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49ers Notebook: George Kittle talks surgery, recovery timetable; Team still figuring out kickoffs; Players weigh in on possible 18th game

May 29, 2024 at 6:40 PM

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The 49ers held their latest media session of offseason workouts on Wednesday, with tight end George Kittle, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, and defensive end Leonard Floyd as well as special teams coach Brian Schneider and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster answering questions from reporters.

Kittle provided a number of updates in what was his first media session of the spring, including some news on his offseason core muscle surgery and when he expects to be back on the field. Floyd, who signed with the 49ers in March, provided his early impressions of his new surroundings after playing last season in Buffalo.

Foerster, meanwhile, provided assessments on some of the team's young offensive linemen, while Schneider dove into why he's so excited about the NFL's new kickoff rules.

Let's dive into all that and more in this edition of 49ers Notebook.

Kittle on track for training camp return

While the 49ers continue through the Organized Team Activities (OTAs) portion of their offseason workout schedule, Kittle remains in recovery mode after going through core muscle surgery earlier in the offseason. But he told reporters Wednesday he expects to be practicing with the 49ers when they open training camp in July.

"Coming along, progressing as planned. The goal is to be back and ready for training camp, and all signs point that I will be ready for training camp," Kittle said.

Kittle revealed Wednesday he played for several weeks last season with his injury after coming down with it around the halfway point.

"I'd say kind of like Week 9, 10, we took some MRIs of it and some stuff didn't show up," Kittle said. "So, we weren't really entirely sure what we were dealing with until I got the surgery. So that was a tough one. We tried to figure it out, but things weren't popping up on the scans, and so it's just something that we were playing through probably for like ten weeks. It's fun stuff."

Kittle is one of two key 49ers players to have gone through core muscle surgery over the offseason, with the other being cornerback Charvarius Ward. Like Kittle, Ward expects to be back in action once training camp arrives.

"He had surgery the week before I did, so it was just fun hearing someone who had just experienced it too," Kittle said, "because if you have to get surgery, I like to do a second, maybe a third opinion, talk to different people who are doing it.

"We ended up both going to the same guy, and he had great success for it. So I went and did the same thing. It was a little different surgery; there were some similarities, but they had to reattach something differently for me than they did him. So it's a little different. But overall, I think we're both progressing at a good rate."

Work in progress

It's anyone's guess how the San Francisco 49ers (or any other NFL team for that matter) will perform on kickoffs this season, but Brian Schneider seems to be as enthused as anyone about tackling the challenge that has come about as a result of the league's new kickoff rules.

The NFL implemented radical changes to kickoffs this season that will replace traditional kick coverage with a new approach first used by the XFL that involves each team lining up in close proximity before the kickoff is fielded by a return specialist. The league hopes the new rules will reduce the risk of concussions on kickoff returns while also reducing the amount of touchbacks.

The change has resulted in coaches and players having to re-learn kickoffs entirely. It remains to be seen how the changes will play out on the field, but Schneider seems to be having a blast with the adjustment process.

"It's exciting. I mean, I'm fired up," Schneider said. "This is the coolest thing to happen in terms of my coaching career because what are you going to do? You have a great opportunity to do something that's never been done before. So it's a race to figure it out and it's going to be constantly adjusting."

Don't expect the 49ers (or other teams) to master everything about the new kickoff rules right away. Schneider thinks teams may have to continue adjusting on the fly for the rest the year.

"I think you're going through the whole season," Schneider said. "I mean, to me, if you don't look at this like a totally different play than anything we've coached, I think you're gonna be playing catch-up.

"Like last year, those guys are running full speed. And there's a lot of things that happen in terms of what they can and can't do just by how fast they're running. That's out, too, now. So all those things, you have to figure out how it works when it's alive. And we won't know until the first preseason, when it's live. But that's what makes it interesting."

The 49ers also still haven't decided who is going to be their primary kick returner after losing return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud to free agency. But there are a number of players getting looks, which Schneider is having a good time with as well.

"I love that right now," Schneider said. "We're getting them as much as we can and we'll continue to do that. So we have a lot of guys back there, a lot of new guys back there and I love it, just the competition. All that is going to evolve with the way I see it."

While there's still plenty of time for the 49ers to get their return game going in the right direction, there's no question it will be a vital point of emphasis over the next few months. The teams that get it right could find themselves with a significant advantage once the season gets underway.

"You have to figure it out," Schneider said. "And I think it's gonna be so impactful if you don't. I mean, we're talking touchdowns, we're talking average start at the 40, we're talking long field goals, more scoring, all that."

More big changes on the way?

