San Francisco 49ers' Rookie Progress Reports for Preseason Week 1
The San Francisco 49ers are fortunate that Week 1 of their 2014 preseason ended in a much different fashion than it began.
Indeed, progress reports that emerge after three positive, constructive joint practices with a former Super Bowl nemesis—instead of coming after a 23-3 thrashing last Thursday vs. said Baltimore Ravens—are generally kinder to the eyes.
And that includes those of veterans, second-year players and rookies alike.
For the purposes of this evaluation, San Francisco’s 2014 draft picks and undrafted pickups are the subjects of note. Jimmie Ward, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland, Bruce Ellington, Dontae Johnson, Aaron Lynch and Kenneth Acker all made their presence felt over the past week. The same goes for a few rookie free agents.
Hyde averaged a fantastic 7.8 yards on the ground against Baltimore’s formidable defensive front. Fellow first-year asset Ellington led the 49ers in receiving yards.
There are also the likes of Martin and Shayne Skov—the first a top-70 pick and the other an undrafted linebacker out of Stanford. Both have appeared as little more than raw NFL backups, if not the quality of practice-squad stowaways.
With such an appropriately wide disparity in mind, here are the progress reports for the 49ers’ rookies through Week 1 of the preseason.
Note: Draft picks G Brandon Thomas (knee), CB Keith Reaser (knee), DT Kaleb Ramsey (N/A) and FB Trey Millard (knee) have all been sidelined for the entire offseason. Each one will also sport the redshirt label for their rookie campaigns.
Undrafted Free Agents
ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford
Skov received four-plus years of pro-level training at a reputable collegiate program known for producing NFL-ready prospects. He left Stanford ranked No. 1 all time in assisted tackles in the Pac-12.
Alas, not one single team could look past his injury history and deficient speed and deem him worthy of a draft pick. The 6’3”, 247-pound linebacker did receive some interest in free agency, however, and he ultimately chose the 49ers as his first NFL destination, per Levi Damien of SB Nation.
But as it turns out, that might not have been the smartest of choices.
Skov failed to capitalize on his in-game opportunity in place of the injured NaVorro Bowman. He made just two tackles in 40 defensive snaps against the Ravens. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also docked him for two missed tackles with a negative-0.3 overall grade.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area then reported that Skov left Saturday’s practice early due to a left ankle sprain. Two of his main competitors for the inside linebacker position thrived in the afternoon session to boot, per The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows.
Avoiding a serious injury and returning to the final joint practice on Monday did little to boost Skov’s progress through this first week of the preseason. His hope for making the final 53-man roster remains bleak at best.
Then again, finding himself on the practice squad of a championship contender isn’t the worst of consolations. Barrows notes that team officials “feel comfortable they can stash him [there]” in 2014.
Progress Report: C-
OL Dillon Farrell, New Mexico
The 49ers’ talent evaluators are renowned for their knack at finding quality prospects in faraway places. And if the prospects are not obscure in location, they usually end up identifying unheralded college players at big-name programs.
Dillon Farrell, for his part, finds himself in the former of the two categories.
The 6’3”, 303-pound offensive lineman can play center, guard and tackle. San Francisco’s coaching staff surely prizes his tremendous versatility in a positional group that is very much in flux with Alex Boone’s contract holdout still ongoing.
Barrows reports that Farrell has held his own at right tackle and has “looked like the more competent rookie” at center. Pro Football Focus also awarded him with a positive-0.2 rating for his 26 snaps while anchoring the middle of the line versus Baltimore.
Unlike the rookie who preceded him on this slide, Farrell has taken full advantage of his early opportunities—even if that only means reserving a spot on the practice squad in 2014.
Progress Report: B+
CB Kenneth Acker, SMU (Round 6, No. 180 Overall)
Per the general nature of professional football, injuries affect all those who participate at one time or another. When player goes down, another receives an opportunity.
Kenneth Acker qualifies as said opportunistic hopeful.
Selected No. 180 overall in Round 6, Acker has received playing time that would normally belong to more heralded prospects. Nearly every Niners cornerback has missed some degree of practice. And Acker, whether productive or not, has stepped up in their place.
