The top sight at Wednesday’s practice? Maybe it was seeing Reuben Foster get on the field for a few linebacker drills. The first-round draft pick isn’t allowed to have any contact due to his surgically repaired shoulder. During sled drills, for example, he’ll approach the sled and then pull up before making contact. But during individual sessions — when there are no offensive opponents — he’s been permitted to drop in coverage, run to the ball, etc.. He looked as fast and fluid as advertised and was sharing some repetitions with Ray-Ray Armstrong with the second-team defense.
“He’s very smart,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He’s absorbing all of the information that we’re giving to him, going through whatever walk-throughs we have. He’s just not physically cleared to have one-on-one contact so he goes through all of the individual drills and then after practice he’s working with (strength & conditioning coach) Ray Wright to get the conditioning part of it.”
Foster is learning the Will or weak-side linebacker spot. The guy lining up with the first-team unit has been Malcolm Smith. He didn’t receive high marks for his play with the Raiders the last two seasons, but the attribute that was most attractive to the 49ers — his speed — was on display Wednesday. On one play, running back Tim Hightower caught a short pass in stride and began crossing the field. Smith, however, zoomed toward him and punched the ball loose, the only turnover of the session.
The practice mostly was filled with short passes to tight ends (Logan Paulsen was a top pass catcher, for instance) and running backs. One exception was a deep ball down the middle of the field from Matt Barkley to receiver DeAndre Carter (Sac State). The pass should have been intercepted or at least swatted down by safety Jaquiski Tartt. It somehow made it through Tartt and into Carter’s hands, and the speedy receiver was off to the races. Saleh ran up to Tartt afterward and gave him a sympathetic high five as if to say, ‘You had great coverage — keep doing that and the defensive plays will follow.’
Tartt was working with the second-team defense. (Eric Reid is the first-string strong safety). In earlier practices, Tartt’s safety partner has been Vinnie Sunseri. He got a lot of snaps on Wednesday as well, but free-agent acquisition Don Jones also was worked into the mix at free safety. Rookie Lorenzo Jerome continues to be the third-team free safety.
Joshua Garnett got most of the work at right guard with the first-team offensive line although he also got snaps at left guard with the second-team offense as well. The 49ers are trying to figure out whether he’s best on the left (where he played in college) or the right (where he played last year). For the most part — remember, there is plenty of rotation going on — the three lined looked like this:
First team: LT Joe Staley, LG Zane Beadles, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Garnett, RT Trent Brown
Second team: LT John Theus, LG Brandon Fusco, C Tim Barnes, RG Norman Price, RT Garry Gilliam
Third team: LT Darrell Williams Jr., LG Evan Goodman, C John Flynn, RG Richard Levy, RT Erik Magnuson.
Gilliam and Fusco have been worked into the first-string units at times; Jeremy Zuttah sat out the session with an ongoing injury that’s not believed to be serious.
On defense, Dontae Johnson has been getting most of the first-team snaps at cornerback opposite Rashard Robinson. But Keith Reaser was worked in more than he had been in previous sessions.
Eli Harold got some first-string snaps at Sam linebacker but only because Ahmad Brooks is one of the few players in his 30s on the squad and coaches thought he could use a break.
There were several drops on Wednesday — one by Pierre Garcon, another by tight end George Kittle, another by receiver DeAndre Smelter. Robinson knocked away a short pass intended for Garcon and then let the veteran hear about it. The best catch may have been turned in by undrafted rookie tight end Cole Hikutini, who had a diving, two-handed snag on a short throw from Barkley.
Backup defensive tackle Chris Jones continues to look good and received praise from multiple coaches (Saleh and his assistants spoke to the media Wednesday) for his hustle. He and DeForest Buckner, the starter at the position, were routinely in the 49ers’ offensive backfield.
The punt returners on Wednesday: Carter, Trent Taylor, Marquise Goodwin, Victor Bolden and Jeremy Kerley.
Coaches and evaluators watched seven defensive backs, including safety Jairus Byrd, work out after practice. None were signed, and the workouts seem to be a way of evaluating talent — who’s staying in shape? who’s not quite back from an injury — in case the 49ers need help later in the year.