Joshua Garnett is only 13 miles up Highway 101 from the 49ers’ practice facility, but the first-round draft pick has been unable to attend any of the nine practices over the last month.
Joe Staley, the dean of 49ers offensive linemen, said Thursday that the NFL rule prohibiting Garnett and rookies in similar situations from joining their teammates puts them at “a huge disadvantage.”
The 49ers have been installing Chip Kelly’s offense over the past month. And Staley, entering his 10th season, didn’t downplay how challenging the machine-gun pace of Kelly’s system has been physically and mentally.
“It’s taken us a couple weeks to get used to,” Staley said. “(At first) everybody was just sitting there. We were running plays (against) air and were just gassed. Then we’ve gotten used to that. Then the first day going against the defense, (we) were gassed. And we’ve gotten used to that. So we’ll probably go through the same transition in training camp.”
Garnett was allowed to participate in the 49ers’ rookie minicamp in early May. But because Stanford’s academic year – unlike most colleges – is still in session, he can’t rejoin the team until his last final exam Wednesday. The 49ers will hold a mandatory minicamp Tuesday through Thursday, their last formal session until training camp begins in late July.
Garnett has been getting advice and encouragement from Staley and others. He also has been given an iPad onto which the playbook and the ongoing practices have been downloaded.
Despite the intensity of practice, Staley said he’s impressed by the speed at which the 49ers’ rookie offensive linemen, including draft picks Fahn Cooper and John Theus, have picked up the offense. Staley expects the same when Garnett arrives.
“I don’t think he would be a high draft pick if he wasn’t taking care of himself and really understanding that this is a profession, this is what you want to do with your life,” Staley said. “ … I’ve been listening to the stuff he says and the quotes he says, and he says all the right things.”
Still, the players who appear to have picked up the offense the fastest are multiyear veterans. Staley, guard Zane Beadles, center Daniel Kilgore and tackle Erik Pears – all of whom have been in the league at least five seasons – have been practicing on the first-string offensive line over the past month.
The younger players, such as second-year tackle Trent Brown and third-year center Marcus Martin, have been on the second-team line.
There’s already been some jockeying in the lineups, and there promises to be plenty more when training camp begins. For example, third-year player Brandon Thomas had been lining up at right guard with the first-string offense in early practices. On Thursday, Andrew Tiller was in that role.
Offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said Staley, at left tackle, is the only offensive lineman firmly in place.
“Other than that, everything else is kind of, ‘Let’s see,’ ” Modkins said. “I think one of the things (offensive-line coach Pat Flaherty) does that’s really impressive – and I think is really important – is that you kind of mix and match who’s with who, maybe change up positions. All of that stuff is important because you want to develop some depth, and you want to give guys a chance to do that.”
There was constant motion on the offensive line a year ago, too. So much that the five linemen who started in Week 1 played only seven snaps together during the preseason.
Staley said it would be nice to settle on a starting five earlier this year. But he said it probably would be fluid again, especially with Garnett unable to get any meaningful practice repetitions until training camp.
“I think the main concern is just getting the right guys out there for Week 1,” Staley said. “You’d like to go through eight seasons in a row having the same offensive line. But that’s not the reality.”