Training Camp Tour: Gabbert, Kaepernick splitting first-team reps
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Sunday’s 49ers training camp practice in Santa Clara, Calif., featured a heavy focus on special teams and the passing game. The rapid tempo that has been a hallmark of Chip Kelly’s offenses and practices throughout his career was readily apparent on nearly every drill, with the ball consistently snapped less than 15 seconds after the end of the previous rep.
49ers QB competition rages on
The quarterback competition between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert has been one of the top stories of 49ers camp so far. While the coaching staff evenly distributed reps for each quarterback with the first- and second-team offenses on Sunday, Gabbert was more decisive and consistent in his opportunities. Highlights of Gabbert’s day included a deep completion to WR Dres Anderson over CB Kenneth Acker, and a perfectly-thrown corner route to TE Blake Bell to beat LB Gerald Hodges for a 20-yard touchdown.
Kaepernick had trouble moving the offense down the field, especially in 11-on-11 drills. He seemed to struggle with his accuracy and decision-making, throwing several near-interceptions towards the end of practice.
Last season, Kaepernick earned the second-lowest overall grade among 38 qualifying quarterbacks, and was benched in Week 9 in favor of Gabbert. The former Jaguar didn’t fare much better, however, earning two positive game grades in his first two outings before struggling for the remainder of the season, finishing with just the 27th-best overall grade among NFL QBs.
Despite his struggles in Sunday’s passing drills, Kaepernick’s athleticism and running ability may give him an advantage over Blaine Gabbert in the quarterback race. All four quarterbacks took reps in an option-handoff drill at walk-through speed, and the play selection in the full-speed running drill that came later looked very similar to what we saw with Kelly’s 2014 and 2015 Eagles teams. The majority of running plays were either inside or outside zone, with several counter and power runs mixed in as well. The common denominator on these runs was the zone-read out of the shotgun, and it looks like these concepts will continue to be staples of Kelly’s offense in the 2016 season.
DeForest Buckner’s pro transition smooth so far
The team wore full pads on Sunday, but did not tackle through to the ground, making it tougher for the linemen on either side of the ball to stand out. Prior to practice, Kelly was asked about first-round pick DeForest Buckner’s promotion to first-team reps during Saturday’s practice session, and was non-committal. Buckner spent most of Sunday’s practice working with the second-string defensive line, with Arik Armstead, Quinton Dial, and Mike Purcell making up the top unit. Buckner showed up at one point in practice by using his 6-foot-7 frame to bat a Kaepernick pass into the backfield.
When we caught up with Buckner after practice, he mentioned that many of the defensive concepts that are being installed are similar to the scheme that he played in at Oregon, but that the terminology is not always the same. He also noted that Armstead, his former Oregon teammate, was helpful in his transition to the NFL. Buckner was our highest-graded defensive lineman in the NCAA last season, while also leading all DL in snaps played. We expect him to earn a starting spot sooner than later, but Sunday’s practice was a reminder that the 2016 depth chart has not been finalized.
Bruce Ellington operating as 49ers’ slot receiver?
Kelly was asked about the trait that he looks for in slot receivers, given that Jordan Matthews, his top option for the position in Philadelphia, has a much larger physical profile than any of the receivers getting consistent reps during camp so far in San Francisco. Kelly noted that the ability to separate from press coverage and negotiate traffic becomes even more important for smaller slot receivers. Bruce Ellington received the majority of the first-team snaps in the slot on Sunday, and Kelly pointed to Ellington’s basketball background as a factor in his understanding of spacing within zone coverage and feel for playing the position.
Other camp notes
– LB NaVorro Bowman looked more athletic than what he showed on tape last season, beating HB Carlos Hyde in a pass-rushing drill early in practice.
– LB Michael Wilhoite took the first-team reps next to Bowman in seven-on-seven and full-team drills, with Gerald Hodges and Nick Bellore lined up at ILB with the second-team unit.
– Rookie RG Joshua Garnett (Stanford) typically lined up next to RT Anthony Davis on the second team, while RG Andrew Tiller and RT Trent Brown earned the first-team reps.
– QB Thad Lewis was the next man up behind Gabbert and Kaepernick, earning more reps than rookie Jeff Driskel (Louisiana Tech).