Image Credit: Syan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
At 5 pm PDT Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers will open up their four-game preseason schedule against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. It will be the first opportunity for the team, mostly second stringers, to show how they are coming along this offseason. There are some pretty for-sure absolutes that you won’t see.
Jimmy Garoppolo will not put on a helmet. Most likely, neither will Deforest Buckner, Dee Ford, and possibly Richard Sherman. With recent ankle injuries to Nick Bosa and Jason Verrett, the fans won’t get their first look at a couple of new additions to the team. With McKinnon out indefinitely at the moment, one would expect to see a lot less of Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman than the rest of the running backs on the roster. So without the starters, what should fans watch for in this first sneak peak of the 49ers roster?
The Quarterback Collection
As much as some people like to try and create a QB controversy between Garoppolo and second-year undrafted free agent Nick Mullins, it doesn’t exist. Garoppolo is the clear starter, with Mullins and second-year third-round draft pick C.J. Beathard battling for the second spot behind him. What will this mean for this Saturday’s game? Shanahan has already stated that Garoppolo will only play in the second and third preseason games, so expect Mullins to get the start. Maybe only a quarter from him though, with Beathard taking over at the start of the second quarter, so that Shanahan can evaluate them against semi-equal defensive personnel.
This also means expect maybe a whole half of Wilton Speight, a UDFA out of UCLA this year. If the team decides to cut loose and trade either Mullins or Beathard, they would have to feel comfortable with Speight being its emergency third string quarterback sitting on their practice squad.
The Battle Out Wide
It can be assumed that Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, Deebo Samuels, and Jalen Hurd are locks to make the 53-man roster, barring a preseason trade. That’s five receivers. Teams don’t often carry more than six WRs on their 53, and it would be especially rare for a team poised to carry six RBs including their fullback. This means that Kendrick Bourne, Richie James Jr., and Jordan Matthews are all in a dogfight for the sixth and final WR spot. Expect those three and Jalen Hurd to see a large amount of minutes this first preseason game.
Don’t expect to see Shanahan show his hand and put Hurd in a bunch of end around formations. The first preseason game isn’t for razzle-dazzle. Don’t expect Kittle to spend much time on field, either.
Fans who are deep into the Hurd-as-a-tight-end conspiracy need to watch how the backup TEs do. The main benefit the team would have using Hurd this way, would be that it would free up a roster spot and allow the team to only keep two, therefore making room for a seven WR. Fans interested in this debate should see if the fullback Kyle Juszczyk lines up at TE at all to help fill that role. The team also has to become comfortable with either Kaden Smith or Ross Dwelley as a semi-prominent role in their offense.
A lot will go into what the team chooses to do at the WR position.
A Shell of a Defensive Performance
As stated earlier, don’t expect Buckner, Bosa (especially after going down during Wednesday’s practice), Ford, or Sherman to play any snaps. New linebacker Kwon Alexander will probably be on a snap count, but the second- and third-string defensive lineman, both interior and off the edge, will be trying to put on a show and earn a roster spot. Easily the deepest position group on the team, there will be some very good defensive lineman not making the team.
Guys like Sheldon Day, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, D.J. Jones, Julian Taylor, Kentavius Street, Malcolm Smith, Elijah Lee, and Dre Greenlaw will be making their next step to proving they should be listed one or two on their respective depth charts.
With Sherman most likely sitting out and Jason Verrett hurting his ankle in Wednesday’s practice, Ahkello Witherspoon will get a great opportunity to prove himself as the cornerback who should start opposite Sherman. The battle between Adrian Colbert and Tavarius Moore (plus Jimmie Ward, when he gets healthy again), is the other big battle of the defensive backfield.
The Whole Team is Special
Kicker Robbie Gould and punter Mitch Wishnowsky are locks to be on the 53 man roster all season, barring an injury. Long snapper Colin Holba will start at least until Kyle Nelson completes his suspension. So where is the drama in special teams?
Pay attention to who the gunners are and how they do. This is actually to do with the RB depth chart. Raheem Mostert, listed as RB3 currently, has made his living as one of the top gunners in the NFL. With him showing such an improvement as a runner last season before his broken arm, General Manager John Lynch could choose to sell high with this commodity.
Watch Richie James Jr., too. His path to the roster may be to show his electricity in special teams. He needs to show the crisp route running he was showing in training camp during a live game.
The Day-After Daze
No matter what, ignore whatever is said on Sunday. Some players will perform on queue, others won’t. The first week of preseason is more of setting the stage than actual rising action. Week 2 with the majority of the starters playing is all that matters come Sunday.
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