Life in a Bubble Jungle; Now Leaving Town*: Players on the 49ers Roster Bubble
Looming off in the distant horizon you may hear growing cries of impending football doom. After two weeks of preseason games, the San Francisco 49ers and the other 31 professional football franchises are taking a hard look at the 90-man roster and will have to start trimming it down meet upcoming deadlines.
Right now, there are roughly 2,880 men listed on a roster; by the time preseason ends 1,184 of them will have heard their coach kill a lifelong dream with one sharp sentence: We've decided to let you go.
Already, it’s clear the 49ers have many players dancing on the bubble of glory or defeat. Here are three men who must play superb football for the next two weeks.
Tight End Cole Hikutini
As a San Joaquin Valley native, I am always happy to see fellow Valley players succeed in the NFL. Hikutini, who attended Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove and played a year for Sacramento State, is a player I’ve hoped would succeed for the 49ers.
When the 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent last year, I thought a 6’5” tight end would be an ideal addition to head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The Y-receiver has evolved over the last 18 years; offenses now want someone who’s a utility man - someone who can flex out wide, motion to the backfield, outjump a strong safety and create running lanes for the backs.
Unfortunately, Hikutini has shown zero ability to run block during the preseason. I’ve noted him missing blocks or delivering zero effort to move any of the opposing team out of the way to clear a run late.
It’s not just Hikutini, but all of the 49ers reserve tight ends have struggled with run blocking during the preseason. While rookie Ross Dwelley and second-year tight end Cole Wick didn’t have a shot to make the roster, Hikutini was ideally placed to back up Garrett Celek and George Kittle this year.
Running quality routes and making catches is only half the job of a tight end. Hikutini can catch the ball and he understands Shanahan’s system; he just can’t perform the other half of his role, and that will cost him a spot on the final roster.
Running Back Joe Williams
Last season, rookie Joe Williams hardly got a taste of the NFL before getting hurt and ending up on injured reserve. During the offseason, his name was brought up often as a possible third running back for the 49ers.
Williams hasn’t made the most of his opportunities through the first two weeks of the preseason. His current rib injury aside, he bobbled a pass from quarterback Nick Mullins late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s contest against Houston. The bobble resulted in a Texans interception, killing the 49ers’ drive.
Further, Williams hasn’t shown much when running the ball. Though, we must be honest and note that the 49ers' ground attack as a whole has not put the fear of God into anyone thus far.
But preseason work is all about opportunity. Even if a player is stuck running behind an offensive line that looks like a fishing net, he has to create something from nothing. Williams hasn’t done enough to make a case for himself to make the roster.
It's possible Williams finds himself on injured reserve again, or the team will find a way to dump him into the free agent pool after the final preseason game.
Defensive Back Jimmie Ward
I don’t know whether to feel bad for fifth-year veteran Jimmie Ward or curse the lingering ghost of Trent Baalke for drafting him.
It's probably a little bit of both as I don’t remember the last time I saw a fifth-year player have such a hard time playing football.
Ward is another player who’s had the opportunity to become a leader in the secondary, but injuries and a lack of talent have kept him from exceeding. This preseason, he has often looked lost in the coverage scheme and forgot all the basic fundamentals of playing defensive back. Take a look at the last two games and pause the tape when the receiver hits the apex of the route; Ward often looks entirely out of position and off-balance.
I don’t envy the position general manager John Lynch is in with Ward; he might be able to trade Ward, but he’d be lucky to get a below average player or anything higher than a late third-round draft choice. However, it’s clear the defensive scheme doesn’t fit Ward’s style of play, so keeping him in the line-up may hurt the team down the road.
Unless Ward can play perfect football during the third and fourth preseason games, I do not expect him to make the final roster in September.
*h/t Serj Tankian.
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