The NFL is back and the San Francisco 49ers are laced with sky-high expectations. The team has a franchise quarterback, offensive weapons all over the field and a young rising defense. All of this will be on display tonight when the Niners host the Dallas Cowboys in the first preseason game of the year.
Preseason games, especially week one, aren’t that exciting for the casual fan as the first string usually only play one or two series. Regardless, there are storylines worth following throughout the game.
The first storyline will be the wide receiver battle behind Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin. The Niners have many talented receivers and only two spots are secure right now. Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis, Kendrick Bourne, Aldrick Robinson, Richie James and Aaron Burbridge are all fighting for playing time behind the Niners top two. What has been the case since camp opened is that the Niners will be trading or cutting some very talented receivers.
We know Taylor, Pettis and Bourne will have spots on the team because they were either drafted or on the team last season. Robinson, James and Burbridge will be the guys battling for the final roster spot or two. Kyle Shanahan has a good relationship with Robinson, since he coached him in Atlanta, has praised Burbridge on his special teams ability and had a say in the Niners drafting James in the seventh round of the 2018 draft.
How these receivers play in the preseason might determine who makes the team. My prediction is that James will be kept on the roster or placed on IR like Joe Williams last year in order to keep him around, which means the choice will be between Burbridge and Robinson. At this point it’s too early to tell.
Another position to watch will be at linebacker. With Reuben Foster suspended for the first two games of the 2018 season, two starting spots will be up for grabs between three players. Brock Coyle, Malcolm Smith and Fred Warner will be the guys battling for two starting spots until Foster gets back. Coyle performed well last season, but is much better suited in a back up role, whereas Smith missed last year’s season with a torn pectoral muscle and Warner is a rookie with natural coverage skills and high football IQ.
Preseason and training camp will determine who ends up starting alongside Foster and also in his place. The Niners hope Warner is able to play right away because his coverage ability will allow defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be very aggressive with Foster in blitz packages.
Next, is the cornerback battle. With Richard Sherman sitting out with a hamstring injury, Jimmie Ward is listed as the starter. However, it’s clearly obvious the Niners will trade him if they get another team to take him. Even if he’s not traded, Ward showing he can play outside cornerback will make him a valuable chess piece in this defense.
Ward is the most experienced member of this secondary outside Sherman. Tarvarius Moore, Tarvarus McFadden and DJ Reed are talented, but also rookies. Reed is challenging K’Waun Williams status as the starting nickel back considering how well he is playing. The Niners have depth at the cornerback position, but it is very inexperienced so Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon staying healthy will be imperative for this team.
Some other stories to watch will be Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner. The Niners have been experimenting with Buckner playing as a defensive end and Thomas lining up inside as a three technique. Essentially Buckner is playing the role of the Jacksonville Jaguars Calais Campbell who had 14.5 sacks last season. Thomas is much more comfortable playing inside so if the Niners are effectively able to switch the two players, Buckner and Thomas could help improve the teams pass rush.
Of course, it’s not confirmed if the Niners will line up like this against Dallas or any other team. Just the fact the Niners are experimenting is cause for getting excited.
Another story is the battle along the defensive line to replace Arik Armstead. Armstead, like Ward, is made of glass and is not playing in the preseason opener. Like Ward, he is in the last year of his contract and the Niners have already drafted his replacements. Even with that, he was listed as a starter and it’s disappointing he’s not healthy.
A trendy name at camp is seventh round pick Julian Taylor out of Temple. Taylor has been getting first team reps at both big end and along the interior. Taylor is basically playing Armstead’s role. If Taylor blows up this preseason and Armstead is still unreliable, expect the Niners to try and trade him.
The final position group to keep an eye on is the offensive line. Rookie Mike McGlinchey hasn’t had an easy time in his pro ball transition. He has gotten beat for at least one sack every day of mini-camp and could get off to a little bit of a slow start. Because he is a rookie, it’s important to have an experienced veteran next to him at right guard.
Lynch and Shanahan were hoping Joshua Garnett would be the starting right guard, but like fellow Trent Baalke draft busts Ward and Armstead, Garnett can’t stay healthy. Jonathan Cooper looks to be the man for the job for the time being. Cooper has been an underachiever in his own right, but is a solid veteran presence who should help McGlinchey’s comfort level.
For the hard core NFL fans preseason is a gift because it gives them the opportunity to see some younger players on the field who wouldn’t normally be playing. It also gives fans a good gauge on where the team is regarding familiarity and how ready the team is on both sides of the football.