With league-mandated roster cuts and the signing of practice squad players, the 49ers head into Week 1 with 69 players (52 active roster, 16 practice squad, 1 COVID/Reserve), with the potential for more moves in the coming days. General manager John Lynch held a conference call on Sunday to discuss some of the 49ers recent decisions and the team's preparation for next week's season opener. Here are seven player updates from the 49ers GM.
Veteran-heavy Practice Squad
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of changes have been implemented to each team's roster, in particular, the makeup of a practice squad. On Sunday, the team announced the signing of 16 players to the team's practice squad, an increase from the standard 10, with up to six members who may possess unlimited NFL experience.
With the new NFL rules in place, the 49ers were able to retain veteran talent including defensive lineman Dion Jordan (5 years experience), linebacker Joe Walker (4 years experience) and safety Johnathan Cyprien (7 years experience), who originally dismissed the potential of being signed to the team's practice if he was not to make the initial 53-man roster.
Since, Cyprien has had a change of heart, adding to the 49ers list of six vested veterans. The general manager admitted to being "nervous" that the 49ers wouldn't be able to retain the safety. But given the uncertainties of the unprecedented season, as well as the potential for injuries, the 49ers could easily be forced to rely on Cyprien's experience and availability.
"The numbers on the practice squad going up to 16 was implemented because of COVID, but it's something that I love," Lynch said. "It gives you some nice flexibility and we're really excited about the group we kept, both in young developmental players and these vets that entrusted us as a place that they want to be.
"Johnathan Cyprien, earlier when you guys asked him, made me a little nervous. But at the same time, I said I wouldn't want someone that was just okay with just making a practice squad. Cyp competed hard, as all these guys did to try to be part of the 53. It speaks to the person he is. That was a tough pill to swallow for him. But in the end, I think he saw an opportunity here."
Replacing Fred Warner
Last week, linebacker Fred Warner was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The Reserve/COVID-19 List is for a player who either tests positive or has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person. Clubs may not disclose whether the player is in quarantine or is positive for COVID-19.
While Warner's availability for Sunday's season opener is still in the air, Lynch appears confident in the 49ers backup talent to step up if and when they're called upon. In addition to Azeez Al-Shaair and Mark Nzeocha, Lynch highlighted linebacker Joe Walker, who was placed on the team's veteran practice squad, as a player who has stepped up this past week with Warner out. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is another player who Lynch believes can contribute as a hybrid safety-linebacker on San Francisco's defense.
"As far as our linebacker makeup, we have, I'd say, seven linebackers who we really think highly of," Lynch said. "We're excited about this group as a whole. Obviously, the starters - Kwon Alexander having a really nice camp. Fred was so on point prior to going onto that COVID list. And Dre Greenlaw has been outstanding as well."
Deebo Samuel's Return
On Saturday, the 49ers activated Deebo Samuel from the Non-Football Injury list, making the wideout eligible to suit up in the season opener on Sept. 13. Samuel has been working his way back from a Jones fracture in his foot suffered in an offseason workout. So far through camp and his social media accounts, the receiver has been making significant strides in his return. The team plans to meet with his surgeon, Dr. Robert Anderson and 49ers team physician Dr. Timothy McAdams to assess the receiver's most recent X-ray scans and his potential to play on Sunday.
"He does have a shot," Lynch said. "I can tell you that Deebo has done a fantastic job. One of the cool things now, the way these guys record everything they do, we get to see how hard Deebo was working. I'm a huge believer that when you get injured and you're already in great shape, you heal quicker. Deebo has continued that tremendous work ethic and has remained very positive and upbeat and resolute in his want to be back on the field right away. And that goes a long way. So, we're hopeful but I don't have an answer because we don't know yet."
Potential Return of Offensive Playmakers
In addition to Samuel, the 49ers are hopeful to get a number of offensive players back ahead of Week 1. Rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk was ruled "week-to-week" while recovering from a mild hamstring strain. Offensive lineman Ben Garland has been working his way back from an ankle injury, and Kyle Juszczyk has been dealing with a hamstring strain. While there is no official word on their availability for Week 1, the general manager is "hopeful" they each can practice in some capacity this week.
"They're out here as we speak, training and working really hard," Lynch said. "So, I think on Wednesday, we'll turn in the first injury report. Those guys have all been working and have a chance. So, we'll see where it goes."
Depth Without Ronald Blair
Defensive lineman Ronald Blair III will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Blair has been working his way back from an ACL injury last season, and since, has been seen conditioning on the sidelines at practice. Per league rules, players placed on PUP cannot return to practice for the first six weeks of the regular season. After Week 6, the 49ers have a five-week window to allow the player to begin practicing. The team then has a 21-day window to decide whether to activate the player to the 53-man roster once practice commences. Beyond that deadline, the player is required to stay on the PUP list for the remainder of the season.
Despite being "close," the general manager believes Blair III is not quite ready to rejoin the team. The 49ers have prized versatility when building out the roster. Should the 49ers need depth on the exterior, San Francisco feels confident in its players ability to shift if needed.
"When I told him of our decision that we were going to keep him on PUP, he entrusted us with his contract year. He came back to us, and we were grateful for that, because he's a big part of what we're doing," Lynch said. "He's, like nine months this week away from ACL surgery. That's a very demanding position. You're pushing against 300-pound men and you better be 100 percent.
"We feel good about our group. There's really nice versatility with everyone. We'd like to leave Solomon Thomas inside and never have him move out. But he always does have that flexibility if we're ever in that pinch. Kentavius Street has that. Kevin Givens even showed some of that flexibility to be able to go outside. So, we covet guys who have some versatility to the game. We like our defensive line. It's a focus of how we build our team… I think we're well equipped there and those guys fire me up."
Dee Ford's Restructured Contract
News released on Saturday morning that the 49ers restructured pass rusher Dee Ford's contract, giving the team flexibility heading into the season. Despite the speculation of the team preparing for a potential upcoming move, the general manager indicated the move was strictly for cap management, which could come in handy depending on how the salary cap takes shape next season.
"That move was more of a housekeeping, cap mechanic-type of a move," Lynch said. "There's going to be some things coming down the line that will balance it out. It's not going to include going to get a big-time player. The roster's pretty much set. We're always going to be looking to try to improve. There's been conjecture that some big move is coming as a result of that.
"This year, there's a 46-man (gameday) roster and incentives that we're expecting our guys to hit. So that's why you make some of those moves and really more of a housekeeping thing than any big adjustment."