The San Francisco 49ers are entering the 2016 season with undetermined starters at positions on both sides of the ball. Additionally, multiple players have shown enough versatility to fill multiple roles. The preseason is naturally the best way to evaluate players and make decisions about roster cuts. The 49ers, however, will have to use the preseason to elect starters as well. The team has few positions that are currently held down by unquestioned starters.
Of course, guys like NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid and Carlos Hyde will start as long as they are healthy. Aside from them, the roster is littered with uncertainty that will require multiple games against other competition to determine who is ready. Chip Kelly and his staff will have to decide not only who starts this year, but who becomes centerpieces of their units moving forward. The team is currently rebuilding from a catastrophic 2015 campaign, and finding young players to rally around will go a long way in encouraging fans to remain excited and patient.
The competitions in training camp practices are only worth so much. Kelly’s practices rarely last longer than an hour and a half, and the teams are doing most of their work in individual and partial-team sessions. The 11-on-11 periods provide some insight into who is prepared to compete, but guys are going against teammates and the struggle of teammate vs. adversary is not as easily navigated as it might be in a game against another team.
Here’s where we arrive at the preseason, and particularly its meaning for the San Francisco 49ers. The team needs these games perhaps more than any other franchise. They are needed to evaluate young talent, to evaluate a new coaching staff, to make personnel decisions and to encourage fans that they might be making amends for a horrible mismanagement of the 2015 season.
Three players in particularly have plenty at stake in the preseason games for the 49ers. While some might be on the roster bubble and subjected to being cut, many are simply guys that have a franchise’s hope resting on their performance.
DeForest Buckner- The San Francisco 49ers used the first pick of the Chip Kelly era to grabbed a former-Oregon Duck that they can pair with Arik Armstead. DeForest Buckner was widely considered the best interior defensive lineman in the entire 2016 NFL Draft. He’s an effective interior pass-rusher, with the length and athleticism to work from sideline to sideline. His roster spot is absolutely guaranteed. The preseason is not some competition for him to make the roster or try to secure a job. The preseason is important for Buckner because so much hope and excitement rests on his ability to quickly be a part of an effective tandem of defensive studs up front. The measure for Buckner’s success won’t necessarily be immediate numbers such as sacks. The team doesn’t need that type of play from him. What they do need, however, is for both Buckner and Armstead to show a versatility to their game that allows them to keep both on the field during third downs. Each man has incredibly long arms and should minimize throwing lanes for quarterbacks. If Buckner can play aggressively on each down, while collapsing pockets and holding his ground against double-teams, then it’s a major success.
Torrey Smith- The San Francisco 49ers have plenty of wide receivers. Each does something a little different than the others and nobody has been able to routinely stand out, aside from Bruce Ellington. Torrey Smith is the de facto leader of the group based on time in the league and the 49ers need him to play like it. Additionally, in Chip Kelly’s offense, Smith will have to show an ability to be effective beyond the deep-threat label that he is traditionally associated with. Smith can get down the field and draw interference flags better than nearly anyone in the league. But can he run a shallow dig and make contested catches while being hit? We’ve seen Smith box-out corners down the field, but the 49ers are desperately looking for a sure-handed receiver that is willing to convert third downs and “do the dirty work”, to steal a cliche. Anquan Boldin left for Detroit and behind him is a major void in the 49ers offense. If Smith is able to assume even some of that role, the 49ers offense is immediately much-improved. Smith will be a starter, but can he raise his play even beyond what we saw of him in Baltimore? The preseason, although brief for him, will be crucial in re-energizing the wide receiver group.
Anthony Davis- You had to know this one was coming, right? Davis hasn’t played against competition in over a year. He rapidly moved from third-string right tackle to second-string, overtaking inexperienced players along the way. As of now, sophomore Trent Brown stands in his way for the starting right tackle position. Brown has been playing well, but Davis is closing the gap after sitting out an entire season. If Davis is able to impress throughout the preseason--and he ought to get plenty of opportunities--he may reclaim his position with the starting group. Regardless, Davis’ return seems to have encouraged Trent Brown to improve if he wants to continue as the starter. Brown was massive coming out of college, and may always be the type of player that struggles with weight and consistency. Brown quickly wrangled in his weight this season, and might be up to the task of Chip Kelly’s rapid pace. The competition between Brown and Davis will likely result in both men keeping a job with the team. Nonetheless, the two will push one another throughout the next month, leading to an offensive line that is consistently getting better.
The preseason signals the first “real” football since the Super Bowl and it’s exciting for fans to seem the team on the field against someone else. While coaches and players understand that the records throughout preseason mean little, fans are clamoring for any bit of football. Worth much or not, it feels good to get excited about this team again.
The next few weeks will answer plenty of questions for the San Francisco 49ers. The roster will start to take shape, starters will be determined and fringe players will be looking for new teams. As much as the roster formation gets noticed, even the entrenched players have something worth playing for in the preseason. Fans are eagerly awaiting anything to be excited about. While the three players mentioned shouldn’t have a hard time making the roster, the success of 2016 largely depends on their improvement and play.