Grant Cohn: 49ers OTAs show confident, effective Blaine Gabbert

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SANTA CLARA

Remember Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

The 49ers are Chip Kelly and the Football Factory. Nobody ever comes in, and nobody ever comes out.

Except Tuesday, when Kelly finally invited the media to watch OTAs. This was the first full 49ers practice the media has seen all offseason. We got the golden tickets.

What did we learn Tuesday in the football factory? What impressions did we get from a brief snapshot into the Niners’ offseason? Here are my top five impressions.

Impression No. 1. Blaine Gabbert is learning Chip Kelly’s offense quickly.

Kelly’s offense is the sixth system Gabbert has had to learn in the NFL, but Gabbert looks like he’d been running Kelly’s system forever. During Tuesday’s OTA, the 49ers’ offense huddled zero times. Kelly called play after play after play after play and Gabbert kept up. No sweat.

He also helped teammates line up in the right spots, made calls at the scrimmage and threw passes on time and to the right receivers. Gabbert never seemed confused or indecisive. During competitive team drills when he faced an actual defense, he completed 23 of 31 passes — almost 75 percent.

One reason Gabbert seems so comfortable in this offense: It requires lots of short passes to running backs, and Gabbert loves throwing short passes to running backs.

Impression No. 2. Backup running back Shaun Draughn seems to be Gabbert’s favorite receiver.

During Tuesday’s team drills, Gabbert completed four passes to Draughn and no more than two to any other player. Draughn was Gabbert’s go-to guy.

Last season, they seemed to develop chemistry almost instantly. Their first two games together, Draughn caught 12 passes. Gabbert looked for him any time a play broke down. Instead of scrambling or taking a sack, Gabbert just dumped the ball to Draughn.

Draughn is a good guy to receive a dump off. He’s a big target for a running back — long arms, large hands — and he’s elusive in the open field. He could catch more than 60 passes next season as Carlos Hyde’s primary backup.

Impression No. 3. Torrey Smith seems to have switched positions.

The first five seasons of his career, Smith played split end, the receiver who typically lines up on the line of scrimmage to the quarterback’s left. John Taylor’s old position. The No. 2 receiver. The complementary guy who often is the last receiver in the quarterback’s progression.

Smith doesn’t seem to be that guy anymore.

Now, he seems to be the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver. Their flanker. The receiver who usually lines up a yard behind the line of scrimmage and to the quarterback’s right. The position that belonged to Anquan Boldin and Jerry Rice.

As a flanker, Smith often will be the first receiver in the quarterback’s progression. Which means he will be much more involved in the offense than he was last season when he caught a career-low 33 passes.

Impression No. 4. Eric Rogers seems to have a good chance to start at split end.

Three receivers typically start in Kelly’s offense. One starter, Torrey Smith, is a speed receiver. Another starter, Bruce Ellington, is a slot receiver known for his quickness and agility. Neither is particularly big.

The Niners could use a big receiver to complement Smith and Ellington, box out cornerbacks and make leaping contested catches downfield and in the end zone.

Rogers (6-3, 210 lbs), is a big receiver who can do those things. He’s a former undrafted free agent who has played in the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League. Last season, he made 87 catches and gained 1,448 yards for the Calgary Stampeders.

Tuesday, he was by far the Niners’ best big receiver. Rogers played split end and made a team-high six catches. Once, he ran downfield and jumped over cornerback Keith Reaser to make a grab. Another time, Rogers cut so hard toward the sideline he made cornerback Jimmie Ward fall on his face.

Impression No. 5. Jimmie Ward should not play cornerback.

The Niners have been searching all offseason for a corner to play opposite Tramaine Brock. They tried to sign Sean Smith, Casey Hayward and Josh Norman, but failed in all three cases.

It seems the Niners new plan is to play Jimmie Ward at cornerback. The past two seasons, Ward was the team’s nickel back — the guy who covers the slot receiver. And in college, he was a safety.

Ward is a fantastic athlete who’s especially dangerous when he’s playing zone coverage, because he breaks quickly on the ball when he can read the quarterback’s eyes.

Ward is far less effective when has to turn his back to the quarterback and chase a receiver man to man, especially when he’s chasing the receiver near the sideline. Tuesday, he slipped and fell twice trying to mirror a receiver’s route.

The Niners deserve credit for trying Ward at cornerback. It was a creative experiment. Ward is one of their best players, and they should play him as much as possible. Just not at cornerback. Ward can’t play that position, and he confirmed that Tuesday in front of the entire team.

Now the Niners know. Productive practice session.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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