Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

49ers insider identifies standout players from offseason program

Jun 21, 2017 at 2:48 PM--

The number of new faces on the San Francisco 49ers roster outweighs the number of returning veterans. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have had no problem letting go of starters from last season. Gone – for various reasons – are former starters Torrey Smith, Antoine Bethea, and Tramaine Brock. The 49ers made no effort to bring back players like Colin Kaepernick, Nick Bellore, or Phil Dawson.

Since then, the 49ers have completed their offseason program and will not officially reconvene as a team until the end of July. Last week, the 49ers held a three-day minicamp which consisted of two practices. While media access has been limited this offseason, there have been opportunities to watch the players go through select practices.

Last week, 49ers insider Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area joined the Taylor Price Talk podcast and named some of the players who have stood out during the team's offseason program. Some are newcomers while others are carryovers from last season.

Arik Armstead

Arik Armstead has spent the past two seasons playing on the defensive line. In 2016, he was the 49ers' second-highest graded pass rusher behind DeForest Buckner, according to Pro Football Focus. Of course, his season was cut short due to a left shoulder injury that, prior to being placed on injured reserve, hampered his performance.

This offseason, the new 49ers coaching staff has been experimenting with Armstead at the team's Leo position – an edge defender spot that is reserved for the team's best pass rusher. Since then, the 49ers have signed free agent Elvis Dumervil, who figures to eat up snaps at the same spot.

"He surprised me because I didn't think when you go through the Leo or Elephant position – it's typically a smaller guy in the 250/260 range," Maiocco said of Armstead. "Armstead's humungous. He's pushing 300 pounds. And for him to stand out and make as many plays into the backfield as much as he did, I think has to be very encouraging."

George Kittle

When rookie tight end George Kittle isn't jumping into the wrestling ring, he is working hard to move up on the 49ers' depth chart. Teammates have been impressed with what they have seen from the fifth-round pick out of Iowa.

In 2016, Kittle started 11 games and caught 22 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns despite being limited by a foot injury during the second half of the season.

How impressive has Kittle been this offseason? Maiocco would not rule out the possibility of the first-year tight end earning the starting job.

"Right now, if you were to ask me who the favorite is to win the starting tight end job, I would just say, 'Keep an eye on George Kittle – the fifth-round draft pick from Iowa who really didn't catch a whole lot of passes in Iowa,'" Maiocco said. "Brian Hoyer was kind of joking he knows the offensive coordinator with Iowa pretty well and he's going to call him up or text him and tell him how badly he used Kittle as a pass-catching threat. He just didn't use his skills."

DeForest Buckner

DeForest Buckner was impressive during his rookie campaign. As mentioned, he was graded by Pro Football Focus as the team's best pass rusher and accounted for 73 tackles and six sacks. Buckner was also in on 1,007 defensive snaps, which was an amount that new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh called "criminal" – and that was after missing a game.

"I think Buckner is poised to have a pretty good season this season," Maiocco said. "He had a pretty good rookie year. He got off to a slow start, especially in the run game. He was part of the problem and not part of the solution early on why that run defense was so bad. But then, I think he got better."

Last week, offensive tackle Joe Staley said that the new roster was full of a lot of "football guys."

"A lot of guys that just have the right mentality of just coming in every day, working, grinding, putting in that work," Staley explained.

Maiocco believes that Buckner is among those players. "I look at DeForest Buckner and there's not question in my mind that he's wired the right way," he said.

Eric Reid

Safety Eric Reid loves his new role on Saleh's defense. He has been taking on a true strong safety role – much like the role that Kam Chancellor plays in Seattle.

"I love it," Reid said last week. "Being around the ball more, I anticipate making more tackles and hopefully making more plays. I feel like I was made for this position with my body type, being a bigger safety. So, I'm excited about this year."

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How is this new role different from previous seasons?

"I think Eric Reid is probably a better fit for a true strong safety position rather than a guy who would sometimes play in the box, sometimes play free safety," Maiocco said. "That's one of the differences that I think you'll notice with this year's defense. They have a true strong safety and they have a true free safety. And, as you know, in the past, you talk to whomever the safety was or safeties were and they would always say, 'Well, the positions are interchangeable. I have to do the same things that the other guy does.' And that's different this year.

"There's a very distinct free safety. That's Jimmie Ward. He's playing center field. He's going to be the guy who's going to be entrusted to be the ball-hawk. And then you have a very distinct strong safety. That's Eric Reid. He's going to be in the box. He's going to be around the ball. He's going to be expected to make a lot of tackles."

Jeremy Kerley and Trent Taylor

"Hold on to Kerley," Staley told the new coaching staff this offseason, according to Maiocco. "He's a player."

Staley's words must have helped because the 49ers went on to sign wide receiver Jeremy Kerley to a three-year, $10.5 million deal.

"As we evaluated the roster, his production on the field really impressed us and we believe he is a great fit for our scheme," said Lynch via a statement issued by the team following the signing. "As we learned more and more about him, it became obvious his teammates have a great deal of respect for Jeremy as well."

In 2016, Kerley was acquired by the 49ers via a trade with the Detroit Lions in late August, just prior to the team's final preseason game. He ended up leading the 49ers in receiving with 64 catches for 667 yards and three touchdowns on an offense that ranked last in the league in passing.

Maiocco identified Kerley as an offseason standout – along with a wide receiver who is new to the team.

"Then they went out and they drafted Trent Taylor and I'll tell you, this guy is pretty darn good," Maiocco said. "Slot receiver. I think that he might be able to help them out in the return game as well. He's been on the field every day. Kerley's been on the field every day."

Maiocco went on to explain that Kerley's and Taylor's presences, in combination with injuries, could spell the end of Bruce Ellington's time with the 49ers. While the potential has been there, Ellington has not proven that he can be reliable. Last year, Maiocco liked Ellington and felt that he could have had a breakout season had it not been for a preseason injury that ended his 2016 campaign.

Other receivers who Maiocco briefly mentioned were Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin.

You can listen to the entire interview with Maiocco on the Taylor Price Talk podcast.

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