While the NFL is locked into a 17-game schedule this season, that may not be the case for next year and beyond. There's been chatter lately about the possibility of the league adding an 18th game to the regular season schedule, which Kittle, Hargrave, and Floyd had different reactions to when asked about it on Wednesday.

Kittle didn't necessarily seem opposed to an 18th game, but he hopes to see a second bye week added to the schedule if the league goes that route.

"I think realistically if you want to play 18 games you're going to have to shorten something else somewhere," Kittle said. "And they talked about taking a preseason game out, which to me doesn't really matter because I play in like one preseason game a year. I think most vets do. So that doesn't really do anything for anybody.

"But you still have to practice, you still have to go through training camp, get your body ready for a long season. But I think if you don't add two bye weeks you're just gonna look at the end of the season, you're gonna look at a lot of teams who are missing a lot of key players because I think it's hard for players to stay healthy that long."

Hargrave seemed much more uncertain about adding an 18th game, saying he was fine with 17 and was happy when the schedule was at 16 games as well.

"Um, I mean, ahh, yeah, I don't know about that one," Hargrave said. "Yeah."

Floyd, on the other hand, is all in favor of an 18th game, because it will bring him an 18th game check.

"That's another check, right? So, yeah, more games, more checks," Floyd said.

There's also been speculation that the NFL could cut into the offseason workout schedule. Kittle doesn't seem to have a problem with that, as long as the league leaves the Fourth of July alone.

"I saw that we were talking about getting rid of spring football and just going into, you know, maybe July a little bit, which I don't disagree with," Kittle said. "But I just really hope they don't take away my July 4 because I really enjoy celebrating July 4."

Fitting in

Now in his ninth NFL season, Floyd is finding the 49ers to his liking after being on the opposite sideline during his three years with the Los Angeles Rams (2020-2022).

"It's been great so far," Floyd said of his first offseason with the 49ers. "It's been lovely coming in and seeing all the coaches, seeing all my new teammates, guys I played against over the years and just happy to be on their side going against anybody else now."

What stands out to Floyd so far about his new team?

"I'd probably say the work ethic, the way guys come in, work hard every day, ain't too much complaining," Floyd said. "Guys just lock in, and we all understand hard work. I'll probably say that's the biggest thing the team really understands -- how to come in and work hard as a team."

Floyd will be the latest player to take a crack at giving the 49ers a strong presence at defensive end opposite Nick Bosa. Floyd, who has 40.5 sacks over the past four seasons including 10.5 with the Bills in 2023, is still getting to know Bosa and is excited about joining with him for a 1-2 punch.

"I didn't know him before I got here, but I did know his brother (Joey)," Floyd said. "We got drafted in the same draft. But from the outside looking in, I knew Nick was a baller, and I'm looking forward to playing with him."

Assessing the tight end position

Change is afoot at the tight end position for the 49ers, who have a number of players competing for the depth spots behind Kittle this season.

The 49ers moved on from former backups Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley over the offseason and now have a competition that includes 2023 third-round pick Cameron Latu, 2023 seventh-round pick Brayden Willis, free agent addition Eric Saubert, second-year player Jake Tonges, and undrafted rookie Mason Pline. Kittle gave an analysis of each of those players on Wednesday, starting with Latu, who struggled in training camp as a rookie before missing the season due to a knee injury.

"I think the tight end room is very new," Kittle said. "You know, you lose Charlie Woerner and Dwelley to the Falcons. Two guys have done it -- Dwelley for six years and Charlie for four years. And so when you lose that consistency, guys who are used to playing, guys who are used to the offense, you know, there is like a gap there that needs to be filled. And Cam has come a long way in his rehab stuff, so the most important thing for him is just to get back on the practice field and he'll do that during training camp.

"And he's doing a great job in the meeting rooms. He knows the offense. He's doing a very good job of just learning and understanding what our goals are. So hopefully he can take everything from that meeting room and apply it to practice, and he goes out there and plays at a high level."

Willis played 101 snaps on special teams and 48 snaps on offense as a rookie. Kittle said Willis is making noticeable progress but needs to continue to add experience.

"Brayden has gotten way better since last OTA's, last training camp, last season," Kittle said. "It's fun just to see him take these strides. He's figuring out the run game. He's a really good route runner, strong hands. So they have all the abilities.

"It's just what I always try to say is, you can't replicate reps. You need to go out there. You need to get as many reps as possible. So, you know, Braden got a lot of reps right now is being very beneficial to him."

Kittle also had positive words for Sauber, Tonges, and Pline.

"We brought in Eric Sauber, a guy from my draft class. You know, he's played a lot of football, so I know that's helpful," Kittle said. "He does it the right way, works really hard. So that's kind of nice to see, too. He's a really, really solid player.

