The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in a peculiar situation heading into their first preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. They are right at the beginning of their rebuild of the franchise. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is installing his proven offense and Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh is installing a simpler Seahawks-style 4-3 defense. Neither of these systems are close to the read-option offense Chip Kelly ran last year and the 3-4 defense the team has used for the last several years.
The (remaining) veterans as well as the rookies coming in have had a hectic time trying to get used to these new systems, almost to the point where it feels like they’ve been playing catch up from the start. That leaves the team in the situation they are in currently: Stuck between trying to evaluate players with the intention of cutting down to the final 53-man roster, and trying to get perceived starters as many reps as possible.
General Manager John Lynch spoke with KNBR's Larry Krueger on August 3rd to discuss this very topic and essentially said that they may play these perceived starters longer than normal:
“I think guys that will play less, but we’re a new new group. And so we understand that even though we have some guys that have kind of earned that right, we need them to play, because we need to evaluate the team as a whole. And so, I think there will be some guys who play less, and some of that may be health-related, but really Kyle and I have talked about, ‘hey we need snaps.’ So, probably playing more than a traditional team in the preseason.”
These comments mixed with some of the recent injuries the team has sustained could lead to some players playing quite a bit longer than normal.
In the past, teams have been forced to trim their 90-man camp roster to 75 players ahead of the final preseason game. That had led to teams traditionally playing their starters usually only 1-2 drives to allow the coaches to get a better look at players lower down on the depth chart. As of this year, though, teams are now allowed to carry their full 90-man roster until after the final preseason game. This will allow these players farther down the depth chart a better chance to be seen, and allows coaches to better evaluate the players they have.
Coming up Friday, I’m expecting the starters to play at least one full quarter. This is the type of game-play that starters didn’t get until usually around the third preseason game. Established players like LT Joe Staley and LB NaVorro Bowman will likely play slightly less than this, as they likely won’t need many of the extra reps. Players like TE Vance McDonald may get a little more playing time, not for the need of extra reps but more likely as a showcase for potential trade partners.
It will be interesting to watch the 49ers play on Friday and not just couch evaluate the players but see who plays for how long, and try and see what the coaches see.