Garoppolo’s progress raising hopes for 49ers

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SANTA CLARA – The 49ers just took another scheduled day off from training camp to rest and heal their bodies. Here are the top-five takeaways from the past four days of camp.

1. Jimmy Garoppolo has improved.

The first four days of camp, Garoppolo completed only 50 percent of his passes — he seemed hesitant and rusty following ACL surgery. But, then he took a day off, and since he returned to camp he has completed 60 percent of his passes during 11-on-11 team drills. He seems poised and confident like he did in 2017 when he won his first five starts with the 49ers.

“You saw Year 1, he raised the level of everyone’s play,” general manager John Lynch said of Garoppolo during an exclusive one-on-one interview with The Press Democrat. “That’s what special players do — they make everyone around them better.”

But, in 2018, Garoppolo did not make the players around him better. And he seemed to lose confidence as he lost two of his first three starts. Why did he lose confidence?

“His first year, he had very limited game plans,” Lynch explained. “The second year, he knew just enough (of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system) to be dangerous, but also enough to get bit every now and then. Our hope was that would improve throughout the year. This offseason, he took a lot (of information) in, and we’re really happy with where he’s at.”

Meaning Garoppolo knows the offense better than he did a year ago.

2. Center Weston Richburg still hasn’t returned from injury.

Other than Garoppolo, Richburg might be the most important player on the offense this season. Here’s why.

Garoppolo has a surgically repaired left knee. He will need space in the pocket to confidently step into throws. Richburg lines up directly in front of Garoppolo. If Richburg can’t hold his ground, Garoppolo can’t step into his throws.

This offseason, Richburg had surgery to repair a torn quadriceps tendon. He missed all of OTAs, minicamp and probably will miss all of training camp, too. “(Richburg) is really working towards Week 1,” Lynch told reporters on July 26. “That’s been the goal all along and we’re hopeful, but we’ll see.”

Meaning it’s no certainty Richburg will be healthy to play Week 1. And even if he is healthy, he might be rusty. His backup currently is Ben Garland, who has started only seven games since entering the NFL in 2012. In camp, the 49ers defensive linemen consistently have pushed Garland around.

For Garoppolo’s sake, the 49ers need Richburg back pronto.

3. Nick Bosa is similar to a former 49ers defensive lineman named Smith, but not Aldon.

After watching Bosa for eight days of camp, some believe he’s even better than Aldon Smith was in 2011 when Smith was a rookie.

Those people most likely are mistaken.

Aldon Smith, the un-Nick-Bosa, recorded 14 sacks his rookie season, and beat offensive tackles with explosive bursts of violence. He had 35⅜-inch arms, and he clubbed people over the head with them.

Bosa is smaller and he has shorter arms. He doesn’t win with breathtaking flashes of viciousness — he wins with relentless effort and advanced technique. And he doesn’t always win right away, but he wins eventually. He never stays blocked.

“His whole deal is to add a second repertoire to his pass rush,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He’s really good in the run game, could get better, but he’s progressing the right way.”

Now for the player Bosa is actually like: Bosa’s power and relentlessness makes him similar to Justin Smith, who played in the NFL for 14 years. Smith never recorded more than 8½ sacks in a season, but he consistently pressured quarterbacks and defended the run well. Bosa can make that kind of impact if he stays healthy.

4. Dee Ford has missed five practices in a row.

And he will miss at least another week with knee tendinitis.

“He could’ve toughed it out,” Shanahan said, “but we feel good about where Ford’s at, and we wanted to make sure we took care of (his knee) so he could be fresh going into the year.”

Apparently, Ford gets knee tendinitis every year during camp. The 49ers say they’re not concerned.

Ford was one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL last season — he recorded 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles with the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite those excellent numbers, the Chiefs didn’t offer him a long-term contract extension. They gave him the franchise tag instead, then traded him to the 49ers on March 12.

After the trade, Ford agreed to a team-friendly extension with the 49ers, an extension that allows them to easily release him after just one season.

Why would Ford agree to such a deal with the 49ers? And why wouldn’t the Chiefs offer Ford anything more than the franchise tag?

The 49ers may have just found out why. Ford has serious injury issues. He’s had two back surgeries, and the most recent one occurred in 2017. Now, he’s 28. His injuries may begin to multiply. Although the 49ers say they’re not concerned with Ford’s current injury, maybe they should be.

5. A rookie linebacker has emerged.

Last season, the 49ers defense recorded just two interceptions and only 39 pass breakups in 16 games. They ranked 32nd out of 32 NFL teams in both statistics.

So far in camp, none of the 49ers’ projected starting defensive players have intercepted a pass during 11-on-11 team drills. But a rookie linebacker intercepted a pass during practice Sunday morning.

The rookie linebacker is Dre Greenlaw, the 49ers’ fifth-round draft pick. He currently is the backup strong-side linebacker behind veteran Malcolm Smith, who’s a liability in coverage. On Saturday, Smith gave up a 20-yard touchdown catch to George Kittle. And on Sunday, Smith gave up what would have been a 50-yard touchdown catch to Dante Pettis had Pettis hung onto the ball. On both plays, Smith never turned his head to find the ball.

Greenlaw already seems better than Smith in pass coverage. On Sunday, Greenlaw intercepted a pass intended for slot receiver Trent Taylor. A few plays later, Greenlaw broke up a pass intended for Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle. If Greenlaw proves during the preseason he’s big and strong enough to stop the run, he probably will take Smith’s starting job.

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