Early surprises at training camp can lead to preseason sensations to … well, Canton can wait.
Which 49ers are making the most of training camp? The Pro Bowl and All-Pro superstars go without saying, as does quarterback Trey Lance, whose first camp as a starting quarterback has been up-and-down-and-documented daily.
These are the players surprising, in a positive way:
CHARVARIUS WARD, cornerback
The 49ers are getting what they paid for from their highest-priced free agent. Ward consistently delivers with sticky coverage, aggressive instincts and impressive range. He didn’t make a Pro Bowl in four years with the Chiefs but his arrival is reminiscent of the boost Richard Sherman brought in 2018. Another cornerback on the rise: Deommodore Lenoir, who has a Los Angeles connection with Sherman.
BRANDON AIYUK, wide receiver
He’s been the offense’s MVP, and his offseason work with Trey Lance shows up in their chemistry and trust. Aiyuk’s feistiness is evident, not just from fighting Fred Warner but in making contested catches in the middle of the field and on the boundaries. Said Lance: “He’s killing guys right now. He’s making some really big plays and separating himself.”
SPENCER BURFORD, right guard
What is a fourth-round draft pick doing at right guard on the first-string unit – on every of their snaps this camp? “He’s got the frame for it, the size, a strong lower half, long arms — all the scout mumbo jumbo you want to throw,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. Lance described Burford as “a super mature dude. As for Burford’s Texas-San Antonio roots, “We like small-school guys, yeah,” said Lance, a North Dakota State product.
TY DAVIS-PRICE, running back
Starter Elijah Mitchell was getting camp’s most carries until Davis-Price racked up eight carries Saturday for 42 through nine practices; Mitchell has 41. TDP’s punishing style is evident, such as Saturday’s first carry when he lowered a shoulder into safety George Odum. Fellow rookie rusher Jordan Mason also has opened eyes, as expected with undrafted gems in the Shanahan system.
TANNER HUDSON, tight end
He’s caught 13-of-14 targets, albeit mostly on the backup units. Hudson made a cameo for the 2020 Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, and he could be gunning for Ross Dwelley’s receiving role to stick with George Kittle and Charlie Woerner in that unit. “He would be in the conversation of ‘Best Hands on the Team,’ which everyone has seen,” tight ends coach Brian Fleury said. “He has a unique ability, whether it’s a vision thing or what. If you were to slow it down and watch, his eyes follow the ball and track it.”
COLTON McKIVITZ, tackle
With left tackle Trent Williams anchoring the line and right tackle Mike McGlinchey returning to full health, the 49ers still need a swing tackle behind them, and McKivitz is the leader. His confidence was justifiably bolstered by his last-minute start in place of Williams in last season’s Week 18 finale at the Rams.
DANNY GRAY, wide receiver
Everyone wants him to bring a down-field threat to this offense. He’s coming on strong in that regard, though a deep ball bounced off his facemask in one-on-one drills Wednesday. His 4.3-second speed is why the 49ers selected in the third round. “I try to just J.O.B. – jump off the ball, attack my defender and win my route,” Gray said Saturday while revealing the receiver unit’s “J.O.B.” mantra.
GEORGE ODUM, safety
The 49ers lured him from the Colts as part of a special-teams makeover, but Odum’s no slouch as a safety, and it’s suddenly a very deep position with Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga, Tarvarius Moore, Tayler Hawkins, Leon O’Neal Jr. and versatile veteran Dontae Johnson.
CHARLES OMENIHU, defensive end
Acquired in a Nov. 2 trade from Houston, Omenihu had 1 ½-sacks in the playoff opener at Dallas, then worked hard this offseason to vie for a starting spot opposite Nick Bosa, which is the best way to cash in as a 2023 free agent. Samson Ebukam is the incumbent starter and Drake Jackson is this year’s top pick, so Omenihu must keep charging ahead in a deep group that also boasts Kemoko Turay, Jordan Willis and Kerry Hyder Jr.
ROBERT NKEMDICHE, defensive tackle
Signed as camp began, Nkemdiche hasn’t been shy, from drilling running backs and linemen to firing up the fans. Maurice Hurst’s season-ending biceps tear and Arik Armstead’s knee sprain opened the door for Nkemdiche to make his third NFC West team in five years (Cardinals 2016-18, Seahawks 2021).