The 49ers learned the hard way last season their best chance at competing for a playoff berth revolves around the play – and availability – of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
With training camp officially coming to a close after a second joint practice with the Denver Broncos on Saturday, general manager John Lynch said he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from the franchise quarterback who tore his left ACL last September.
“I get hesitant and reluctant to say it,” Lynch said before Saturday’s practice, “but his recovery from his knee has been flawless.”
Garoppolo hasn’t looked like a quarterback taking things slowly coming off an injury aside from the lightweight titanium brace on his leg. He’s been sharp throughout training camp, save for his five-interception performance during practice Wednesday before bouncing back in two sessions against Denver’s starting defense this week.
“I think we’re all learning the hard way that par for the course is, at some point during a year-long rehab, that you’re going to have some setbacks,” Lynch said. “He just hasn’t had those and that’s allowed him to focus on what he needs to do – and that’s play.
“And so that’s been tremendous. And that’s been the biggest blessing. And he deserves a lot of credit, as does our medical staff for the way that’s gone. But on the field, we see progress each day and a better mastery of our system. And there’s still room for improvement, but I think he’s had a real fine camp.”
Garoppolo’s five-year, $137.5 million contract includes few guarantees beyond the coming season, which means the team could move on from if he fails to live up to expectations.
That’s an unlikely scenario, of course, given how much Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan have already invested in the former New England Patriot.
But the contract situations underscores the pressure on the entire organization to make strides in the right direction after averaging just over four wins per season since finishing 8-8 in 2014.
“We’ve got high aspirations for this team, and (Garoppolo’s) obviously a big part of that,” Lynch said. “We got a lot of belief that he’s going to answer the bell.”
One of the pressing questions facing Lynch and Shanahan is how to assemble the quarterback group when the roster is trimmed from 90 to 53 players a week before the regular season. Shanahan has kept just two signal callers active during his two seasons as coach, but Garoppolo has never started more than five games in a season and the 49ers have used three different starting quarterbacks in each of the last two years.
Which means Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard could make the team, which would take away a roster spot from another position. Or, San Francisco could feel inclined to trade Beathard or Mullens, though Lynch indicated he hasn’t had any discussions with other teams about a possible trade.
“A lot of people are calling, feeling out people’s roster,” Lynch said. “I think people know, we have a position of strength there. ... (But) we haven’t had talks (about trading our quarterbacks) at all.”
Shanahan said he wasn’t sure how much Garoppolo would play when he makes his preseason debut in Denver on Monday night.
“A lot has to do with when we watch his film from these two practices, how long we do play all our starters, what O-linemen are available and things like that,” Shanahan said. “I’d like him to get in there for a little bit.”
Two Broncos kicked out of practice for fighting
The 49ers defense played with noticeably more intensity than the Broncos offense during the first joint practice Friday. On Saturday, Denver responded by upping their tenacity level, which led to a minor scuffle that saw tight end Bug Howard and receiver Brandon Landley get kicked out of practice.
It was unclear what started the brawl, but Lynch was forced to play peacemaker by trying to break things up. The 49ers said they didn’t throw any punches, though Shanahan said he didn’t see what happened as he was on the other side of the field with the offense.
“By the time I got over there, it was pretty much broken up,” Shanahan said. “I know a couple guys got sent in. I was told none of our guys threw punches, so when I see the tape, we’ll see if they were telling the truth. Hopefully they were.”
Person injury better than initially feared
The 49ers were without their starting right guard Mike Person on Saturday after he left the Broncos’ facility in a walking boot and crutches Friday. Person had been in and out of recent practices while dealing with pain in his foot, though an MRI on Friday indicated the injury isn’t as bad as the club initially believed.
“Person made it through practice, had a little bit of a scare after, but with the X-rays and stuff going well and he’s day-to-day, scary at first but day-to-day, it’s a good sign,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers had second-year pros Najee Toran and Daniel Brunskill rotating with the starters. San Francisco has been without Joshua Garnett since early August following surgery to repair a dislocated finger. Lynch said Garnett could return to practice in a cast next week, which would be a welcomed addition to the depleted offensive line.
“We’re excited that I think we’ll get Josh back on the field,” Lynch said. “He’s a guy who always gets better when he gets his reps. We just need to keep him out there so he can continue to get those reps.”
Moore forcing the 49ers’ hand
Second-year pro Tarvarius Moore has continued to practice with the first string and seems like he’s developing quickly. He intercepted Garoppolo twice Wednesday and picked Denver starter Joe Flacco on Friday.
“I’m really excited where Tarvarius is going, he’s got to continue to improve, but we all are,” Lynch said.
Moore’s play is forcing the 49ers to make a difficult decision about which player to start when 2014 first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward returns from his broken collarbone. Ward was suited in pads during practice the last few days, but didn’t participate in full-team drills. He could make his return next week in preparation for the third preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“The more time (to heal), the better,” Lynch said of Ward. “But at some point, you gotta go play football.”
▪ Defensive tackle D.J. Jones returned to practice Saturday after suffering a minor knee injury in the exhibition opener against the Cowboys.
▪ Running back Raheem Mostert was a full participant following a concussion against Dallas.