The 6’0”, 190-pound corner out of SMU produced in the latter regard during his first NFL action. He logged zero tackles and earned a negative-0.3 grade in pass coverage from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) for his 22 defensive snaps against the Ravens. He surrendered a seven-yard touchdown pass to rookie Jeremy Butler as well.
But just like any other graded performance, it's far better to finish strong.
Acker deftly broke up a Joe Flacco pass in Sunday’s joint practice and was the star of Wednesday’s session back in San Francisco with two interceptions. Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group, via Blogs.MercuryNews.com, says he “made the most of his increased reps,” thereby increasing “his chances of making the 53-man roster.”
Even though we’ll side more with Barrows' prognosis of Acker landing on the practice squad, the fact that he has a chance at all is monumental progress for a sixth-round rookie.
Progress Report: B
OLB Aaron Lynch, South Florida (Round 5, No. 150 Overall)
After losing 30 pounds, changing schools and seeing his draft stock plummet, Lynch is on his way to reclaiming his former early-round status.
Possessing all the talent in the world as an upper-echelon collegiate pass-rusher, Lynch fell to the 49ers in the fifth round at No. 150 overall. Kevin Lynch (no relation) of the San Francisco Chronicle (via SFGate.com), details his tumultuous journey here.
He has since bulked up to 276 pounds with help from 49ers chefs and strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group (via Blogs.MercuryNews.com). Like Aldon Smith did in 2011, the Notre Dame-turned-South Florida product will play outside linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme after putting his hand in the dirt in college.
Lynch unfortunately missed out on the Niners' first preseason game due to the lingering effects of a pulled hamstring. But he did impose his physical presence during the practices that followed.
The 6’5”, long-armed dynamo recorded a would-be sack on Saturday after making quick work of Ravens running back Bernard Pierce, per Maiocco. He did the same the next day, not to mention his domination of Baltimore’s tight ends in pass-rush drills, as relayed by Barrows.
Barrows further reported that Lynch “handily beat [teammate] Michael Philipp twice” in similar drills during Wednesday’s session. His inexperience manifested itself later that practice, however, when he took an improper angle and missed an easy tackle of running back Jewel Hampton.
Still, Lynch has realized his potential during Week 1 of the preseason. Per Barrows:
Rookie Aaron Lynch looks impressive, and he’s only been practicing in full for about a week. He’s massive, very physical and has long arms – not quite Aldon Smith size, but eye-popping nonetheless – and he’s been a handful for blockers. He looks very much like the guy who played at Notre Dame, not the one who disappointed at South Florida. Right now his bull rush is his go-to option, but he should benefit from working alongside Smith, who has been offering advice during practice.
The 49ers will likely stick with veteran Dan Skuta and second-year man Corey Lemonier during Smith’s impending suspension. That said, don’t be surprised if the talented rookie gets in a few licks against unsuspecting right tackles during the early going.
“I came here not to answer people’s questions, but…to do what the coaches are telling me to do,” Lynch said via SFGate.com's Lynch. “I am going to fit the scheme I am supposed to fit. (I’m) dropping into coverage at 270 pounds, really just learning and taking everything in.”
Progress Report: B+
CB Dontae Johnson, N.C. State (Round 4, No. 129 Overall)
Similar to his lower-round compatriot, Johnson has made an impressive showing during this latest portion of the 49ers' offseason.
But unlike Lynch, Johnson has produced in both the game and practice.
The 6’2”, big-bodied defensive back out of North Carolina St. notched five tackles and one pass breakup against the Ravens. One takedown came during special teams play, while the other four resulted from his quality performance on defense.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) credited him with a plus-1.0 grade for his 38 snaps played as the Niners left cornerback. He allowed just one completion on four targets against him by Baltimore quarterbacks.
Johnson continued his dynamic work in coverage during Sunday’s joint practice. He “provided two of the highlights” with a “decisive break on a Jacoby Jones in-route to break up Joe Flacco’s pass,” followed by a pick-six on the very next play, per CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco.
“I was playing assignment football and being where I was supposed to be at the right time,” Johnson said rather modestly, per Maiocco.
Johnson has indeed accomplished a great deal over this past week. The Sacramento Bee's Barrows agrees, believing he will make San Francisco’s 53-man roster as the team’s fifth cornerback due to his high football IQ and imposing frame.
That's not too shabby for a first-year prospect who received little attention during the predraft process.
