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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: George Kittle raves about Trey Lance; Time to expect even bigger things from Brandon Aiyuk; Shanahan assesses Sam Darnold; Nick Bosa’s offseason tweak

Jun 6, 2023 at 4:45 PM--

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The 49ers began their annual mandatory minicamp Tuesday, which as always will mark the end of the third and final phase of the team's offseason workout schedule. The team will break for the summer following Wednesday's session, so Tuesday was an opportunity for reporters to catch up with a number of 49ers players as well as head coach Kyle Shanahan to get some final updates before the team departs.

Among those who spoke with the media Tuesday were wide receiver Deebo Samuel, defensive end Nick Bosa, and tight end George Kittle. 49ers Webzone posted updates earlier on some of the most newsworthy moments from those media sessions, but that was far from the only thing discussed Tuesday. Here's a recap of what the players and Shanahan said, including some praise for Trey Lance and Brandon Aiyuk, a couple evaluations of quarterback Sam Darnold, some updates on second-year players Danny Gray and Drake Jackson, and Nick Bosa's thoughts on his offseason as well as his new teammate.

See also: Kyle Shanahan, 49ers extremely impressed with Brandon Allen | Brock Purdy "right on track" with recovery | Deebo Samuel rips his 2022 performance | Bosa confident contract will get done

Lance looks good to Kittle

Will Trey Lance get an opportunity to start any games at quarterback for the 49ers this season? That remains to be seen, but at least it sounds like he'll be a step ahead of where he was in the past if his chance arises.

Lance has drawn strong reviews for the quality of his offseason performance over the past few weeks, with the latest coming from tight end George Kittle. Kittle told reporters Tuesday Lance looks better physically and mentally than he has in the past.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- I think Trey looks significantly better than he did last year. I really do," Kittle said. "I think his confidence is there. I think that he's throwing really good passes."

Lance was a raw and inexperienced player when the 49ers drafted him out of North Dakota State in 2021, and he didn't get the chance to gain much experience last year after suffering an early season-ending injury. So it's not surprising that Kittle says Lance still has some learning to do, but strides have been made despite him being on the sidelines for much of last season.

"He overthrows people once in a while. Hey, it is what it is. He's still learning and stuff," Kittle said. "But I mean, just watching him, he just looks so much more comfortable and confident in the pocket, and I really appreciate that from him, from all the work that he's put into it."

The vibe currently surrounding the 49ers is that Brock Purdy will take the starting spot whenever he returns from elbow surgery. If Purdy continues to perform at the same level he showed late last season after stepping in for Jimmy Garoppolo, it would seem unlikely any other quarterbacks would get an opportunity unless he once again gets hurt. But Lance sounds like he's become a different player, which is nothing but good news for a 49ers team that has needed help from more than one quarterback on a number of occasions in recent years.

"Over the course of my career, when guys are lacking confidence or something, you can tell. And I haven't seen that from him at all this year," Kittle said. "He has energy to him. He has this passion to him. You can see a smile on his face. He's celebrating with the guys. You can just tell he's having fun out there, and that just makes football a lot easier."

Will Brandon Aiyuk break out this season (again?)

Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has been a popular pick as a breakout player at this point in the offseason each of the past two years, and now it seems he's getting ready to make yet another leap as he heads into his fourth NFL season.

Aiyuk, 25, was solid as a rookie after being selected late in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, catching 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns. He got off to a slow start in 2021 as he learned some lessons about what Shanahan expected him to be as a pro, then emerged later in the season to finish with 56 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Aiyuk followed that up in 2022 with his best season yet, catching 78 passes for 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns.

Based on the reviews he's been getting for his offseason performance this year, Aiyuk may be getting ready to leave his 2022 performance in the dust.

"Man, you can't cover him in a phone booth right now," Samuel said Tuesday.

Samuel has seen Aiyuk progress since his rookie season and says Aiyuk is better this year in ways he hasn't shown to this point.

"Just me personally seeing Brandon from a rookie until now, he's gotten better day in, day out," Samuel said. "Every season he's got better, and just like, I'm seeing flashes of stuff that I ain't seen him do, like how fast he is now, how he's supposed to be, and the separation that he can get in and out of routes, you can tell he's really detailed his offseason and ready to go."

Kittle says Aiyuk has been controlling his matchups in recent practices and has generated a spark for the rest of the offense.

"He dominates the guy across from him," Kittle said. "He's catching everything they throw at him. He's making big plays and he brings a lot of excitement to our offense. He brings a lot of energy to that offense, too. We're missing a couple of guys who aren't practicing, but when he's in the huddle, when he's out there making plays, the whole team loves that stuff and we love seeing him make those plays."

Kittle also said Aiyuk has become more vocal this offseason and that perhaps he's making strides towards becoming a leader among the receiver group.

"The energy he has, I think, just kind of figured it out like last year," Kittle said. "I think he was kind of a quiet assassin, and then he just worked every single day. And while he might be a little bit louder this year, he still works the same way. And he just has this intent about his work, too, which I really appreciate."

Will Aiyuk break the 1,000 yard mark once again in 2023? Kittle thinks it's a safe bet.

"He had over 1000 yards last year," Kittle said. "I'm not a betting guy, but I would say that he's going to definitely get over 1000 this year. He's going to score a lot of touchdowns. He's going to make a ton of big plays for us."

And what about The Darnold?

With two experienced veterans on the roster in Sam Darnold and Brandon Allen to go with Lance, the 49ers should have good depth at quarterback when everyone is healthy. Darnold in particular has been an intriguing offseason addition given his status as a former first-round pick with over 50 NFL starts under his belt. He's gotten his share of reps this offseason along with Lance, and on Tuesday Shanahan weighed in with some thoughts on what he's seen.

