Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: OL Spencer Burford looks ahead to starting; WR Ray-Ray McCloud’s reflections on Kyle Shanahan; Shanahan pleased with Javon Kinlaw

Aug 9, 2022 at 4:40 PM--

The 49ers are just three days away from their preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers (8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Friday), a game that will give 49ers fans the chance to see a number of their team's players in on-field action for the first time. Two particular newcomers of interest to keep an eye on Friday night will be offensive lineman Spencer Burford and wide receiver/return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud.

Burford is progressing towards starting as a rookie at right guard after being selected by the 49ers in Round 4 of the 2022 NFL Draft, while McCloud will be making his 49ers preseason debut after signing with the team as a free agent in the offseason. McCloud is expected to be the primary return specialist for the 49ers this season, but there's a chance he could also have the biggest role he's seen on offense to this point in his NFL career.

Both players spoke with reporters following practice on Tuesday, with Burford offering some thoughts on his early success with the 49ers and McCloud weighing in on playing for the 49ers under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Also speaking on Tuesday was defensive back Dontae Johnson, as well as Shanahan, who assessed the practice progress of defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw while also discussing Burford, McCloud and others.

Here's a roundup of some of the key points of Tuesday's media sessions.

Burford keeping it business-like as he approaches his debut

After playing at a lower profile program in college (UT-San Antonio), Spencer Burford can probably be expected to feel some amount of excitement when he steps onto an NFL playing field for the first time on Friday night. But, while Burford admits he will take a minute to enjoy his surroundings on Friday, he's not going to abandon the focused approach he's taken to getting where he is now.

"It's going to be an experience," Burford said Tuesday. "Of course you're going to soak it all in for the first time, but at the end of the day, you've got to handle business. That comes with the game. That comes with part of being a pro. You're going to have to get used to it very quickly, very fast. So you really can't get too caught up in that. You've got to be focused on winning the game at the end of the day."

Burford told reporters Friday he's been able to succeed in the NFL to this point by keeping his head down and working, and by going the extra mile when it comes to learning what's expected of him as a pro. Part of that comes with being up to speed on Kyle Shanahan's complicated offense, a task which Burford has attacked head-on since being drafted.

"At the end of the day just going out and doing the extra, staying up at night trying to study the plays, get ahead of the curveball," Burford said. "Especially with the Shanahan offense, nothing comes easy. Even when you think you've got it, you've got to take the extra step and go ahead and go back and review it because you really don't. There's a lot of nuances within this offense that you have to learn, so that's really what I did -- just try to stay focused on that and make sure I've got all the basics down."

Burford has held down the first-team spot at right guard throughout training camp, which isn't a development that was expected when the 49ers drafted him in the spring. He's not surprised he's been able to get this far as a rookie, but he's still staying-level headed about his progress.

"I knew I always had it in me," Burford said. "But at the same time, I'm not really focused on whether it's the starting position or the second-string position. I'm just here to play the game that I love and do whatever I can to help the team win. If they find something in me, thank God. If they don't, I'm going to keep working and put my best foot forward."

It's important to note that nothing is etched in stone at the moment when it comes to Burford's status as a starter at right guard. Previous starting guard Daniel Brunskill has been competing for the open spot at the center position, but he remains an option at guard if Burford doesn't work out.

"We know exactly what Dan can do," Shanahan said Tuesday. "I think Dan can actually be better with being less reps, not getting as much wear and tear on his body. Dan knows how to play. He's figured out every position we've asked him to play since he's been here. And now he's trying to figure out center to see what the options are there. Also, Burford can't get enough reps... When you haven't had guys who have played a lot, they need to be out there a ton. That allows us to do that."

But, so far, Burford has impressed coaches enough to make it seem like he's in the driver's seat at right guard. Shanahan is pleased with how Burford has performed during training camp, as well as second-year lineman Aaron Banks, who projects as a first-year starter at left guard.

"I've been excited with them," Shanahan said. "They've been playing real well in practice, and I'm excited to see them in games."

Ray-Ray's involvement

Ray-Ray McCloud has been able to establish himself as one of the NFL's top return men over the course of his four-year NFL career, but 2022 could finally be the year where he breaks out as an offensive player.

Not that McCloud hasn't been a factor on offense in the past. He caught 59 combined passes over the past two seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers after being used sparingly on offense early in his career with the Bills and Panthers, with 39 of those catches coming in the 2021 season (277 yards, zero touchdowns). But with Shanahan calling the plays for McCloud this year, it wouldn't be a surprise if he sets career highs across the board in receiving categories as the 2022 season progresses.

"The coolest thing about Ray-Ray is I've watched him as a receiver and wanted him just for a receiver," Shanahan said Tuesday. "Then when we watched him as a punt returner, we wanted him just as a punt returner. We expect him to help out on offense a lot. The fact we feel we have a good starting punt returner and a good starting kick returner is a huge bonus."

McCloud thinks he can shine on offense this season as well. He's always had the ability, showing playmaking potential as a highly-touted prep star in Tampa and during his college career at Clemson. Perhaps the time is now for him to reach his potential as an NFL player.

"Of course, and I think that's why I'm here," McCloud told reporters on Tuesday. "After talking to Kyle through free agency, he thought I could fit into the offense and I thought I could too. I put it in God's hands and God led me here."

McCloud will have a strong teacher in Shanahan, who is known for demanding the best of his receivers given the fact he was one himself during his playing days. McCloud didn't get a taste of Shanahan's full intensity until training camp, but now he's fully aware of what to expect when the coach decides to get focused on making his receivers better.

