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Labriola On

Tomlin on captains, Najee, 'QB-friendly'

Q. Over the last week or so, a couple of the final things on the to-do list before the start of the regular season were electing captains and putting together a practice squad. Starting with the captains, for this team at this stage of its maturation, did the offensive captain almost have to be Kenny Pickett?
A. I don't know that it had to be. I just think it's reflective of what we all have been watching, his maturation over the last 12 months and his place in this thing, and his level of comfort with his place in this thing is just really evident. And so I'd imagine he's probably been the captain of every team he has been a part of since little league, and so it's just been a natural process and the vote just kind of reflects that. The guys see it in him, he wears it very naturally, and so we're proceeding with that in mind.

Q. Generally speaking, how do teammates view the person in that role?
A. It can say a lot of things. I've never tried to define "captain" for the guys. I simply hand out ballots, and I tell them him to put whoever's name they think is worthy, and I really don't put a limit on the number of names. It's really telling. Some guys see captains as really good players, guys who make a significant amount of plays for us. Some guys view the older guys in a leadership capacity or a combination of production and experience. Some guys base it on how guys conduct themselves, their approach to business, and that has nothing to do with the number of plays that you make or all your years on the job. And so it's usually a combination of those three variables from an individual's perception. That's been my experience, but I've never tried to frame it.

Q. On defense, there are two captains – Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt. Does that mean the vote was tied?
A. No. To be quite honest with you, anytime somebody gets more than 25 votes, in my mind they're worthy of being a captain. That's why sometimes we might have six, sometimes we might have five, sometimes we might have four. The number of votes speaks to me. Twenty-five or more is worthy of being recognized in that way.

Q. Moving onto the practice squad, what are you looking for when putting that together?
A. A variety of things, really. A practice squad is a collection of people. Some of them, they're on the practice squad because they need development at their home position, offensively or defensively. We feel good enough about their upside that we're willing to continue to work with them and provide a platform for them to continue to improve. Some guys are on the practice squad because they provide immediate varsity help in a specific area. A guy might not be good enough at his home position to make the 53-man roster, but he is a varsity special teams player. You put him on the practice squad, and he's the guy who's getting elevated when special teams guys are less than available over the course of a season. And sometimes you just want to stack talent at what you might believe is a globally deficient position. You know, there are a lot of cornerback questions out there globally for a lot of organizations, and so we wanted to insulate ourselves at the cornerback position, for example, at the early stages of this with quality veteran dudes with playing experience like Anthony Brown. Anthony Brown got hurt last year, he hadn't been in a camp, he's probably not ready to play. But being on our practice squad gives him an opportunity to get ready to play. And if we waited until we needed him, he might not be available to us. And so there are a lot of questions or a lot of scenarios in that area. Make no mistake it's all very intentional, but it's usually for a variety of reasons, most of which fall into the categories that we just talked about.

Q. During the preseason, Najee Harris didn't get a lot of carries or see a lot of playing time during those three games. How do you see the division of labor at running back during the regular season unfolding?
A. It depends on the week, really. Obviously, Najee is our feature runner and obviously, Jaylen (Warren) has proven to be very capable. Sometimes they might split carries based on circumstances, and there are a variety of variables in that discussion. Sometimes someone might be highlighted more than someone else. Sometimes it might include Anthony McFarland, for a variety of schematics or matchup reasons. I think that's what today's game is about. It's about finding a strategic or matchup advantage. We've got guys with varying skill-sets to highlight that. But all scenarios are going to include Najee Harris.

Q. Entering his third season, has he been what you believed he would be when you used a first-round pick on him in the 2021 NFL Draft?
A. No question. I think about the back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and the manner in which he's done it. An increasing workload over the course of the season, the second half of the season when the weather becomes a factor, when defenses fatigue individually and collectively. The big back that has been a component of Pittsburgh Steelers football for generations, he represents that, and I've been pleased with his ability to represent that thus far throughout his career. But make no mistake, we expect him to continue to get better and to continue to define that component of our business model.

Q. What is special about Najee Harris?
A. He's highly competitive. You can't put him in a circumstance where he doesn't display the will or desire or the skills necessary to win. He loves it. He doesn't run from it, he runs to it. That's why a Bay Area kid chooses Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for college. It is because he wants that. He flew over and drove beyond a lot of big-time programs. He wanted that, and I just think that speaks to his mentality and really the core of what makes him a special guy.

Q. In a little over a few hours from now, the 2023 season will begin when you host the San Francisco 49ers at Acrisure Stadium. What do you like about your team heading into this game and this season?
A. You know, there's a lot to like. I like our depth and competition. There were a lot of hotly contested battles during the process and this feels like we got a lot of viable guys. Look at the supplementary eligibles on offense, guys like Calvin Austin, Connor Hayward, Darnell Washington, guys like that. Jaylen Warren, Anthony McFarland. All those guys have had really good processes. And forget the starters, the 11 guys or whatever that you want to identify as starters, our supplementary eligibles had a really good preseason. I really think that adds to our attack, the diversity of our attack, and the depths of our attack. On defense, you can say the same thing. We had three inside linebackers who were all quite varsity and really, we didn't choose between any of them. We just decided we were going to utilize what's best for circumstances. Same thing at strong safety between Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee. Same thing at nickel, with Elijah Riley and Chandon Sullivan both had a bunch of spectacular plays throughout this process. Can't say enough about the upward trajectory of guys like DeMarvin Leal and Keeanu Benton in the defensive line who are non-starters but are going to carry significant roles. Whether you describe it as competition or whether you describe it as depth, whether you describe it as supplementary skill guys or what have you, I really like that component of our group. The diversity that it allows us to provide to the distribution of labor, that's the makeup of a really good team. Time obviously will tell that story, but I like what I've seen thus far.

