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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: Why Jimmie Ward has no love for the Rams; Brandon Aiyuk moves on from Fred Warner scuffle; DeMeco Ryans talks second-year DBs

Aug 7, 2022 at 3:57 PM--

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What rubbed 49ers safety Jimmie Ward the wrong way about the Los Angeles Rams last season to the point where he's already looking to face off against them on the field?

Ward spoke about that subject on Sunday, as he was one of a handful of players to talk with local and national media during and after 49ers practice. Also speaking with reporters was defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who provided a number of thoughts on a few defensive players who are competing for roster spots and playing time.

For a rundown of what Ward said Sunday as well as some quotes from Ryans, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk's thoughts on his squabble with linebacker Fred Warner, and much more, check out this version of 49ers Notebook.

Can October get here already?

The San Francisco 49ers haven't even begun their preseason schedule yet, but safety Jimmie Ward is ready to butt heads against the Los Angeles Rams right now.

Ward got a little feisty on Sunday when the subject of the Rams came up during an interview on the NFL Network. He told interviewers Tom Pelissero and Maurice Jones-Drew that he had no love for the Rams because some of their players chose not to shake hands after the two games they lost to the 49ers during the regular season (those same players were in a different mood after beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship game).

"I keep everything on the field but I just remember when we won both of those games last year, I was looking at some of their main players, I was going to shake their hands and all that, but they walk off the field," Ward said. "But when you finally win a game you want to shake our hands? Alright, I got something for you."

Ward and the 49ers play the Rams in prime time at home on Monday, October 3, before traveling to Los Angeles for an afternoon meeting on Sunday, October 30. The 49ers will carry a six-game regular season winning streak against the Rams into the October 3 game, but that streak doesn't mean as much after their loss in Los Angeles in the NFC Championship.

"It was heartbreaking," Ward said. "At the end of the day, they figured it out and they were the better team that day and they won. But other than that, I'm ready to play them. I don't got no love for them."

Watch Ward's interview below (he begins discussing the Rams just past the 3:30 mark).

See also: Deebo Samuel responds to Aaron Donald's comments about 49ers-Rams rivalry

Brothers at the end of the day

Tempers flared at practice earlier this week between 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and linebacker Fred Warner, but it seems to be just water under the bridge for two teammates who have seemingly had a good relationship in the past.

There had been some back-and-forth between Aiyuk and Warner in the days leading up to the altercation, with Warner saying he was purposely getting after Aiyuk in order to bring the best out of him. But after Warner put a hit on wide receiver Marcus Johnson on Tuesday that wound up putting Johnson in the concussion protocol, Aiyuk took exception and came to Johnson's defense. Things got heated to the point where Warner and Aiyuk were reportedly ready to take swings at each other before teammates got involved.

On-field skirmishes are not an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence at NFL training camps, and usually teams and players eventually shake it off and move on. That certainly seems to be the case with Warner and Aiyuk, based on Aiyuk's comments on Sunday.

"Just the middle of camp. Everybody's competitors out there," Aiyuk said.

Aiyuk also chalked the squabble up to the style of play that the 49ers like to implement. The offense and defense had been getting after it verbally heading into the practice, and when things escalated on the field, nobody was about to back down. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and Warner and Aiyuk have since moved forward.

"We got into an argument the other day about how if the offense played the defense we would beat the brakes off them," Aiyuk said. "I think they felt that a little bit because the day after practice, they came with it, we came with it. But that's just how we play. When you turn on the tape and you watch the Niners, nobody's backing down to anybody. I feel like when we go against each other and people butt heads, that's what happens. I'm not backing down, (Warner's) not backing down. But at the end of the day, that's my brother when we go back in the locker room. That's my brother when we leave. That's my brother. It is what it is. We moved on."

Even Steven

Quarterback Trey Lance has had his share of ups and downs throughout the course of his first training camp as a 49ers starter, but one of the more encouraging signs about his camp performance has been how he's dealt with some of his tougher moments.

Aiyuk talked a bit about Lance on Sunday, in particular about how Lance hasn't let any of his interceptions or lesser practices get to his head. Lance takes a constructive approach to everything that happens at practice, and as a result, his teammates don't have any concern about how he'll react to adversity.

"The best thing about Trey is he walks off the practice field and he's still the exact same way," Aiyuk said. "Today he talked about it, talked to us after a couple plays that he wished he had back. He comes in and talks to us the same way as if he were to hit a play -- what'd he see, what he didn't see, what he liked, 'That was on me, maybe we should be here,' still talking to us, trying to figure it out. But (he's) just a level-headed, even keel dude.

"We don't worry about him at all, really. He comes in and says, 'Let's take a look at it later today.' We do so and then we move on."

Aiyuk the mentor

Aiyuk has learned quite a bit in his two-plus seasons with the 49ers, and now he's passing some of that knowledge on to the team's younger receivers -- at least to some extent, anyway.

After showing promise as a rookie in 2020, Aiyuk went through his share of adversity early last season when he was given a talking-to by head coach Kyle Shanahan for not being where the organization wanted him to be as a second-year pro. Aiyuk wasn't much of a factor in the offense over the first half of the 2021 season, but he bounced back to have a strong finish and now seems to be heading towards a breakout showing in year three.

Aiyuk talked Sunday about how he's been helping the younger receivers, in particular rookie and third-round draft pick Danny Gray. But he's also been letting Gray and others learn on their own, just as he had to do over his first two seasons.