"Coming here, they say it's hard in Coach Kyle's room because he wants you a certain way," McCloud said. "Going through OTAs and minicamp, you didn't feel that as much until now. In training camp, he's on our butt every day... and that's what makes this offense great. So whatever he says, I think that's what works, so we're going to do it."

Even if he doesn't wind up getting lofty numbers on offense this season, McCloud can be expected to be at the head of an improved special teams unit. The 49ers made it a priority to improve their special teams over the offseason by signing special teams standouts like McCloud, linebacker Oren Burks, and safety George Odum, and so far it seems the unit is well on its way to being a force on Sundays.

"We got dogs in the room," McCloud said. "You can see it through meetings, through practice, the intensity throughout special teams periods. I think it's going to be different this year with offense and special teams."

Finally healthy and ready to break out?

Injuries have stood in the way of defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw delivering what was expected of him as a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he seems to be heading into the 2022 season with a clean bill of health and a full head of steam.

A significant surgical procedure in his knee cost Kinlaw much of the 2021 season while also forcing him to spend the 2022 offseason going through rehab. But he's now back on the practice field for the 49ers and is easing his way back into the swing of things, while looking good in the process.

"He's been great," Shanahan said of Kinlaw Tuesday. "To be able to keep pushing the reps up and up, and for him to have no setbacks, it's been awesome. And hopefully, we'll be able to get him in this game (against the Packers) too, depending on how these next two practices go."

Being healthy has had a profound impact on Kinlaw, according to Shanahan. He's been able to perform better at practice while also making progress at improving his game. If indeed his knee issues are fully behind him, the sky could be the limit for Kinlaw this season and beyond.

"Definitely," Shanahan said. "You just realize when a guy's playing through stuff and had to depend on so much more because he's just trying to be always so aggressive and trying to get himself going. And [now] you watch him out there, and he's a lot more at peace doing it. He's improving on his techniques. He seems like he enjoys practice more. And you realize it's not because he's totally changed. It's just because he's finally not in pain. And to watch that, you just are very happy for the guy, not just for his career but his life."

Mr. Versatility

The competition for roster spots in the 49ers secondary is crowded at the moment, but one player who can be expected to still be with the squad in some capacity once the 53-man roster settles for Week 1 is 30-year-old Dontae Johnson.

A big reason for that is the amount of roles Johnson can play in the defensive backfield. Johnson can fill in at multiple corner spots or, as he proved last season, at safety if need be. Johnson's been known as a corner for most of his NFL career, but his past experience at safety helped him fill that role when the 49ers called upon him late last season.

"I played safety when I was in high school, played in college," Johnson said Tuesday. "I didn't get moved to corner until my junior year in college. So I have safety in my background. I got moved last year (against) the Rams because we kind of ran out of bodies due to injuries. I just take pride in just knowing the defense and understanding each and every position. That's why I've kind of been able to jump around from corner to safety to nickel and show my value."

Johnson's preparedness serves as a great example for the young defensive backs on the team and is one of many reasons the 49ers like keeping him around. He's been cut multiple times by the 49ers over the past few seasons, but they've been quick to bring him back into the fold over and over again because of what he can offer on and off the field.

"Younger guys ask me the same question, like 'How do you do that?' I just take pride in understanding the defense," Johnson said. "That's a credit to learning and continuing to learn in year nine. I don't know all the answers. Being through a lot of different situations, I've just got to understand if I can put my best foot forward at every position, whether it be knowing every position, I think that gives me the best chance of going out there to succeed and help this team win, and that's all I want to do. That's all I can do."

Speaking of preparedness

If wide receiver Jauan Jennings gets off to a faster start than normal this season, it may be due to the fact he came into training camp more prepared than he has in years past.

Shanahan singled out Jennings on Tuesday as a player who has taken a step forward in his offseason preparation. Shanahan said Jennings joined fellow receiver Brandon Aiyuk in raising the intensity this offseason when it came to preparation, and the results are showing on the field.

"I think he always came to camp a little bit not as prepared as he could be, which always made him a little bit of a late starter, which gave guys like Mo [Mohamed Sanu] last year every opportunity to be ahead of him," Shanahan said of Jennings Tuesday. "But Jauan by like Week 4, Week 5, you could see it in him, how in shape he was and just how good of a football player he is. But when he got in such good shape and was coming off the ball every play, he strung together a bunch of weeks to where he became one of our best receivers. That's why he was so crucial in the last few games on third down and things like that.

"This offseason, just like what it did with BA, they went into it and attacked it. Jauan was here more than anybody. It led him to a great OTAs and he's having a great camp too."

A Guardian fan

Fans who have seen photos or video of NFL training camps this year have likely noticed players wearing what is known as Guardian Helmets, which are larger-than-normal helmets that feature a soft exterior shell to help protect players from injury. The helmets are now required under league rules to be worn by linemen, linebackers and tight ends through the second preseason game, and they've drawn a variety of reactions. Among those to be left with questions about the helmets is New York Jets head coach and former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who recently wondered if the softness of the helmets was adequately preparing players for hard impacts and if the helmets were causing players to lead with their heads more than they should.

Saleh's former boss, Kyle Shanahan, didn't have those same concerns. As a matter of fact, Shanahan seems to be a big supporter of the helmets, which he says help keep his players from getting injuries they might have sustained without them.

"I love them," Shanahan said. "You don't have to worry about the quarterback breaking his finger. Everyone's got pillows on the top of their helmet. I spend every single meeting telling guys to rush really hard and be the strongest part of our team but don't get close to the quarterback because people break fingers. That's exhausting. I still coach it, but it's so nice that we've hit their helmets a couple times and it's nice when they have a pillow on top because you don't break your hands."

Given how many injuries the 49ers have had to fight through in recent years, anything that can help keep the players healthy is probably a good thing.

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