It feels like just last week the San Francisco 49ers were cleansing the agonizing sins of a two-win season from their soul. The organization hired a new general manager and head coach, and immediately 49ers fans wanted the hot rays of August sun to thaw them from February’s icy grip. Now, Gentle Reader, Providence rewards your patience, and the 49ers play their first preseason game in just a few days.
Here are five players to watch this Friday when the 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs.
5. QB C.J. Beathard
Once Washington placed the franchise tag on QB Kirk Cousins, the logical quarterback to lead the 49ers' offense this fall was Brian Hoyer. The 49ers solidified that idea when they signed Hoyer on March 9 and then signed QB Matt Barkley as a backup on March 10. There was still a seat at the table for a third quarterback, and the question that danced upon everyone’s tongue was who and when.
In the third round of this year’s draft, the 49ers responded to our question and selected QB C.J. Beathard from Iowa.
Hoyer’s preseason time is going to be limited and just enough to shake off the rust. He'll start, but won't get as many snaps as the other quarterbacks.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Beathard was going to give Barkley a run for the second string position, and ultimately win the job. Shanahan commented that both Beathard and Barkley are even in practice repetitions, making the real quarterback competition this Friday when the sun meets the western horizon.
As you watch the Battle of Beathard and Barkley, please consider who:
Has a greater on-the-field understanding of the offense
Runs the offense like a field general, specifically the four and two-minute offenses
Finds the second or third receiver in a progression
4. S Vinnie Sunseri
If you play safety for the 49ers, you’ve had a rough training camp. Between typical soreness, the safety position has seen hamstring tweaks, rolled ankles and bad ribs. One mainstay in camp has been Vinnie Sunseri, a favorite of the Boise 49ers crew.
The 49ers signed Sunseri last fall when the Patriots released him from their practice squad. In late November, the 49ers promoted Sunseri to the active roster to fill in gaps for players named on a very long injured reserve list.
Today, Sunseri finds himself in a similar position, taking advantage of key injuries to make a case for himself to earn a 53-man roster spot. He also has the athletic ability to play on special teams and roll up in the box to attack the run game. Sunseri can make the team as a reliable rotation guy starting on Friday.
3. WR Trent Taylor
It seems each camp there’s a receiver that makes the Twitter-verse ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ from their smartphones. This year, it’s rookie Trent Taylor. The 49ers' beat writers have provided fans with excellent clips of Taylor making toe-tapping catches and embarrassing 49ers defensive backs on a dig or an out route.
Friday’s game will put Taylor up against real competition, and provide fans a good look at how Shanahan uses the slot receiver in his offense. Expect Shanahan to call on Taylor to run drive routes across the field or jerk routes that take Taylor a few steps toward an inside linebacker, and then immediately into an open flat.
2. LB Reuben Foster
Let’s face a fact: We’re watching Friday night to see LB Reuben Foster. Even if Malcolm Smith didn’t tear his pectoral this past weekend, we’d still flip on the television to finally see Foster line up in that gorgeous red jersey and wreak total devastation in the Chiefs’ backfield.
Friday is now a bigger day in Foster’s young career, as Smith’s injury creates questions for Foster and the 49ers.
How quickly can Foster play at this level?
Can he take on a leadership role?
What’s his understanding of Robert Saleh’s defense?
Is Shanahan comfortable with accelerating Foster’s career quickly?
The shoulder has been fine in practice, but how will it hold up in a game and over a season?
1. DT D.J. Jones
The 49ers drafted D.J. Jones from Ole Miss in the sixth round of this year’s draft. I’ve seen his name pop up in a few reports discussing his ability and how quickly he’s learning DC Robert Saleh’s defense.
The 49ers are set to have a stellar defensive line this season, and now it’s up to Jones to secure himself a spot in the rotation. Before the draft, Jones said he could play at the nose or in a three-technique, and his scouting report stated he could “flourish as a one-gapping nose with three-down ability.” Jones finds himself in a one-gapping defense that’s ideal for his skillset. Jones will need to outplay veterans like Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial to make the roster this season.