Grant Cohn: Hot from 49ers minicamp — who's up, down, on the way out?
SANTA CLARA - Before we transition to training camp, let's linger in the past and break down the top-five takeaways from the recently-completed 49ers minicamp.
1. Arik Armstead is the focal point of the pass rush.
Last season, Armstead wasn't even a starter. He played on third downs and rushed the quarterback from the interior of the defensive line.
That is not the way the Niners used him in minicamp last week.
First of all, Armstead is a starter now. He plays Ray McDonald's old position in the Niners' base 3-4 defense - left defensive end. In the nickel defense, Armstead occasionally rushes from the interior like he did last season, but mostly he rushes from the edge. This is new.
When the Niners use their nickel defense on first and second down, Armstead plays Aldon Smith's old position - right defensive end. On third down, Armstead moves to Ahmad Brooks' old position - left defensive end - while a mob of 49ers rush from the right side.
The opposing offense has a choice: Either double-team Armstead and try to block the angry mob with three or four guys, or slide protection to the angry mob and try to block Armstead one on one with a right tackle. Pick your poison.
2. Jimmie Ward is the best cornerback on the team.
And he isn't even a cornerback. He's a safety who played nickel back his first two seasons in the NFL.
But he also is the most athletic player in the 49ers' secondary and one of the 11 best players on the 49ers' defense. He should be a starter.
During OTAs, he was. He started at right cornerback, which is the No. 2 corner, and he struggled at first. But he improved so rapidly, the Niners moved him to left cornerback, which is the No. 1 corner, during minicamp. And he was fantastic there. Broke up two passes and gave up zero touchdown catches.
Tramaine Brock, the Niners' previous No. 1 corner, got beat twice in three days for touchdowns, including once by practice squad player DiAndre Campbell. Not a good look for Brock, who hasn't been the same since he missed most of the 2014 season with various leg and toe injuries. Don't be surprised if he's sitting on the bench when the regular season starts.
3. The offensive line still is a major question mark.
First major question: Who is the right tackle? During minicamp it was Erik Pears, who played right tackle last season and was no good. The Niners had to move him to guard where he played much better. Now they're moving Pears back to tackle.
Why? Because his replacement, Trent Brown, who played well at right tackle toward the end of last season, came into minicamp out of shape. He looks like he weighs more than 350 pounds and clearly doesn't have the endurance to play in Chip Kelly's fast-break no-huddle offense.
Which means the starting right tackle probably will be Pears, or a rookie - either John Theus or Fahn Cooper - a couple of fifth-round picks. Not good.
At right guard, the starter probably will be rookie first-round draft pick Joshua Garnett, who missed all of OTAs and played with the undrafted rookies during minicamp. Not good.
At center, the starter probably will be Daniel Kilgore who missed 20 games due to injury the past two seasons. Not good.
At left guard, the starter probably will be Zane Beadles who got released by the Jaguars in March and turns 30 in November. Not good.
And at left tackle, the starter will be Joe Staley who turns 32 in August. Does that sound like the foundation of a good offense to you?
4. The 49ers' best unit may be special teams.
If the offensive line continues to struggle, the 49ers' biggest plays next season may come on special teams.
“I think it's an integral part of the game,” Kelly told reporters on the final day of minicamp. “Everything is so close in this league that the biggest chunk plays that occur in a game are in special teams. You know, you look at the Super Bowl. The biggest play in the Super Bowl was the punt return. It's a key factor and I think I've always put a huge emphasis on it, whether I was at the college level or in the NFL in terms of what we can do and it's really, a lot of times, the determining factor in winning and losing.”
To make his special teams especially dangerous, Kelly has made rookie quarterback Jeff Driskel the personal protector on the punt coverage team. That means Driskel lines up next to the punter.
With a quarterback in the backfield, Kelly can call fake punts in which the center snaps the ball directly to Driskel and he runs or throws downfield. Or the center can snap the ball to the punter and he and Driskel can run the zone-read. Driskel gives Kelly the ability to use his entire offense even on fourth down when he's supposed to punt.
5. Blaine Gabbert is not a lock to win the quarterback competition.
Gabbert still is the favorite - don't get me wrong. He took every first-team rep this offseason and played well, especially during OTAs when Colin Kaepernick couldn't participate in practice. Gabbert seemed relaxed and confident when he had the starting job all to himself.
As soon as Kaepernick returned on Day 1 of minicamp, Gabbert started to press. Started to force passes into coverage and throw balls into screens that were right in front of him. Mistakes he didn't make during OTAs. All of a sudden he didn't seem confident.
Is Kaepernick in Gabbert's head? Does Gabbert have the temperament to win a quarterback competition? Can he rise to the challenge? We'll find out during training camp. Stay tuned.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at email@example.com.