Progress Report: A-/B+
WR, Bruce Ellington, South Carolina (Round 4, No. 106 Overall)
If there was ever any doubt surrounding the 49ers’ opening selection on Day 3 of the draft, it has long since dissipated.
Ellington has thoroughly impressed onlookers throughout his first NFL offseason. That notable production, meanwhile, came to a head during his first professional game.
He showed off his slick wheels and smooth hands by hauling in all three passes thrown his way for a team-high 35 yards against Baltimore’s defense. Nearly half of that total came after the catch. The reputable minds at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) honored him with a plus-0.5 grade, which is a fine score within the parameters of their proprietary metrics.
The Sacramento Bee’s Barrows articulated it best. In addition to labeling Ellington as the quickest, if not fastest 49ers receiver, he noted that the first-year product “looked nothing like a rookie, and seemed like he belonged” in the game.
Ellington showcased that veteran-like prowess in the very next practice as well. The 5’9”, 197-pound dynamo recovered quickly after muffing his first punt return Saturday by “[handling] the rest of his chances flawlessly,” according to CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco. He was also instrumental in helping his quarterbacks complete over 70 percent of their passes on the day.
It’s also worth noting that in one of the rare potential moments of contention between 49ers and Ravens players, Ellington exhibited total class. He immediately apologized to cornerback Asa Jackson following an unintentional sideline collision, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle (via SFGate.com).
Whether it's relating to performance, on-field behavior or anything else, Ellington has simply shone in all the right ways.
Progress Report: A-
ILB Chris Borland, Wisconsin (Round 3, No. 77 Overall)
True to the theme of his entire sporting career, numerical metrics have not been kind to Borland in Week 1 of the Niners' preseason.
The 5’11”, 4.83-40-yard dash-running linebacker registered just two tackles in 40 defensive snaps against the Ravens. He received a cringe-worthy negative-1.1 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was largely the product of subpar work in pass coverage.
Aside from earning the only starting gig among his rookie teammates, Borland didn’t necessarily make a favorable impression. He—in the words of Barrows—“was around a lot of plays, but did not make a lot of plays.”
Yet all that said, Borland’s usually stellar gridiron instincts and technique still made an appearance in both the game and practices.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Branch (via SFGate.com) described one instance when the tireless ‘backer maneuvered his way downfield on a special teams coverage assignment. He then executed a tremendous open-field tackle, which stifled Jackson after just a one-yard punt return during the preseason opener.
He also made the defensive hits of the day during these teams’ second joint session. Inman of the Bay Area News Group (via Blogs.MercuryNews.com) lauded Borland for a backfield pop of Fitzgerald Toussaint on a goal-line stand. He also initiated the “loudest collision during one-on-one passing drills.”
Here is how Branch—with help from a certain All-Pro defender—credited the up-and-coming rookie:
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis said Borland has traits similar to NaVorro Bowman, the player the rookie is hoping to temporarily replace. “He’s a little pit bull,” Willis said. “I love watching him play. He reminds me of NaVorro. They’re real low and compact, and it seems like they never break stride. They’re moving and they’re always getting to the ball.”
Sure, the numbers may overwhelmingly support Michael Wilhoite. The reliable veteran logged seven tackles and one sack in just 23 snaps last Thursday. But in the eyes of an all-time great, as well as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Borland isn’t too far behind.
This positional battle will only get better as the 49ers enter Week 2.
Progress Report: B-/C+
C Marcus Martin, USC (Round 3, No. 70 Overall)
Despite being selected highest among the 49ers' trio of third-round picks, Martin has performed to quite the opposite extent.
Martin did not begin practicing until the first week of August due to an ankle sprain he suffered while away from the team. Worse yet, the No. 70 overall pick and consensus top center in this year’s class has looked anything but ever since.
He sat on the sidelines while Farrell, the undrafted rookie out of New Mexico, played 26 snaps against the Ravens. When he finally emerged on the practice field two days later, Baltimore’s defensive front “overpowered” him on multiple occasions, according Barrows.
Barrows adds that opposing interior linemen beat Martin “soundly” at times throughout the three joint practice sessions. Both he and CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco state unequivocally that Daniel Kilgore will win the starting center job outright.
