Evaluating 49ers’ roster after joint practice with Houston

The San Francisco 49ers rebounded from a week of lackluster performances to turn in a strong overall effort during their joint practice with the Houston Texans on Friday afternoon.

Both Chip Kelly’s and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s units looked to make strong plays throughout the over two-hour long session in Santa Clara, which saw the 49ers crash pads with an opposing team for the first time under Kelly’s watch.

Although the practice was slightly tempered in its physicality, it allowed us to get perhaps our best look yet at some of the players who are contending for a positional battle. In going against an unfamiliar opponent, some player’s stock went up, and some almost certainly went down.

STOCK UP

Blaine Gabbert

With Colin Kaepernick‘s ailing shoulder limiting him to just a few handoffs in live action for the day, quarterback Blaine Gabbert received all of the first-team reps during the offense’s first look at an opposing defense.

Gabbert made the most of his time under center, finding good rhythm on routes with his receiving core, consisting mainly of Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington in the slot.

Gabbert, the presumptive starter of Sunday’s preseason game, spread the ball around nicely as well, finding Ellington, tight Garret Celek and receiver Jerome Simpson for would-be touchdowns during team drills throughout the day.

After missing almost all of the offseason program due to rehabilitation from surgery, Kaepernick’s continuing absence from working with the offense will only continue disadvantage him in the quarterback competition.

Kaepernick continued to take mental reps, as he’s done all offseason, by standing behind the offense while looking through the progressions, but the lack of live throwing will hurt him as he fights to regain his touch and accuracy in Kelly’s offense that demands both.

Bruce Ellington

Ellington had yet another strong day on the field, showing good hands and quick moves that allowed the shifty receiver to break free from Houston’s defensive backs.

The 5-foot-9 receiver showed his agility while crossing up rookie first-rounder cornerback Kevin Johnson in one-on-ones to breakaway for a catch, while later catching a touchdown in red zone drills.

Ellington will likely see the majority of his playing team coming out of the slot, as was the case on Friday. But with Kelly’s insistence on running out 11-personnel the majority of the time, Ellington’s role as the slot receiver will still be crucial to the 49ers’ ability to move the ball down the field.

Gerald Hodges

Hodges made strides on Friday while spending the majority of time with opposite linebacker NaVorro Bowman with the first team defense.

The fourth-year linebacker’s best moment came on consecutive plays during a red zone drill against quarterback Brock Osweiler and the first-team offense. Hodges first came around the right side for a would-be sack on Osweiler for a six yard loss. He then backed that up with the most physical tackle of practice after lifting Texans running back Tyler Ervin off the ground for a tackle-for-loss after receiving a dump off in the backfield.

Linebacker Michael Wilhoite had himself a decent practice with the second unit, but Hodges certainly made his case for starting consideration on Friday.

STOCK DOWN 

Trent Brown 

Trent Brown struggled in pass protection today during both team drills and one-on-one assignments. The most noticeable collapses came during the one-on-one period, with Brown being blown passed by the Texans’ Whitney Mercilus for what would have been a sack.

Brown struggled to get his large, 6-foot-8 frame in front of Houston’s smaller, more athletic linebackers on the day. With Anthony Davis continuing to draw praise from the 49ers’ coaching staff, the second-year player’s time with the first-team may be limited if he continues to have practices like Friday.

Cornerbacks

The 49ers cornerbacks were hit-or-miss on Friday, showing good coverage for a majority of practice, but also allowing big plays by Houston receivers.

Both starting cornerbacks in Jimmie Ward and Tramaine Brock were targeted for touchdowns on the day. Brock’s came during the team’s first red zone stand, with dynamic receiver DeAndre Hopkins making a leaping grab over the cornerback in the back of the end zone for a touchdown from Osweiler.

Ward’s came on a one-on-one man assignment as speedy receiver Will Fuller pulled away from Ward down the sideline for a deep throw from Osweiler before strutting into the end zone. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley could be heard telling Ward to know who he’s covering after the reception.

Several other young cornerbacks were burned by the aggressiveness that they’ve demonstrated all camp long, with many coming up short on do-or-die picks that allowed opposing receiver to turn up the field uncontested.

The 49ers will get their second look at the Houston Texans in a less-friendly showdown this Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.