Breaking down how each rookie performed in their first preseason game
As the season approaches and football fever gets into full swing with the start of the preseason, I’ll be here to chart and share my observations on the play of the 49ers rookies. Let’s start with the No. 3 overall pick.
Lance came out and stole the show with what was easily the play of the game when he hit wide receiver Trent Sherfield deep for an 80-yard bomb late in the first quarter.
The play embodied so much of what invites the extraordinary optimism that surrounds Lance, as he showed off his legs by rolling smoothly outside the pocket off of a play fake, his brain by opting to not take the safe completion underneath to Aiyuk, who was open on a crossing route and instead take a shot downfield to an open Sherfield, and finally his arm, which allowed him to rifle the ball to Sherfield in stride for the long touchdown.
The thing that stood out to me on this play was the aforementioned decision to take the deep shot rather than the layup underneath to Aiyuk, which would have picked up a nice chunk of yardage and at the very least moved the sticks.
It’s no secret the play designs of Kyle Shanahan will frequently give quarterbacks open looks in the short to intermediate. Still, Shanahan has not had a quarterback in years who was willing and able to pass up the layup provided by his play call and instead take the riskier shot downfield that ultimately yields a higher reward.
Some passes will never show up as completions in the stat sheet even though Lance put the ball right on his target, including one of the best throws of the night on a ball intended for Richie James Jr. on the right sideline, with Lance placing the throw outside of James and well away from the trailing defender.
This might’ve been Trey Lance’s most impressive throw yesterday. Third down, pressure flashing, quickly sets his feet and puts the ball on a line directly to Richie James’ hands. Doesn’t get better. #49ers pic.twitter.com/NQIkvdfzrY
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) August 15, 2021
In my opinion, the ball hit James Jr. squarely in the hands, but the receiver could not hold on and negated what would have been the throw of the day.
Lance also had a few reps where he certainly looked the part of a rookie. I counted at least three balls that could have easily been picked and a couple of sacks that were squarely on him, not being aware of his surroundings in the pocket.
The worst throw of the day came on a ball where he was targeting tight end, Charlie Woerner on the right sideline but never noticed cornerback Deandre Baker sitting underneath in coverage. As Lance released, Baker slid into the throwing lane and got both hands on the ball, nearly coming away with what could have easily been a pick-six.
I thought the rookie corner out of Oregon was the best player on the field on Saturday night. Lenoir showed off an eye-opening ability to stick receivers in man coverage, consistently shutting down the Kansas City pass game when they attempted to get vertical on him.
For most of the night, he was chest to chest with his assignment in man coverage, and he displayed a strong ability to tackle in the open field when he was in zone coverage. One of the only objectively bad reps I saw from Lenoir was when he got caught flat-footed with his eyes in the backfield on a play fake, allowing his assignment to gain leverage to the outside.
Luckily for Lenoir, the ball was underthrown and hit Chiefs tight end Noah Gray, on his back shoulder, popping the ball up for Lenoir to snatch right out of the air for an interception. There are dozens of good plays I could talk about, but the fact his worst rep still ended with him coming away with a turnover is mind-boggling.
What a steal Hufanga is turning out to be. The fifth-round pick out of USC wreaked havoc against the Chiefs offense, making splash plays on defense and special teams, and displaying the versatility to line up all over the place.
The 49ers ran a couple of different sub-packages with five defensive backs on the field, and in those looks, they left Hufanga in single-high coverage. The fact that they rolled out a defensive front geared for defending the pass while allowing Hufanga to play a major role over the middle of the field would indicate they feel very confident with his coverage abilities.
One play for Hufanga, in particular, stood out to me, a play that demonstrated his plus athleticism and incredible football IQ simultaneously. On 3rd and 7 Chiefs, wide receiver Byron Pringle gained a step on Ambry Thomas while running a slant over the middle and had nothing but open field in front of him as quarterback Chad Henne looked to hit him between the hashes.
Hufanga, sitting in zone coverage, identified that Pringle clearly had Thomas beat, recognized the soft spot in the defense over the middle, and darted into that space, meeting Pringle as he caught the ball to bring him down short of the sticks. Again, the IQ was beyond impressive to recognize this happening in real-time, coupled with the burst to get there ahead of the play and make the tackle in the open field.
As expected, Sermon opened the game with the first team. However, the biggest thing that stands out about Sermon is that he provides a physicality that the 49ers have not had at the running back position in years.
Sermon regularly turned what would have been two or three-yard gains into substantially bigger gains by simply dictating the physicality at the attack point. As a result, he provides the 49ers a battering ram of sorts as a weapon that can be used to wear down opposing defenses without sacrificing a significant amount of agility.
My favorite play from Sermon was a 3rd & long where he was running a route out of the backfield to the flat on the left side, and left tackle Jaylon Moore got beat to the outside. Sermon showed off his plus football instincts by assisting Moore with chipping the attacking edge rusher before leaking off and completing his route before taking a swing pass to the flat for a nice 10 yard gain.
Solid situational understanding in real time to notice he needed to help out his left tackle and ultimately his quarterback by delaying a would-be sack and turning 4th and long into 4th and short.
With Trent Williams sitting out, Moore got the start at left tackle with the first team. The biggest thing that stood out to me was the number of reps that Moore completely removed himself from the play by whiffing entirely on his block.
In his defense, I think it’s a little unrealistic to expect a fifth-round rookie to dominate in their debut. However, the performance as a whole was still far from encouraging even after adjusting for Moore’s situation. He had a couple of solid reps in pass protection with the first team, but as the game went on and the line around him got worse, his play dropped significantly.
I personally think Moore would be much better served as a guard than a tackle. He just doesn’t have the prototypical size that is coveted among tackles.
While I’ve noted that I thought Thomas struggled to start training camp, I think he has certainly taken some strides forward in the last week or so. I was hoping to see that positive play continue into Saturday’s game. Still, unfortunately, I saw many of the same issues that I noted from the beginning of camp when Thomas struggled.
He appeared lost at times in zone coverage, and it appeared the Chiefs targeted his side frequently when he and Lenoir were both on the field. Thomas also got beat in man coverage far too frequently for someone who displayed the coverage chops he did during his time at Michigan.
It’s worth noting this is the first game action Thomas has seen in over a year and a half due to him sitting out the 2020 season, so some of these lapses in coverage could be attributed to being a bit rusty.