Q. A lot of things went well during your 3-0 preseason, including a perfect 5-for-5 for the first team offense in that it was on the field for 5 total possessions and scored 5 touchdowns. Do you need to see how the group as a whole responds to some adversity before you know what you really have?
A. No, there was enough adversity on the fields in Latrobe. That's the ebb and flow of training camp, and really our business model and what we subscribe to. We just subscribe to iron sharpens iron. We go good-on-good every day. Some people go 2s vs. 1s and 1s vs. 2s because they want both of their first units to have a good feel throughout the process. Absolutely not in Pittsburgh, man. There is 1s on 1s, there's 2s on 2s. It creates ebb and flow. There are those days that you speak of where you're running on the beach, if you will. And so our offense being the younger of the two units has had those days, probably had more of those days than they would like. And so that is not a component of worry for me.

Q. During those ebb and flow days, what did the response tell you about Kenny Pickett in particular?
A. He's a sick, sick competitor. He doesn't like (ebb and flow), and I like that. That's a great place to begin. Then it's about a maturation process as a unit and a leader about how to rectify it, how to change it midstream, how to recognize it quickly and do what's necessary in terms of combating it. That's what he and I spent a lot of time talking about throughout this process. How quickly can we realize that the offensive unit was up against it that day? And as a leader, what is he going to do in an effort to try to turn that tide? As opposed to waiting until the practice is over and then choosing to address it the next day? I'm not about that Monday morning quarterbacking or that Monday morning coaching. As leaders what can guys like he and I do in the midst of it to change the trajectory of something that he and I see that we don't like? And so that's where we spent our time on those dog days of summer.

Q. An area of the team that was re-made over the course of the offseason was inside linebacker, and you referenced that position earlier.. Does Christian McCaffrey pose the ultimate test to that unit?
A. No doubt. Christian McCaffrey, he needs no endorsement from me, but he's going to get it anyway. Prior to the 49ers acquiring him they averaged 20 points a game last year. With him they averaged 30 points a game last year. That's a 10 point difference. This guy is dynamic in the running game, he's dynamic in the passing game. He's in a small collection of guys statistically in that area. You can put him in with Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk and guys like that over the years, who were really dynamic in the run and in the pass, and so it is a challenge. But it also speaks to the specialization that I'm talking about. Our ability to distribute those game-ready linebackers in appropriate situations that highlight their skill set is important.

Q. What makes Kyle Shanahan's offense quarterback-friendly?
A. He is highly selective about when he chooses to expose that quarterback to a defense. And it starts first and foremost with a commitment to a run game and a successful run game. They're never, or very rarely, off schedule, and that's why the presence of Christian McCaffrey is so significant. And that's why their point total went where it went when they got him. A significant and consistent run game is first and foremost in the schematics of how he works. Then he can pick and choose when he wants to throw the football, and he minimizes the amount of one-dimensional circumstances that the quarterback is in. One-dimensional circumstances are blood in the water for guys like T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kyle understands that. I worked with Kyle 20-plus years ago. I understand philosophically how he views football, and I know that he wants to dictate when he chooses to expose the quarterback as opposed to allowing game circumstance to decide for him. And so he's gonna try to stay a step ahead, and it's our job to make sure that doesn't happen.

Q. In terms of the pre-draft evaluation process, how did Brock Purdy last until the seventh round to become the 262nd overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft?
A. I can't speak for the other 31 teams, because they all have their own processes. We made a selection with the 20th pick of the first round (Kenny Pickett in 2022), and so in a lot of ways we were kind of out of the quarterback business moving forward. One thing I will say about Brock Purdy's resume and the trajectory of his career that's not surprising to me, and things that we did talk about when considering him is his body of work. His body of work was not a one-year body of work at Iowa State. It wasn't a 15-game body of work like Trey Lance's college career. It wasn't a one-year body of work like Zach Wilson's career, or even like the young guy in Indianapolis (Anthony Richardson) who was a Florida Gator last year. We found comfort in the length of Purdy's body of work the same way we found comfort in the length of Kenny's body of work. There's a maturity that comes with walking around a college campus being the guy for three or four years that really kind of tees up what we're looking at for both guys. You can say the same thing about Desmond Ridder, who was 43-6 or something as a starting quarterback at the University of Cincinnati. It's not surprising that he is the starting quarterback in Atlanta right now. Those guys with the multi-year bodies of work in college, there's no way to gain experience other than to have it, and they have it. And so I'm never surprised when they show experience beyond their years on a professional field when they carry that unique experience of being a three-and-a-half or a four-year starter at their colleges.

Q. Nick Bosa or Fred Warner – who is the key guy on that 49ers defense?
A. Just based on salary, I'd say Nick Bosa. And I'm sure (General Manager) John Lynch and company would agree with it. But he's also got some hardware at his house – the reigning Defensive Player of the Year that also kind of validates that. No disrespect to Fred Warner. That's just the realities of ball and in the ecosystem that we're all in. Nick Bosa's the big dog.