49ers poised to add new defensive piece against Cleveland, which will start its third different quarterback
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Randy Gregory of the 49ers lining up as a pass rusher and chasing Cleveland quarterback P.J. Walker in Week 6 was something few, if any, expected when the season began in September.
Gregory, acquired in a trade from the Denver Broncos a week ago, is set to make his 49ers debut against the Browns (2-2) on Sunday.
“He was able to fit in well,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan before the team left for Cleveland. “He was able to complete three full practices.” He’s picking up on our plan. Some of the styles he’s used in the past are very similar, so he picked them up quickly, and I’m looking forward to seeing him on Sunday.”
Rather than pursuing quarterback Deshaun Watson, Gregory will pursue Walker at quarterback while Watson recovers from a bruised rotator cuff. Watson, who signed a five-year, $230 million contract with Cleveland in the offseason of 2022, did not practice all week.
“I’ve always been a fan of him over the years,” said Shanahan of Walker. “He’s got experience, he can hurt you with his legs, he can hurt you with his arm and when he’s gotten opportunities in this league he’s done a good job.”
Watson, who was injured on a keeper against Tennessee in Week 3, was ruled out on Friday, along with Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver Cedric Tillman.
The 49ers’ injury report only listed two players. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw (hamstring) and running back Elijah Mitchell (knee) were both listed as questionable.
Gregory (6-foot-5, 242 pounds) was benched for the Broncos’ game against Chicago on Oct. 1 and played 33 snaps. He practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, and Lynch was pleased with how quickly he learned the system.
Gregory’s most likely role will be as a situational pass rusher opposite Nick Bosa.
General manager John Lynch stated that trading for Gregory, who has appeared in only 10 of 21 games since joining the Broncos, was consistent with the 49ers’ organizational philosophy of having a deep and talented defensive line.
“We want an embarrassment of riches up front,” Lynch said on his weekly KNBR show. “That’s the way we’re driven.”
However, it does not appear that the 49ers will pursue Frank Clark, another edge rusher who was reportedly on the verge of being released by the Broncos. Clark has 58 1/2 sacks in nine seasons with Seattle, Kansas City, and Denver, where he appeared in just two games.
“You only have so many spots and I think we’re pretty good,” Lynch said in a statement. “We like our group.”
Walker will be Cleveland’s third starting quarterback this season, following Watson and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Thompson-Robinson was told last Sunday morning that he would start against Baltimore in Watson’s absence, and he struggled, completing 19 of 36 passes for 121 yards and three interceptions in a 28-3 loss.
Walker spent the preseason with the Chicago Bears before being released at the end of the season and being signed to the Cleveland practice squad five weeks ago.
Walker, a free agent, has appeared in 15 games and made seven starts for Carolina in three seasons. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder started five games for the Panthers, under current 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who also served as interim head coach.
“I think he’s very capable of running that offense,” Wilks stated on Thursday. “He makes wise decisions.” He’s skilled with the ball. He can do a lot of what Deshaun can do with his legs. So what exactly do people mean when they say they’re going to dummy down the offense? No, I don’t believe so. I believe he is more than capable of leading that offense.”
Mitchell has been out of the last two games due to a knee injury sustained during practice. He had five carries for 10 yards in the first game of the season against Pittsburgh, then sat on the bench as Christian McCaffrey played every snap against the Rams. Mitchell carried 11 times for 42 yards in the 49ers’ win over the New York Giants on Thursday night.
Mitchell is in his third season with the 49ers and has appeared in 18 regular-season games while missing 21 due to various injuries.
“He had a full-speed practice yesterday, was full go today, so he had a good week,” he said.
In Mitchell’s absence, Jordan Mason has 90 yards on 16 carries, including a 10-carry, 69-yard effort against Dallas that included a 26-yard touchdown run.
Greenlaw rested on Wednesday but felt something in his hamstring during a walkthrough on Thursday.
“He didn’t feel comfortable with it,” Shanahan explained. “I’m just trying to be safe.” We’ll see how he feels in the morning.”
Return to Cleveland
Shanahan refused to discuss the specifics of his one year as offensive coordinator in Cleveland in 2014.
“I enjoyed living out there. “There were some nice people there, and it was cold,” Shanahan explained. “My car was always dirty because there was a lot of snow on the ground that never seemed to melt.” But I had a great time at the stadium. I liked the people. It was only one year, which wasn’t very long.”
The organization, on the other hand, was in such disarray that Shanahan requested that his one-year contract be terminated. The Browns started 7-4, then lost their next five games, and management decided to start first-round draft pick Johnny Manziel.
Tashaun Gipson, a third-year free safety for the 49ers, had six interceptions, 158 yards in return yardage, and a touchdown.
“I didn’t know him all that well personally,” Shanahan admitted. “I just knew how good he was there and he was one of the better safeties in the league right away.”
“Kyle didn’t say much,” Gipson observed. I was young and just starting out in the NFL. We exchanged pleasantries but did not engage in many personal conversations. We were in different stages of our careers when I arrived and were able to get to know each other.”
Shanahan went on to become the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, while Cleveland went 3-13 in 2015 under Mike Pettine, then 1-15 and 0-16 under Hue Jackson.
— Deebo, wide receiver Samuel isn’t concerned about the quality of the Cleveland defense, which is ranked first in the NFL, allowing only 196.8 yards per game. Last week, the 49ers took the same approach against Dallas, which also came in with strong defensive numbers but ended up losing 42-10.
“It doesn’t matter,” Samuel concluded. “We just go out and do our thing.” That’s the way it is around here.”
— Cleveland defensive end Maurice Hurst, a former Raiders fourth-round draft pick, spent two seasons with the 49ers but appeared in only two games due to injuries. He was on injured reserve for the entire 2017 season.
Hurst is a rotational player for the Browns.
“We adored Mo. “We thought he was a really good player who just had bad luck with us for two years,” Shanahan explained. “I’m very happy for him right now.”