SANTA CLARA — The best story of 49ers training camp by far is rookie Jullian Taylor. Otherwise, the story has been this guy is hurt, that guy is hurt.
Taylor was a seventh-round draft pick, played only 14 games of college football. Now, he starts for the 49ers. And he’s good.
The 49ers made him a starter on their defensive line after just the fourth day of training camp. That was the day starting defensive end Arik Armstead pulled his hamstring. He hasn’t practiced since.
Armstead, a former first-round pick entering his fourth season, has recorded only six sacks during his career. He missed 10 games last season with a broken hand, and eight games in 2016 with a torn labrum. He has not lived up to expectations.
When Taylor replaced Armstead at defensive end on Day 5 of training camp, Taylor was an improvement, especially defending the run. And he instantly impressed DeForest Buckner, the 49ers’ best player and one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL.
“Jullian, he is going to be a great player,” Buckner announced last week. “He has been kind of bullying guys out there.”
Big praise from one defensive lineman to another.
The one person reluctant to praise Taylor has been his coach, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “He’s got a very, very long way to go,” Saleh said before the 49ers’ first preseason game. “I know there’s a lot of love out there for him — he’s doing a great job — but he’s got a long way to go to learn how to use his hands, to keep separation while maintaining his violence.”
A reporter followed up by asking Saleh how confident he would feel starting Taylor during the regular-season opener if Armstead still isn’t healthy enough to play. Saleh rejected the reporter’s premise.
“He still has to make the team,” Saleh said, referring to Taylor. “So, we’ll start with that one first. There are still a lot of games before he shows he’s ready to make this team.”
As things turned out, Taylor needed only one game. That’s how well he played during the 49ers’ exhibition opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.
Taylor started at defensive end, appeared in all four quarters, played 32 snaps, recorded three tackles, one sack and a team-high two quarterback hits.
On Sunday, a reporter asked Saleh if his opinion of Taylor changed.
“Same thing,” Saleh said, then he cut himself off and tried again, praising Taylor this time. “He took a big step. His arrow is going up. He is doing everything right. He plays violent, relentless. He fought his tail off with the ones versus that big Dallas O-line. As the game wore on, the expectation is that he should become more dominant, and he did. So, that’s a testament to him.
“As far as from a growth standpoint, he still has a long way to go with hand placement. There are some times, and you could see it in the game, where he created knock-back and separation. That was awesome. And then, there are times when he had too much forward-lean. But, he is doing the right things.”
The times Taylor had too much forward lean came while rushing the quarterback. He was overeager. He ran with his head so far out in front of his feet, he almost fell face forward.