ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — This time last year, inside linebacker Jonas Griffith was practicing with the second-string players during the 49ers' training camp.
Now, Griffith is taking snaps with the starters.
"Last year when I was with San Francisco, I kind of was running with the twos all camp," Griffith said. "Just coming here, that opportunity to fly around with the ones is amazing. Everything you wanted and more."
Playing with the starters means lining up against Russell Wilson, which is a daunting task for a young player. Rather than something to be nervous about, Griffith views it as an opportunity to take his game to another level.
"It feels great," Griffith said. "I feel like I'm trying to get there, so going against the best is going to make me improve."
Griffith originally signed with the 49ers in 2020 as an undrafted free agent, and his journey to a 53-man roster was anything but easy. He did not get an opportunity to make the team right away, bouncing between the practice squads in Indianapolis and San Francisco. He finally got the chance to see the field in the 2021 preseason, where he caught the attention of the Broncos' front office.
The Broncos traded for Griffith before the start of the 2021 season, and he initially only played snaps on special teams. Due to an injury to Kenny Young in Week 14, Griffith earned a starting spot on the defense for the rest of the year, recording at least nine tackles in three of his four consecutive starts.
During training camp, Griffith is determined to keep that spot.
"Don't mess up, just fly around, make a play," Griffith said of his mindset this year. "Don't give them more reasons to put you with the twos."
Practicing with the starters is allowing Griffith to learn from his veteran teammates, whom he credits for making him feel more in sync with the defensive scheme.
"Every day I feel like I'm gaining more confidence, and I feel like every single rep I get, I'm getting more comfortable with the defense," Griffith said. "Guys like Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, those guys are really just helping me and bringing me along. I feel like we're just getting more comfortable playing with each other."
Griffith's comfort in his role is apparent during practice, where he is often seen laughing and joking around with his teammates between reps. The defensive players have a strong bond with each other, and it translates to their cohesion and success on the field.
"I'm trying to play free and just have fun," Griffith said. "I try to keep it light, but I know the task at hand at the end of the day."
His fun, humorous demeanor came out when discussing the new Guardian Caps mandated by the NFL. The padded helmet layer, which reduces the severity of impact, must be used by all defensive and offensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends through the second preseason game.
Like many players, Griffith had some thoughts on the new gear.
"I kind of feel like a bobblehead," Griffith said. "It gives me negative five speed on Madden, that's what I tell some of the guys. But it's not that heavy, honestly. … I feel like it's going to help me, protect me against any concussions or anything like that. I feel like once we get pads on, I'll be more prone to just fly in without worrying about getting injured."
After the journey Griffith has endured to get to this point, he is grateful that his coaches and teammates believe in his ability to potentially be a starter for this team.
"It means the world, honestly," Griffith said. "As a guy in my position, this is all you can ask for. I feel like this is amazing."
Flip through photos from team photographers Gabriel Christus and Ben Swanson from the second day of training camp.