We must give Martin a bit of a break due to the various injuries he’s battled throughout the start of his NFL career. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh also stated “he’s been outstanding in the meetings” and that “it’s possible to get caught up,” per Maiocco.
That said, getting thoroughly dominated by a guy who hasn’t practiced in nearly one year (see: Ian Williams) and fumbling exchanges with a backup quarterback as late as August 13 simply isn’t a positive showing on Martin’s part.
His early progress report reflects that accordingly.
Progress Report: D
RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio St. (Round 2, No. 57 Overall)
At this point, what really needs to be said about Hyde?
With presumptive No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter lost for the season, the powerful rookie from Ohio St. has done nothing but firmly entrench himself behind starter Frank Gore.
The 6’0”, 230-pounder “tore off gains of 7, 19 and 8 yards on the 49ers’ first drive” versus the Ravens during the preseason opener, as highlighted by Maiocco. He then facilitated Blaine Gabbert’s third-down completion with an effective block of a blitzing defender during the second offensive series, per Inman, (via Blogs.MercuryNews.com).
Anyone who knows the 49ers' coaching staff understands implicitly how fundamental pass blocking is to a running back’s playing.
Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick said Hyde “ran explosively, made good decisions, had the speed to hit the edge and creased some things inside.” Harbaugh offered similar praise, saying he “ran the ball well” and displayed “good vision,” per Branch (via SFGate.com).
Hyde finished with a team-high 39 yards on the ground and that aforementioned 7.8-yard average. It doesn’t take a football savant to discern the impressive nature of that statistic.
Per usual, Barrows framed Hyde’s early production and future role in the best possible perspective:
The battle royale among Kendall Hunter, rookie Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore ended almost as soon as it started. Everyone but Hyde is injured, and Hyde has looked every bit the heir to Frank Gore the 49ers were hoping he would when they took him in the second round. The only questions at this point are how soon James and Lattimore can return and how many snaps they can eke out when they do.
When general manager Trent Baalke selected Hyde at No. 70 overall in the second round, many outsiders—including yours truly—experienced a brief moment of skepticism. The 49ers were stacked at running back and surely didn’t need another one, especially so early in the draft.
But after some deeper reflection back then—and certainly at the end of preseason Week 1—Baalke’s visionary approach couldn’t have been more astute.
Hyde is pure rookie gold.
Progress Report: A
DB Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois (Round 1, No. 30 Overall)
If Hyde’s selection engendered momentary uncertainty, then Ward materializing as the 49ers’ No. 1 pick qualified as relative shock and awe.
"Wait, another safety in the first round? Didn’t they just sign Antoine Bethea?" many a hypothetical Niners fan thought during this year’s draft.
Yet, it soon became clear that Ward would serve as the team’s ever-important nickel cornerback in the modern, pass-heavy NFL. He also would evolve into a future starting safety whenever the veteran Bethea moved on to greener pastures.
Having had his versatile role elucidated and subsequently appreciating the genius of the pick, fans wanted to see what the Northern Illinois product could do on the gridiron. Unfortunately, Ward missed much of the subsequent offseason while recovering from foot surgery.
So, when San Francisco’s first preseason game finally came around, all eyes were on No. 25. And Ward, for his part, did not disappoint.
He notched two tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup in 32 defensive snaps. He recorded both takedowns from the safety position and made the play in coverage while defending Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones in the slot, per Maiocco.
Harbaugh said he brought his successful execution in practice over to the game.
“I thought he was doing what we saw in practice," Harbaugh said, per Maiocco. "He is aggressive, and he was flying around. I think he's in good shape."
Once again in the department of redundancy department, Barrows deftly captured Ward’s role in the 49ers secondary:
First-round draft pick Jimmie Ward has been very impressive despite missing the spring drills with a foot injury. He’s precocious, aggressive and he always seems to be around the ball. He’s ideal at the nickel cornerback spot where he could play 60 percent or more of the team’s defensive snaps. He’s also been getting repetitions at free safety. That potentially gives the 49ers the option of moving him there and [Perrish] Cox to nickel cornerback if there is an injury to a starting safety this year. Remember, [Eric] Reid suffered two concussions as a rookie.
While not quite meriting the status of rookie gold like Hyde, Ward has been everything the 49ers could have hoped for in their rookie defensive back.
Progress Report: A-
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16