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Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: A peek at practice; Chase Young’s time to step up; Brandon Aiyuk speaks (briefly) on contract status; Kyle Shanahan now an elder statesman

Jan 11, 2024 at 5:40 PM

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The San Francisco 49ers will have the luxury of being able to watch this weekend's Wild Card Round playoff games from home as they await news of who they'll be hosting in the Divisional Round, but that doesn't mean they took it easy on themselves at practice on Thursday.

The 49ers earned a bye for the Wild Card Round for the first time since 2019, but they're in a different situation this time around, which has apparently resulted in a more spirited practice approach. According to tight end George Kittle, the 49ers took a step back in practice in 2019 after needing a win over the Seattle Seahawks in an intense regular season finale to clinch the bye, but this time around they had their bye week clinched a week in advance, which gave them the room to not play their starters for a full 60 minutes in this year's season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. Because of that, practice on Thursday was more typical of what would be seen during a regular game week.

"In 2019, we had a must win game in Seattle, and so we got that win," Kittle told reporters Thursday. "Everybody played high intensity. Everyone was dialed in. So the following week was more like jog-through stuff. Today was definitely a full speed day. Guys flying around, guys competing."

There was even a little trash-talking after practice from Kittle towards linebacker Fred Warner, who is one of the team's loudest talkers on defense.

"Offense definitely competed better today than the defense," Kittle said. "Suck it, Fred."

Warner was in clear disagreement with Kittle's assessment.

"Those offensive guys, boy," Warner said. "I'll tell you what -- we won today, so let's not get that misunderstood. Defense won today. They had a good couple plays, you know, especially (quarterback Brock) Purdy's back out there ripping, looks great. Exactly what you would like to see out of the offense. It was a hard fought battle, I'd say."

Defensive end Nick Bosa took a neutral stance on which side won the day, saying, "I feel like it was pretty even." But he applauded head coach Kyle Shanahan's approach, saying the light work load against the Rams to go with some time off earlier in the week provided some needed rest before getting back to full practice.

"I think Kyle kind of set it up well for us," Bosa said. "We had a couple days off to get feeling good and then the game obviously wasn't too much for me. I think I had like five plays. So yeah, I got a little time there and then we have two solid practices too. I felt good and fresh today. Just work on our stuff a little bit and then tomorrow will be pads and then we'll have another two days off. So I think it's a perfect mix of getting fresh but also staying sharp."

In addition to providing reporters with some insights on how the team practiced on Thursday, Kittle, Warner, Bosa, and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk addressed a number of other topics during post-practice media sessions. Here's a rundown of some of their quotes of note.

The Chase is on

The 49ers may well find themselves a little short-handed on the defensive line in their first postseason game due to a knee injury to backup defensive end Clelin Ferrell. With Ferrell likely sidelined for at least the first postseason game, the 49ers could find themselves giving more playing time to defensive end Chase Young.

"He's going to have to play more," Bosa said. "All the ends are going to have to step it up for Clelin, whether he misses one game or whatever it is."

Young was one of two defensive ends the 49ers added via trade during the regular season, along with Randy Gregory. Both players have been key members of the rotation at defensive end along with Ferrell, but Ferrell had an edge over the two of them due to the fact he has been with the team the entire year after signing as a free agent in March.

"Having a camp here and being in the scheme and just understanding the aiming points and all the stuff that Kris (defensive line coach Kris Kocurek) preaches, it's tough to come in and get it right away," Bosa said. "And Randy and Chase are still learning, so they're going to have to kind of learn quick on the run and be ready to fill those shoes. And Clelin brought probably the best effort of anybody on the team. So I think that was one of the biggest things he brought."

Due to the fact he's in a contract year, it's quite possible Young could already be entering into his final weeks as a 49er. But he doesn't seem to be focused much on raising his free agent price. Warner says Young wants to do what he can to help the team get to their ultimate goal, which is to win Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas on February 11.

"(Chase) came in and was exactly the type of guy that we want, being a 49er," Warner said. "He bought right into what we were doing. He already had ingrained in him little things like running to the football, playing with that violence, like the stuff that we ask our guys to do, and on top of the talent and the ability that he has. He's just continued to get better, and I think he's bought into his role, too. He's not like a me guy. He's not like, 'Oh, this is my bag year.' He wants to win. He wants to win a ring as bad as anybody here. And so I'm really excited for him in the postseason."

One subtraction, one big addition

The 49ers may be without Ferrell for the near future on the defensive line, but they'll likely be getting one of their most important pieces back on the field next week in defensive tackle Arik Armstead.

Armstead has missed the past five games while battling foot and knee injuries. He's back at practice this week, so the 49ers may be able to return to normal in the middle of the defensive line, where Javon Kinlaw and Kevin Givens have helped fill in during Armstead's absence.

"It'll be huge," Bosa said. "I was really happy with how Javon and Kevin played last game. So having Arik back and then those two playing well and kind of back to their role of not taking 50 snaps but taking 25-30 will be better for everybody."

Looking down the road

Will Brandon Aiyuk be a part of the 49ers' long-term future? Perhaps that's a question that will get answered in the months ahead, but for now the guessing will have to continue.

Aiyuk, 25, is heading into the fifth and final season of his rookie contract with the 49ers after being selected in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft. Aiyuk just wrapped up his best season as a pro (75 catches, 1,342 yards, seven touchdowns) and has staked a claim as one of the league's best receivers, so giving him a contract extension won't come cheap.

On Thursday, Aiyuk was asked if the 49ers' front office has spoken to him about an extension.

"Yeah, my agent keeps calling me, but I (haven't talked) to him yet," Aiyuk said.

