Key players to watch Thursday night
Two-hundred and twenty-two days, 5,328 hours or 19,180,800 seconds: that’s how long it’s been since we’ve had 49ers football. The wait is finally over and the 49ers host the Dallas Cowboys in the preseason opener for both teams. This will be the first chance for the coaching staff and fans to get their eyes on some rookies as they take the field against a real opponent. While you can’t make the team in the first preseason game, you can definitely play yourself off the roster. We’ll take a look at a few players to keep your eyes on against the Cowboys
Halfback Joe Williams
Williams was considered an elite athlete coming out of Utah with a 4.41 second 40-yard dash packed into a 5’11”, 210-pound frame. During the 2017 preseason Williams showed flashes, carrying the ball 20 times for 130 yards (5.2 yards per carry average). When he’s able to plant his foot and turn upfield he has the explosive speed to get to the second and third level of the defense for big plays. Unfortunately, during last year’s preseason, he also showed a bad habit of putting the ball on the ground. No coach, especially Kyle Shanahan, will tolerate a player that has issues holding onto the ball. Williams was placed on season ending injured reserve, essentially giving him a redshirt year. Williams will be in direct competition with Raheem Mostert for a roster spot. Where Mostert has the edge is his contribution on special teams. Williams will have to show that he’s corrected his propensity to fumble and possibly show some value on special teams.
Wide Receiver Steven Dunbar
Dunbar landed a three-year deal as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Houston following the 2018 draft. He’ll have an uphill climb to earn a roster spot but early indications out of camp seem to suggest that he has the talent to stick on the practice squad. Dunbar’s biggest asset is his height. At 6’3” he’s the tallest receiver on the roster and has shown himself to be an adept route runner. If Dunbar can combine his height and route running ability he may prove himself to be a value target in the red zone during the preseason.
Nose Tackle D.J. Jones
I wrote about Jones in my earlier article previewing the defensive line. I think Jones starts his ascension into the starting line-up tonight against Dallas. Look for Jones to get valuable reps against starters and back-ups as the coaching staff tries to decide if he can be a full-time replacement for Earl Mitchell. Jones shined last year in limited playing time and could be ready to supplant Mitchell as the team’s starting nose tackle.
Defensive End Jullian Taylor
Did the front office find another seventh-round steal? After Arik Armstead’s hamstring injury, the coaching staff inserted Taylor into the vacancy and by all accounts the rookie did well for himself. Working against the starting offense he showed some promise but also made expected rookie mistakes. Taylor had a limited sample size while at Temple, but wowed teams with his physical intangibles: at his pro day he ran a 4.83 40-yard dash and performed 31 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds. With Armstead expected to miss this week, Taylor could see significant playing time against Dallas’ starters and reserves. If it turns out that John Lynch and Adam Peters found another contributor in the seventh round, this rebuild could be done sooner rather than later.
While we won’t see the starters for more than a drive, Thursday will offer us our first chance to get a look at Shanahan and Lynch’s vision for the team heading into year two.
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