SANTA CLARA The 49ers have yet to play a game or even hold a full-contact practice in 2017. Lavishing praise on Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch in late July would be premature and irresponsible.
And yet …
The squad that is preparing for its first training camp practice on Friday already is fundamentally different than the one that finished with two wins a year ago and that was one of the worst in franchise history.
We’ll have to wait and see just how effective that overhaul has been, but the moves largely show a sharp eye for what was wrong or lacking on the 49ers roster.
The smartest so far:
* Caution with Cousins. The team’s best move may have been the one it didn’t make. Shanahan really likes Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, and another incoming head coach may have tried to move heaven and earth — as well as some valuable draft picks — to acquire him.
The 49ers didn’t do that. They know they might get a better crack at Cousins in March if he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He would cost a mint, but the 49ers wouldn’t have to part with draft picks, which could be used to acquire offensive weapons that would improve their investment in Cousins.
The 49ers also have given themselves a season in which to evaluate their own, far cheaper quarterback talent and to further evaluate Cousins as well. Washington obviously has been skittish about making him one of the NFL’s highest paid passers. How will he fare this year without receivers like Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, and without Sean McVay, whom the Rams made their head coach, calling his plays?
Shanahan, accused of being too aggressive at times, is proceeding with caution at the most important position. It’s the right course to take.
* McDonald for sale. Former general Trent Baalke’s greatest shortcoming late in his tenure was that he wanted so badly for his picks to succeed that he became blind to whether they actually were good or not.
Exhibit A is Vance McDonald, a tight end who was picked 55th overall but who never has played 16 games in a season and who never has surpassed 391 receiving yards in a year. The 49ers rewarded McDonald for those middling numbers with a five-year contract in December.
Four months later, Lynch and Shanahan were on the phone trying to trade McDonald and then openly telling reporters what they were up to.
They had nothing to lose by divulging their calls. Either the trade talk spurs McDonald to finally live up to his considerable potential or the team sends a signal to the locker room that there are no sacred cows on the roster, not even players who signed multi-million-dollar contract extensions a few months ago.
* O-line action. Two years ago the 49ers went into training camp so starved for offensive line talent that they traded for a decidedly unheralded guard, Jordan Devey, on August 18th. The following month he was their starter for their Week 1 opener.
No one believes this year’s unit is elite, but the 49ers made sure their cupboard was at least well-stocked heading into training camp by acquiring Tim Barnes, Brandon Fusco, Garry Gilliam and Jeremy Zuttah in the offseason.
Some may not win starting roles. One or two may not even make the final roster. But the group has 247 regular-season NFL starts among it — Devey had four when the 49ers traded for him in 2015 — and there will be legitimate training camp battles with incumbents Zane Beadles, Trent Brown, Joshua Garnett and Daniel Kilgore. If nothing else, the newcomers sharpen the competition and give the 49ers experienced players in reserve.
There were more dramatic offseason revamps by Lynch and Shanahan at inside linebacker, running back and wide receiver.
The work on the offensive line was more subtle. But as in other areas it shows a keen eye for how to improve the 49ers roster rather than a blind one.