San Francisco 49ers: 5 Standouts from Opening Days of Training Camp
San Francisco 49ers players did not wear pads the first three days of training camp.
Team drills resembled touch football—no hitting allowed. So running backs, fullbacks, inside linebackers and safeties—players who primarily deliver and absorb hits—didn’t stand out.
Veterans, for the most part, didn’t stand out, either. Head coach Jim Tomsula is making a concerted effort not to overwork the older players. Guys like Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Vernon Davis and Reggie Bush hardly participated Sunday afternoon. The young players took most of the reps.
With that in mind, here are five standouts from the first three days of Niners training camp.
CB Dontae Johnson, Second Season
Second-year cornerback Keith Reaser was a standout performer during OTAs and minicamp.
But second-year cornerback Dontae Johnson has been the standout young cornerback so far during training camp. He’s the nickelback for the first-team defense—he plays left cornerback when Tramaine Brock covers the slot receiver against three-receiver sets.
Sunday afternoon, Johnson intercepted a pass thrown by undrafted rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson during a two-on-two passing drill—two receivers against two cornerbacks. Thompson attempted a deep pass toward the sideline, and Johnson stepped in front of it and picked it off.
The No. 3 cornerback job is Johnson’s to lose. The Niners seem to view his competition, Reaser, as a backup slot cornerback. That’s where he’s been playing the first few days of training camp.
OLB Eli Harold, Rookie
During team drills on Day 1 of training camp, rookie outside linebacker Eli Harold looped to the inside and tagged backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert for a sack. Harold was on him before Gabbert finished his drop.
During team drills on Day 2, Harold looped to the inside and tagged third-string quarterback Dylan Thompson for a sack before he could throw the ball away.
During team drills on Day 3, Harold faked outside, then juked back inside to beat rookie offensive tackle Trent Brown during one-on-one pass rush drills.
Harold is consistently dominating the second-team offensive linemen. If he keeps it up, soon he’ll get his chance to play with the first-team defense.
WR DeAndrew White, Rookie
Bruce Ellington, perhaps the most talented young receiver on the 49ers, missed OTAs and minicamp with a hamstring strain.
In his absence, undrafted rookie DeAndrew White was the most impressive young receiver on the practice field. So far he has carried over his stellar performance to training camp.
On Day 1, he made not one but two deep catches. On the first one, White jumped and caught the ball over cornerback Mylan Hicks.
On Day 2, White showed his ability to catch passes underneath and pick up yards after contact. He seems like a complete receiver.
I asked Ellington what he thinks of White on Monday afternoon. “He’s an athlete,” Ellington said. “He can run, catch, jump—all the little things. If he keeps working hard, he can be a great player.”
Later that afternoon, White caught a team-high four passes during team drills. He’s becoming one of the Niners quarterbacks’ favorite targets.
WR Bruce Ellington, Second Season
On Day 2 of training camp, the 49ers’ most impressive receiver by far was former 2014 fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington.
He made six catches during team drills that day alone. His first catch was a 50-yard touchdown grab—he ran right past veteran cornerback Chris Cook and caught the pass in the end zone.
Ellington was just getting warmed up. A couple of minutes later he made a leaping, twisting catch on a pass thrown behind him deep down the middle of the field, followed by two more 20-yard catches over the middle. He was almost unstoppable.
But on Day 3, Ellington caught just two passes during team drills. After one play in the red zone, he limped off the field and spent the final 15 minutes of practice standing on the sideline next to the trainer.
The injury didn’t appear serious.
TE Blake Bell, Rookie
Rookie tight end Blake Bell is competing with third-year tight end Vance McDonald to be the Niners’ No. 2 tight end behind Vernon Davis. So far, Bell seems to be winning the competition.
Four hours before Monday afternoon’s practice, 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst gushed over Bell.
“There’s no doubt he has showed up,” Chryst said. “You look up, ‘Hey, who was that?’ Well, it was No. 84. What a great thing. Our personal opinion is he was drafted a little bit below…if he had played tight end all four years, I think he would have been right up there with the best in this [year’s draft] group. What a great job by our scouts. Thrilled to have him.”
Bell seems like a natural receiver, as opposed to McDonald who fights the ball with his hand when he tries to make a catch.
But Bell and McDonald aren’t receivers—they’re tight ends. For Bell to win the No. 2 tight end job, he must show he can block when the players put on the pads.
All quotations and practice observations were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.