"And then Tonges, I think he's gotten better, too. Put on a lot of weight, put on some strength. So I think he has an opportunity to surprise some people, too. And then my rookie Mason Pline, you know, he's just figuring it out right now. Smart kid, picking it up. He's huge, too, which is kind of fun. 6-6, like 250-plus. So that's kind of fun to see.

"But I mean, all in all, my tight end room needs as many reps as they possibly can. So these OTAs are huge for them and I'm just looking forward to how they keep taking steps in the right direction."

O-Line rundown

The 49ers have a number of players competing for spots on the offensive line at the moment, and Foerster provided updates on several of them Wednesday. The first was veteran Ben Bartch, who joined the 49ers late in the 2023 season and was a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars before experiencing knee issues. Bartch is a candidate to stick with the 49ers as a depth piece on the interior.

"He's come back and he's looked very, very good at center and guard and we'll see when we get the pads on if he's able to play with a little more anchor, a little more strength and things," Foerster said. "But right now, he looks like he's been here for three or four years and has fit in very well. We're happy with Ben."

Foerster also likes what he's seeing from veteran Jaylon Moore. Moore is heading into his fourth season with the 49ers but could face some tough competition for a depth spot this year.

"He always progresses," Foerster said. "If you guys know Jaylon or met Jaylon or talked to him at all, he's a very soft-spoken, very even-keeled guy. But yet every year he just comes back a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better. And I'm really impressed with how he's doing this year. And he's got to dig in... He's not going to jump off the screen at you. He's not going to jump off personality-wise, but I love the guy. Great guy. And he has improved every year."

One new addition to the roster that is almost certain to snag a roster spot is third-round draft pick Dominick Puni out of the University of Kansas. Puni is capable of helping the 49ers in a number of ways, but exactly where he'll settle in hasn't been decided on yet.

"He's built to be a guard," Foerster said. "Now, does that not mean he won't be our fourth tackle, possibly? The way the roster shakes out, could he be our starting right guard or left? I mean, he could be a swing guard.

"The only thing I'm not sure I'm going to rep him at is center, but he's going to be able to play left guard, left tackle, right guard, right tackle. We'll primarily work on him at right guard right now. That's a place we felt we could get some competition going and work at that spot. But he easily could be the fourth tackle, third, I mean, he could work in anywhere there. He's got the ability to play all. He's best suited to guard, though. You never know what happens. We'll see how it plays out."

Foerster also discussed undrafted rookie Drake Nugent of the University of Michigan. Foerster was a college teammate of Nugent's father Terry at Colorado State and now gets a chance to see what Drake can do at the NFL level.

"Here's a good story. His dad and I played college football together. He was the quarterback. I was a center. So we had a very special relationship... Drake, we watched him at Michigan. We looked at all the Michigan linemen and we got to the end of the draft. We got to the week before the draft. We started looking at the guys we think are going to be drafted 6th, 7th, or not be drafted at all. He fits our style.

"He is the more undersized, quick guy that plays with a lot of leverage and things like that, that may not be big enough, may not quite be the prototypical starter guy, but he does have some of those traits that we really like and he fits our system real well. That's what we saw, even though Michigan really didn't highlight outside zone at all... They had like 17 outside zones the whole season and they ran the crap out of the ball and so it was hard to bet, but you had to look at his testing. And we did like him a lot. Really good kid. And personally, because knowing the dad, knowing the family, I felt really good about the character of the kid as well."

Foerster was also asked about Isaac Alarcon, who joined the 49ers on a reserve/future contract in January. Like former 49ers offensive lineman Alfredo Gutierrez, Alarcon joined the NFL in 2020 as a member of the league's international pathway program. After spending time developing with the Dallas Cowboys, Alarcon is now getting the chance to show the 49ers what he can do.

"He's doing a good job," Foerster said. "Yeah, he's an upgrade. He's a little bit better than (Gutierrez). He's a little bit better than we've had the last three years around here. He does a good job. He's a little more athletic, moves around, and Alfredo did a great job for us. Great job. But this guy's actually pretty good."

There was one running back of note that Foerster commented on Wednesday -- fourth-round pick Isaac Guerendo.

"Very early. Really smooth, fluid runner like we saw in college," I think he's going to be a good pass receiver, but still early to tell. Those backs are rotating through pretty good. They're all doing a nice job right now.

"I really liked (Guerendo) when we were looking at the backs. He was a guy that really stood out to me as, even though he didn't play all the time, you saw the flashes, you saw the speed, and that's a dimension that we're looking to add to our backfield. Not that Christian's not fast. Christian (McCaffrey) would kill me if I said he wasn't fast enough. He's plenty fast enough. But you're always trying to add one more big, big hit element."

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