"He's been good," Shanahan said of Darnold. "Just all these guys, some good days, some bad days. But that's what this point is -- throwing all this stuff at him, letting them go through it. And we'll go through the exact same process our first seven days of training camp. It's just a little easier to do it because you have pads on, you can do more, and hopefully it'll be easier for my second time going through it."

Kittle also offered some reflections on Darnold, saying he's seen improvement from the veteran since beginning his time with the 49ers earlier in the spring.

"I think he's just taking good steps forward," Kittle said. "I think early on in OTAs (Organized Team Activities), I think he was just like really figuring it out. Just took him a half a second longer to read his routes and stuff like that. But I think he's starting to really understand the concepts. He's getting the ball out quicker. You guys saw I think he had a deep ball to Aiyuk today. That's nice. Stepped up in the pocket. He's got a good arm talent.

"So yeah, I mean, it's hard for me to really judge anybody during OTAs because there's no pads on, there's no threat of being hit. Routes are kind of different. I like watching Brandon Aiyuk just dice up every single corner he goes against and it's like, that's really fun. But when a quarterback has 100 percent confidence that he's not going to get hit, it's a little bit different. But I think he's playing really well. I think he's improved a lot since he's been here. Just having an understanding, getting the ball out. Throws a good ball too, which I appreciate."

Nick Bosa's offseason adjustment

As is always the case, Nick Bosa has been away from the 49ers during the offseason while working out on his own in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale. After returning to the team for mandatory minicamp, Bosa spoke briefly about what he's been working on in the spring and said one area he's actually made a change is finding it in himself to work less when he doesn't need to push as hard.

"Overall there's improvements to be made at each facet of my game," Bosa said. "But mostly the offseason is just preparing myself for a long year and making sure that my body's going to be able to take on a load of 21 games. So, just taking days off. I'd say I have been taking a little more time, not forcing myself to push through things. I'm learning my body every year, making small tweaks, but I'm improving speed, strength. My body comp is probably similar. But yeah, just taking those days when I need them and not forcing myself to push through when it's May or April -- those months when I push through something and it's kind of pointless at that point."

Bosa says he's been resting a bit more and has been mixing up his exercises, such as hitting the pool rather than doing some running. Still, he isn't used to taking days off and would prefer to stay on task when he can.

"It's my job," Bosa said. "And working out makes me feel better overall. So not going out in the morning and getting my run in and doing all the stuff that I like to do, it kind of makes me anxious."

Bosa also had a quick word to say about his new teammate, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. The 49ers made a big splash earlier in the offseason when they signed Hargrave away from the Eagles, and Bosa feels 49ers fans are about to find out their team's new lineman is better than a lot of people think.

"I feel like people give him his due, but people don't really know how good he is overall," Bosa said. "...I feel like he isn't quite talked about in the (Rams defensive tackle) Aaron Donald top echelon (or Kansas City Chiefs lineman) Chris Jones, but I think he played like that last year and throughout his career. Him and Arik inside should be pretty fun."

Danny Gray, Drake Jackson make strides

The 2023 offseason has been an important one for second-year players Drake Jackson and Danny Gray, who are looking to take the next step after having ups and downs as rookies in 2022.

The second-round pick Jackson was the first player the 49ers selected in the 2022 NFL Draft and saw some reps on the defensive line before winding up as a gameday inactive late in the season. Gray played in 13 games but had just one catch while learning the ropes at the wide receiver position.

Both players have attacked the offseason and seem ready to play a bigger role in Year 2. Jackson in particular has gotten plenty of positive feedback for his offseason growth, both physically and mentally.

"I think I've seen you guys heard about it and it's exactly what we said," Shanahan said of Jackson Tuesday. "He was unbelievable this offseason. Even when it wasn't voluntary, he was here on his own anyway, up in the weight room trying to change his body. That's stuff he had to learn from last year, just like Danny. You tell how guys learned it by how they start working before they see you . And Drake did that big time.

"It's carried over to phase one, two and throughout OTAs and phase three. We're excited for him to now get away, keep doing that when we're away from him and see how he looks with the pads on."

Bosa gave his thoughts on Jackson, saying the increase in bulk he has made is evident while also maintaining his ability to move.

"Just moving really well, getting the scheme down, and he looks huge," Bosa said. "So I think that'll be good for him, and the fact that he's just moving just as good -- he's always looking great. Movement is something you can't teach with him. But he just needs to keep going."

Gray had to go through the types of challenges any rookie faces when entering into Shanahan's system, but it seems obvious now he's in a better place than he was a year ago.

"I think it's a lot better than when he left off," Shanahan said. "I think Danny learned from his first year just how long that grind is of a rookie year. Just going from the offseason of the combine and all the workouts to getting here, and it really never stopped. And we saw him in the offseason have a little different attention to detail.

"The way he came here in phase one and two, how he worked to get in shape. And that's what allowed him to have a good OTAs and go through a bunch of stuff, which to me, he's finally got into shape to where he could do everything. And this will really help him for training camp."

Samuel weighed in on some of the lessons Gray needed to learn as well as the improvements he's been showing during the spring.

"Any wide out in this offense that actually played coming in, it's pretty hard," Samuel said. "It's a lot of things going on. It's a lot of things going into at once because, I mean, we drafted him in the third round, so we expect him to play. So it's a lot of pressure on, but just seeing him these past couple of weeks, you can tell that he's learned a lot. He still has minimal mistakes here and there, but he's done a good job of minimizing those and putting himself in a position to play."

Samuel added, "His mentality and the way he's approaching practices has been amazing. Like last year, just explaining how Kyle operates and what it takes to be on the field and what it takes to be a receiver in his offense, it's not all about catching the ball and running. You got to stick your nose in there. You got to put your big boy pants on and just you're able to do whatever Kyle asked you to do."

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