drake Jackson and Javon Kinlaw.

Kinlaw is the more important one for this season, likely being his last chance to succeed with the Red & Gold. The team declined to pick up his fifth-year option, making it clear that year four is a “prove it”year for the defensive tackle. Coming back from lingering knee inflammation in his surgically-repaired leg, the early returns are positive for the South Carolina alum, present and active at the 49ers’ facility all offseason.

“Kinlaw has just been tremendous since I’ve been here,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said last week. “The day that I came in on my interview, he was here working out. He has not missed a day of offseason training, so I’m excited to see exactly where he’s going to be.”

Drake Jackson has a bit more time, given this is his sophomore season in the league, but the team expects him to make a big jump in 2023. 

Wilks mentioned that the USC alum was tasked with adding muscle this off-season. After wearing down in the playoffs last year, Jackson looks like he’s getting in the best shape of his life in year two. That should bode well for his development and playtime with the 49ers.

“The same thing with Drake,” Wilks continued. “Drake has been here all spring working out, doing the things that he needs to do to improve his game. He’s gained a lot of weight, he’s in there with [DL coach Kris] Kocurek and I’m just excited to see exactly what he’s going to do and how he’s going to progress in his second year.

San Francisco needs both players to step up for 2023, and the players need it too if they want to make it to a second NFL contract. While they likely won’t be making a Pro Bowl anytime soon, both players can be consistent contributors in the Red & God’s rotation for a few years.

Rookies, Rookies, Rookies

Fresh meat is in the building at 49ers HQ.

Kidding aside, the 49ers had an up-and-down 2023 draft, landing their guys but at a premium. The biggest example of that is Michigan kicker Jake Moody going at the end of the third round to the Red & Gold, the first time a kicker was taken that early since Roberto Aguayo in 2016.

This happens when your franchise doesn’t have a first or second-round selection, but 11 picks total in the draft. You win some, you lose some. 

One selection they hit out of the park was trading up for Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown at No.87 overall.

Brown is a versatile member of the secondary, using instincts and ball-hawking abilities to make plays on the field. His demeanor and leadership made him a captain for the Nittany Lions, and now a recipient of the gold helmet from the 49ers, a mark of excellence in other football-related areas.

When San Francisco brought “Tig” Brown in for a visit during the draft process, the connection was immediate for both sides, especially for coach Wilks.

“He just started growing on me, the conversation that we’re having, his dedication to the game, he’s mature, he sees it with a different lens and I said, this guy right here can be the future for us, so I was excited about it and I’m glad we got him,” Steve Wilks said of Brown.

The admiration is a two-way street, as Brown knew the Bay Area would be a perfect landing spot for him to succeed in the NFL.

“When I came here on my top 30 visit, I was so amazed at how well we connected,” Brown stated last week. “Me and Coach Wilks, John Lynch, it’s been a bond from the jump. I was like, ‘If I get to San Fran, man. I love San Fran.’ I knew as soon as I slipped to the third round, the kind of connection we had, they got to come get me.”

He’ll spend a year behind veteran S Tashaun Gipson Sr. on the depth chart, learning on the job as a rotational member of the secondary. The plan is similar to Talanoa Hufanga, let him grow at his own place before letting him loose. It’s worked in the past and should work again for the Red & Gold.

Other 49ers’ rookies to watch are linebacker Dee Winters, cornerback Darrell Luter Jr., and TE Cameron Latu.

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