No follow-up questions were asked after that comment, which means any further thoughts Aiyuk has on the matter might not be provided until after the season. There's no shortage of young and potentially expensive young talent on the 49ers' roster that they'll want to try to hang onto for the long term, but Aiyuk has certainly proven this season that he should be among those at the top of the priority list.

Joining the old coach's club

It seems like it wasn't too long ago that the 49ers hired Kyle Shanahan away from the Atlanta Falcons to give him his first opportunity to be a head coach. But that was already seven years ago, and now Shanahan finds himself as one of the elder statesmen in the NFL coaching fraternity -- at least in terms of coaching tenure.

Shanahan is still just 44 years old, but due to a number of coaching changes across the NFL -- most notably the New England Patriots parting ways with the legendary Bill Belichick and the Seahawks moving on from 14-year head coach Pete Carroll -- Shanahan now finds himself tied for the fourth-longest active coaching tenure in the league along with Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills and Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams. Only Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers (17 seasons), John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens (16 seasons) and Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs (11 seasons) have longer tenures than Shanahan.

Kittle, who joined the 49ers in Shanahan's first season and played under long-time head coach Kirk Ferentz at the University of Iowa, says the stability Shanahan has brought to the 49ers has been a major asset.

"It's huge. I've been very lucky," Kittle said. "My college coach is going into year like 24, so I had that stability when I was in college, and I get it here in the first year of Kyle's and just kind of been a part of the foundation, see how it's grown. When you have that stability, each year gets a little bit more -- I don't want to say comfortable -- it just gets easier to be a part of the offense, gets easier to be a part of the system. You just get used to the ebb and flow of things. You know what your routine is going into, whether it's OTAs, going into the offseason, going into training camp, you know how to get your body, know the time that you need to spend Monday, Tuesday, on your off days, you know how to spend the time. And so that's been incredibly helpful for me. And then we know what Kyle's expectations are."

Kittle shared some observations with reporters on Shanahan's growth and improvements as a head coach. He highlighted Shanahan's continued ability to impress his players with his teaching skills.

"I think Kyle's grown just as much as I have -- his team meetings, his install, his offense, everything, like the way he's adapted to changing times on offense, the way that he's changed his meetings," Kittle said. "He used to let players talk the night before games. And the last couple of years, His team meetings are phenomenal. The way he describes football, the way that he teaches football to offense, defense, and special teams guys, he's been such a great teacher. I'd say. That's been one of the coolest things.

"I remember just talking to (defensive tackle Javon) Hargrave. He's like, I've never sat in a team meeting where Kyle explains the purpose of this, this run game, this run style versus this run style, and why we're trying to get d lineman to do certain things. He goes, 'No one's ever talked to me about that before. I've learned 20 things in that one 40-minute team meeting.' So something like that, it's really fun to be a part of something like that because I've been playing football since I was five years old, however, but I've learned more in this seven years -- specifically like these last three or four years -- than I probably did in my first 26."

Bosa and Warner also reflected on Shanahan's growth Thursday, with each of them saying Shanahan is consistently looking for ways to make himself and everyone around him better.

"He's very unpredictable with how he's going to approach things," Bosa said. "But yeah, his system is his system. He's kind of old school with new school stuff to him. But I think he's just consistent in the sense that he's always looking for ways to improve and he knows that you can't stay the same in the NFL. You have to keep improving. And especially when we've been so close, there has to be some other amount of improvement that we could reach. I kind of see him looking for it and I think hopefully this is the year we find it."

Warner commented, "He's for sure the same guy, just better. Every year, he's gotten better as a coach, just like he expects all his players to get better. His big thing is you're either getting better or getting worse. And with Kyle just being so true and authentic to himself and having had the experiences that we've had as a team and losing in the big games, having slow starts to seasons, he always looks and reflects back on those prior years and those scars that you earn. It's like, 'All right, how do we get better from that? What did we learn from that in order to be better going forward?' So every year, going into every season, there's always something new that we got to work on and get better at to attain what we're trying to do here. And so that's something that he's done a great job of every year -- just continuing to get better as a coach and a leader for us."

In the weeks ahead, the 49ers may find themselves in their best position yet to give Shanahan his first Super Bowl win. In the meantime, Kittle says Belichick is always welcome to bring his eight Super Bowl rings to his offseason tight end camp ("Tight End University") if he's interested.

"I've never had an experience with Bill Belichick, which is unfortunate," Kittle said. "So maybe I'll invite him to Tight End U because he can actually coach now if he's not with another team. That'd be actually a great idea."

Ready for Round 2

Quarterback Brock Purdy had an unforgettable experience during his first playoff run in 2022, in both good and bad ways. As a rookie and seventh-round draft pick, Purdy led the 49ers on an improbable streak of wins over the end of the regular season and the first two weeks of the playoffs before seeing everything come to a screeching halt when he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in an NFC Championship loss against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Purdy bounced back with a standout performance in 2023 and now will get his second opportunity at a Super Bowl run. This time, he'll have the advantage of experience on his side.

"I think anytime you can have playoff experience, it's definitely helpful. I remember Joe Staley, Richard Sherman told me the first time I had my experience in 2019 was, it is you're playing football, but the intensity is different," Kittle said. The vibe is different, the energy is different. There's not really a lot of playful communication. Sometimes you're chirping with guys throughout a game. It's a lot more intensity. There's a lot more anger. There's a lot more do or die on every single play."

Purdy rested for the season finale against the Rams but seems to be in good form as the 49ers' first playoff game approaches. Kittle expects to see more success from Purdy once his postseason begins.

"I just expect him to be the same person -- incredibly consistent, dialed in," Kittle said. "He looked great today, made a lot of great throws, scored a lot of touchdowns. I'm never really worried about Purdy. He threw multiple interceptions a game? Not really worried. He's going to bounce back and he's going to play at a super high level like he always does."
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