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Who will make the headlines? 5 breakout candidates for 49ers training camp

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 7/31/2020 By Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee

Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw last offseason made the most of his practice reps with the starters while Kwon Alexander was working back from a knee injury. The fifth-round pick proved to be a quick study, allowing the coaches to trust him over the more experienced veteran, Malcolm Smith, who didn’t survive final cuts.

It led to a banner rookie season for Greenlaw, who made one of the biggest defensive plays in the entire league when he stopped Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister inches short of the goal line Week 17 to help the 49ers secure the No. 1 seed before cruising through the NFC playoffs.

Greenlaw catapulted his breakout offseason and training camp into a productive rookie campaign and figures to be a mainstay for the foreseeable future. Let’s look at five candidates who could follow a similar path during training camp for San Francisco.

Tim Harris, cornerback

Harris might have been a Day 2 prospect in the NFL draft had he remained healthy during his career at the University of Virginia. He has good size (6-2, 197 pounds and nearly 32-inch arms) and ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash with a 39-inch vertical jump. Those measurables are nearly identical to the team’s 2017 third-round pick, Ahkello Witherspoon.

But Harris fell to the sixth-round of 2019 draft because of injury concerns. He tore his labrum in 2016 and had a wrist injury in 2017 leading to a pair of medical redshirt seasons. The 49ers kept him on injured reserve last year with a groin injury so his next NFL snap will be his first.

With D.J. Reed sidelined for the foreseeable future with a torn pectoral and veterans Dontae Johnson and Jason Verrett competing for backup roles, Harris has a chance to emerge as a long-term option at cornerback. After all, Richard Sherman, Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams are all unsigned beyond 2020 (Emmanuel Moseley is an exclusive rights free agent and unlikely to leave). The 49ers would love Harris to develop quickly allowing them to save resources in 2021 and beyond if he can evolve into a starter.

Jerick McKinnon, running back

Rams coach Sean McVay came up with an excellent term earlier this offseason about players posting all their workout videos on social media. He called it “performative grinding.” There’s often little substance to those clips (these are professional athletes, after all), but McKinnon’s clips were notable given he missed the last two seasons because of ongoing knee issues.

The videos of McKinnon this offseason showed a player who looked significantly improved from last summer when it was clear his knee wasn’t 100 percent healthy following his ACL tear nearly 12 months earlier. A procedure to insert a graft from his hip didn’t take and the 49ers decided it was best if he took the entire season off for a chance to be as healthy as possible for 2020.

The team says McKinnon would have been ready to go during the second half of the 2019 regular season, meaning his knee has been given plenty of time to heal ahead of training camp. If healthy, McKinnon can offer the 49ers a versatile weapon for Jimmy Garoppolo. He lined up all over the field throughout 2018 training camp, similar to the way the Panthers use Christian McCaffery, and is the team’s best pass catching option out of the backfield, which is a dynamic the offense clearly lacked in 2019. Tevin Coleman led the team’s running backs with 21 catches for 180 yards.

Colton McKivitz, offensive line

Veteran free agent addition Tom Compton and 2019 breakout player Daniel Brunskill are currently headlining the competition to start at right guard following the release of Mike Person. But don’t sleep on McKivitz, the recent fifth-round pick from West Virginia.

Kyle Shanahan said after the draft the 49ers liked McKivitz enough to take him in the fourth round and he would have been a candidate to replace Joe Staley had the team not pulled off the Trent Williams trade. That’s pretty high praise for the former Mountaineer who started all four seasons in college (as Greenlaw did at Arkansas).

McKivitz played tackle in college, which means he should have the requisite athleticism to play guard in Shanahan’s outside zone running scheme that prioritizes linemen that get upfield. McKivitz is also known for having a nasty streak. Winning the starting job could allow the team to use Brunskill in a utility role after he excelled last season as a fill-in at guard and tackle. It wouldn’t be shocking if that’s how it played out and McKivitz turned into the 49ers’ latest fifth-round find.

Charlies Woerner, tight end

The 49ers were reportedly interested in tight ends throughout free agency, including Austin Hooper, who signed a lucrative deal with the Browns, before landing Woerner in Round 6 of the draft. Like George Kittle, Woerner didn’t have much production as a pass catcher in college but did showcase sound blocking and intriguing athleticism the 49ers might tap into.

San Francisco lost two blocking tight ends this offseason, Garrett Celek and Levine Toilolo, leaving ample opportunity for Woerner to contribute in the running game while Ross Dwelley, the expected No. 2, is more of a classic “move” tight end, who’s better catching passes than blocking defensive ends.

Woerner appeared in 54 games over his four years at George, which included starting all 14 games last season. He finished his career with just 34 catches for 376 yards. But Pro Football Focus rated Woerner as the best blocking tight end in the draft. In high school, he had over 2,000 rushing yards, 1,500 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns. Perhaps there’s more to his game he showed in college.

Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd, Jauan Jennings, receiver

Is it a cop out to list four receivers as breakout candidates? Absolutely. But it also speaks to the uncertainty facing the group in light of the departure of Emmanuel Sanders and the Jones fracture to Deebo Samuel, which could sideline him early in the regular season.

There’s going to be a vacuum of playing time available for all these guys which means there’s a chance at least one of them breaks out and becomes a key contributor. The safe bet is Aiyuk, the 25th-overall pick in the draft, who was among the leaders in yards after the catch last season with Arizona State. Given Shanahan’s knack for getting pass catchers open in space through scheme, Aiyuk could be a beneficiary and have a similarly productive season as Samuel did last year.

But Shanahan’s offense is famously difficult for first-year skill players given the complexities of the scheme. That’s why Taylor or Hurd have a leg up given they already have experience with the playbook. In Taylor’s case, he missed all of 2019 after a Jones fracture in training camp after coming on strong at the end of 2017 before a lackluster, injury-ladened 2018.

Hurd had a small fracture in his back that caused him to miss 2019 and even stay home from the Super Bowl trip to Miami. But a healthy Hurd could give the 49ers a unique weapon in the slot or as an H-back to complement Kittle. He could also be a red-zone option out of the backfield after playing running back at Tennessee before switching to receiver at Baylor.

Then there’s Jennings, the recent seventh-round pick, who doesn’t move particularly well but came out of school with a knack for breaking tackles. The former Volunteer was a fan favorite in Tennessee and even started a game as a wildcat quarterback in 2019. Perhaps that’s the way he differentiates himself to his new team.

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