It's clear the San Francisco 49ers are taking a very cautious approach with a number of key veterans early on in training camp. That approach has allowed younger players to get valuable reps, including second-year tight end Vance McDonald on Thursday.
McDonald finished the afternoon practice on the receiving end of eight balls (unofficially) from Colin Kaepernick during 7-on-7 and full-team drills to lead the team.
McDonald was given a high volume of reps as Vernon Davis watched from the sideline. Davis doesn't appear injured. He's likely being eased back into the fold after holding out from the team for the entire offseason program.
The list of other vets that sat out Thursday includes Justin Smith (shoulder), Ray McDonald (unspecified leg injury), Anthony Davis (shoulder), Tramaine Brock (unspecified leg injury), Michael Crabtree ("working through something") and Brandon Lloyd (ditto).
Back to McDonald, who made one of the catches of the day late in practice on a seam route along the right side of the formation. Kaepernick fired a pass in between the safety and linebacker, and McDonald looked back at the last possible moment to catch the back end of the ball for a sizable gain.
"We’d like to get him around a little quicker there," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said after practice.
McDonald could have made even more receptions, but had a couple of drops he would like to have back. The 49ers have done a lot to add targets in the passing game this offseason, but considering how often the team uses two-tight end formations, McDonald's progression as a pass catcher remains vital to the offense.
Crabtree left Wednesday's practice midway through without participating in team drills. He wasn't seen on the practice field Thursday and is "working through something," according to Roman.
Roman indicated Crabtree's injury is not serious. Before leaving Wednesday's practice early, he was having a very strong camp looking much like he did before suffering his Achilles tear last year.
"I think he’s in great shape relative to what he did last year. He came off the Achilles injury and just really gutted it out the end of the year," Roman said. "I don’t have this as a fact, but I don’t know that everybody would have played that early coming off that injury. But he wanted to get out and help the team. Didn’t make a lot of fan fair about it and just toughed it out. That’s the guy he is. He’s looking sharp."
Another notable play came early in the day during a two-minute drill when Kaepernick found second-year wideout Quinton Patton for a touchdown along the right sideline.
Patton beat Perrish Cox (who intercepted Kaepernick twice Wednesday) on a double move in single coverage to make it a relatively easy connection from 25-yards out. The play looked just like Kaepernick's final pass of the 2013 season that was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by Malcolm Smith in the conference championship game. Only instead of Sherman being in perfect position, Cox bit on the first move allowing Patton to get behind him.
It looked like Kaepernick and Patton made an adjustment from Wednesday's two-minute drill, when Cox jumped an out route and made one of his two interceptions. Thursday Cox bit on the route and was beat deep for the score.
Kaepernick was a perfect 4-4 on the drive, which included passes to McDonald and a slant route to Anquan Boldin for a big gain up the middle where it appeared Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody got mixed up in their coverage assignments.
For the day Kaepernick (unofficially) completed 21 of 28 passes during team drills.
Martin had been working his way back from an ankle injury he suffered while away from the team between last month's OTAs and training camp. Lynch suffered a significant hamstring strain during minicamp.
Both players were suited up in shells at the start of the afternoon session. They stretched and participated in individual drills before leaving to work out in the weight room and on the side field at the start of the team portion of practice.
Their first days with team drills are likely to come Friday afternoon or Sunday. The team has an off day Saturday.
Cornerback Chris Culliver was also back in action after leaving practice early Sunday and missing Tuesday and Wednesday. He worked primarily with the first team at right cornerback. Don't be surprised if the 49ers give Culliver a number of days off during camp going forward to make sure his ACL tear suffered last summer is fully rehabilitated.
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