SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers went heavy on defense early in the 2017 NFL draft, using their first three selections on players from that side of the ball. But when they opened Day 3, they had their eyes on skill position players with upside, drafting running back Joe Williams in the fourth round and receiver Trent Taylor in the fifth.
Williams and Taylor have taken different routes to opening eyes in this training camp, with Taylor performing well right from the start and Williams taking a bit longer.
For Williams, his first training camp got off to a rough start and he acknowledged Friday he wasn't in the shape he thought he was when camp opened. He has gotten his legs underneath him the past couple of days, breaking off long runs in both practices.
"I thought he had his best day yesterday and then it seemed like today was better than that," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I thought he's put two good practices in a row. It takes time with some of these guys. By no means has he arrived with two practices. ... Joe got a couple good looks too yesterday which sometimes that's what they need to spring a little confidence."
Williams showed impressive burst on an inside zone-run play early in team drills Friday. He angled between center and left guard, put his foot in the ground and cut hard to the right for what would have been a long gain, if not a touchdown. Williams, who also had two big gains Thursday, is still likely behind Carlos Hyde and Tim Hightower on the depth chart but he's starting to make noise. If he can be consistent, he'll have a chance to push for carries sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, Taylor has produced throughout camp though that has been ratcheted up recently. He has come up with highlight-reel grabs over the past couple of days and has said he can tell a difference in his own game from the first day of camp.
"I feel like I've learned a million different new things in a short amount of time," Taylor said. "I think every day is crucial for me to go out there and learn anything that I can. That's what I'm trying to do right now is soak everything in and make sure once I make one mistake the first time that it doesn't happen again. My focus right now is getting used to the playbook and learning the flow of the game, learning the flow of the offense."
Taylor has even been getting reps with the starting offense. He made a nice catch near the sideline on a deep out on a well-thrown ball from Brian Hoyer. Taylor has also received positive reviews from Shanahan for his blocking.
News, notes and observations from Friday's practice:
Defensive end Aaron Lynch did not practice after his wife gave birth in the middle of the night. Shanahan said he was in contact with Lynch as it was happening and Lynch was excused.
Receiver Jeremy Kerley had tightness in his hip, according to Shanahan, which limited his participation. Sticking with receivers, recently signed Louis Murphy still hasn't practiced with the Niners yet. Shanahan said the team wants to ease him into the workouts after he'd been away from the game for a while.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks and Hightower were given veteran days off. With Eli Harold battling a concussion, Dekoda Watson got most of the work at "Sam" linebacker in Brooks' place. Kapri Bibbs and Williams got extra snaps behind Hyde with Hightower sitting.
Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been on the wrong end of some collisions over the past two days but showed signs of life Friday. Early in the practice, veteran safety Eric Reid took Witherspoon aside and showed him a few things on the tackling sled. Later, Witherspoon broke up a pass intended for Pierre Garcon and then on the next snap he had tight coverage again, which led to a sack. The pass breakup drew an enthusiastic reaction from his defensive teammates. Perhaps making plays in practice will give Witherspoon a jolt of confidence moving forward.
Receiver Aaron Burbridge is another name to remember. He made a couple of nice catches during the workout, including one from C.J. Beathard in tight coverage from cornerback Will Davis. Burbridge also looks like he could have a big role on special teams and shouldn't be discounted for a possible spot on the 53.
Like Williams, Bibbs had been relatively quiet in the run game for most of camp but with Hightower out, Bibbs had some nice runs, including one that would have gone for a big gain during team drills.
Defensive end Arik Armstead again generated a lot of pressure rushing the passer. I unofficially had him down for a couple of sacks on the day. Watson got involved as well, and rookie end Solomon Thomas also had one after a nice rush against left tackle Joe Staley.
Beathard had perhaps his best throw of camp during team drills, dropping a perfectly placed ball about 18 yards downfield to tight end Cole Hikutini. Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster had Hikutini covered well and safety Chanceller James was coming over the top but the ball placement was perfect and Hikutini hauled it in. Hikutini later got Foster again on a crossing route for a gain of about 10.
The biggest hit of the day came from an unlikely source: Cornerback Prince Charles Iworah. Running back Matt Breida caught a pass over the middle but Iworah was waiting and lowered his shoulder for a big blow that jarred the ball loose. It popped into the air and into the waiting arms of Foster for a takeaway. Iworah later got into a brief scuffle with receiver Victor Bolden Jr. It was easily the most physical we've seen Iworah in this camp as he battles for a spot at cornerback.
With Coyle out, Foster continued to get plenty of work with the second-team defense with most of it coming as the middle linebacker. Foster has been thrust into playing against better competition in part because of injury and days off but he hasn't been in over his head by any means. He's also getting snap ons special teams at the moment. Foster did have a brief injury scare with what appeared to be his left ankle but he only missed one snap before returning.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk continues to produce. He had a nice catch from Hoyer down the left sideline for a gain of around 20 to open the "move the ball" period.
Nickel cornerback K'Waun Williams came up with an interception against Matt Barkley late in team drills. Williams appears to have the inside track on that job and one could make the case he's been the most consistent corner in this camp.
The 49ers will open up Levi's Stadium for Saturday's practice at the usual time. Shanahan indicated it might be slightly different than a normal workout but it would mostly stick to a familiar script.