"It's nice to have another receiver that Kyle can annoy and leave me alone," Aiyuk joked. "But of course I'll talk to (them). I'll talk to (Gray) especially just because I know exactly what he's feeling. All those guys, I know exactly what they're going through. Just trying to give them pointers on little details, little things that can kind of make their transition a little bit smoother... but it takes a couple times. It takes you messing up. It takes you doing something wrong. It takes you getting chewed out. It takes you getting yelled at by the coach, quarterback, all of the above to kind of figure it out because it sticks that way. So I try to fit in sometimes where I can but let them figure it out too at the same time."

Tough decisions ahead on defense

The 49ers have a defensive line so deep with talent that they may wind up having to say goodbye to at least one player who will be good enough to play a significant role on another team. It's a problem they want to have, but it's also one where they may not be able to find room on the roster to keep everyone they like once they need to reach the final number of 53.

There are a handful of players assumed to be safe bets to make the roster, such as Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Samson Ebukam, and rookie Drake Jackson. Meanwhile, veterans such as Charles Omenihu, Kevin Givens, Jordan Willis, Kerry Hyder, Kemoko Turay, Hassan Ridgeway, and recent addition Robert Nkemdiche have been among those aiming to make the final cut when the decision is made late this month.

Ryans doesn't seem too worried about it, however. He expects the situation to take care of itself and for the team to be able to keep the players they need.

"I've always learned in my few years of coaching here -- you always just let it play out," Ryans said Sunday. "Once we play the games, it always works itself out. The guys who should be here on our team will end up on our team. We'll get the best however many guys that is we need for our defensive line. We'll have the top guys that we want."

Of course, for those fighting for a spot, it'll help if they can demonstrate more than one way they'll be able to help the team.

"The versatility part is huge. (When you have a guy) who can move inside, move outside and can do multiple things and that gives that guy an advantage to be up on gameday," Ryans said. "If the guy has special teams value, the more you can do, the better chance you have of making it."

One player with a good shot of making the roster is Hyder, who is in his second stint with the 49ers after spending a season with the team in 2020. Hyder led the 49ers in sacks (eight) in 2020 before signing with the Seahawks in 2021, but now he's back for a second go-round, much to Ryans' delight.

"It's so great to have Kerry," Ryans said. "First and foremost, the guy that he is, the man that he is off the field -- he's an unbelievable person, unbelievable teammate and leader. And Kerry's a very, very smart player. He makes plays that you think he wouldn't make. He makes those plays because he's very smart out there. And what Kerry has is he can play end, he can play tackle, he can move up and down the defensive line at any position, and he's smart enough to where he won't bust. He's a guy who never makes mistakes inside no matter where you put him. He's always on it and he's always leading that group and bringing guys along with him like a true veteran leader. Kerry Hyder is the epitome of that. We're excited to have him back after he left us in '20. We're excited to have him back just for his leadership."

Second-year DBs continue to battle

One of the more intriguing questions on defense heading into training camp was where the team's second-year defensive backs would land in the pecking order after getting significant playing time as rookies. The early verdict is that one of them seems to be at least under strong consideration for a starting spot, while the role of the other two remains up in the air.

The player aiming for a place in the starting lineup is of course Talanoa Hufanga, who is competing to become the heir apparent at strong safety after the offseason departure of Jaquiski Tartt. Ryans singled out the former fifth-round pick Hufanga among the second-year defensive backs as having an impressive camp, saying he's been improving his on-field communication after being asked to do so heading into the year.

"The one guy right now that stands out right now is Huf. I think Huf is doing an excellent job. Back in OTAs when we started, even up until now he's been doing an excellent job of just communicating much better."

Where things wind up with cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir remains to be seen. A third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Thomas came on late last year after spending much of the early portions of the season on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Lenoir, a fifth-round pick, saw a good amount of playing time early before seeing his snaps diminish down the stretch.

Thomas and Lenoir are among a deep group at cornerback that includes veterans Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Darqueze Dennard, Dontae Johnson, and Ka'Dar Hollman to go with rookie late-round draft picks Samuel Womack and Tariq Castro-Fields and undrafted rookie Qwuantrezz Knight. Ryans is looking for Thomas and Lenoir to keep showing development as they continue to compete for their roles in the secondary.

"They're still learning. They're still growing," Ryans said. "They have a lot to improve with their technique. They have to continue to show us that. They have to show their teammates that they headed in the right direction, they are improving. And they are doing good things. They still have improvements, still need to keep bringing it."

Not taking things for granted

Time will tell if Jake Brendel winds up winning the starting center spot for the 49ers this season, but he's not going to lose sight of how fortunate he is to be in his position along the way.

Brendel spoke with reporters for a few minutes on Sunday and reflected briefly on the opportunity that lies ahead of him at the moment. The 29-year-old Brendel is six years removed from joining the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 and since then has been with three other franchises (Dolphins, Ravens, Broncos) in addition to the Cowboys and 49ers. He's played in 37 NFL games but has just three starts under his belt.

If he beats out Daniel Brunskill for the starting job at center, Brendel will have the opportunity to be a full-time season-long starter for the first time in his NFL career. But right now he's taking things one day at a time. Winning the center spot would obviously be one of the highlights of Brendel's career, but right now, he's just happy to be where he's at with the 49ers.

"I feel like every single day it's kind of a blessing to be here," Brendel said. "I can't look at it as more than that, to be honest. I've had a lot of great opportunities in the past six years. So just being able to continue my career here in this scheme, in this offense, on this team, it really is a blessing."

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