The stakes surrounding this game feel oddly high given it’s August. That’s because Jimmy Garoppolo could badly use a good performance in what’s likely his final tuneup before the regular season opener in two weeks in Tampa Bay.
The 49ers say they aren’t remotely worried about their franchise quarterback coming off an ACL tear. But there’s no doubt Kyle Shanahan would sleep better next week if Garoppolo authored a couple touchdown drives after his disappointing performance in Denver, where defenders got hands on his first four pass attempts, including an interception where he overreacted to pressure from Bradley Chubb.
Shanahan said Garoppolo will likely play the entire first half, depending on how it goes. Look for Shanahan to get Garoppolo going by using play action and a bubble screen (or two) to get some easy completions under his belt early on. It’s hard to imagine the pressure Garoppolo would be under entering the regular season if he had another shaky performance.
2. The linebackers will play, but what other starters?
The coaching staff has been encouraged about the performance from its linebackers throughout training camp. Middle linebacker Fred Warner appears poised to take a big leap in his second season while Kwon Alexander looks surprisingly healthy after tearing his ACL last October.
But it remains to be seen what other projected starters will play. DeForest Buckner hasn’t played during the preseason and could make his debut (though Buckner needs August snaps like a shark needs a raincoat). Dee Ford (knee tendinitis) and Nick Bosa (ankle sprain) haven’t practiced since incurring their training camp injuries. They won’t suit up.
Three starting spots appearing to be in question: free safety, “Sam” linebacker and nose tackle. Jimmie Ward returned to practice this week and will battle the surging Tarvarius Moore at free safety. Rookie Dre Greenlaw seems locked in a competitive battle with veteran Malcolm Smith at linebacker. And D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day could be squaring off to play next to Buckner in running situations. Perhaps Saturday could clarify how those battles are going.
3. Will there be anything to learned at receiver?
The receiver battle is clear as mud and will force Shanahan to make some difficult decisions when final cuts are made Aug. 31. There are five apparent locks (Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor). And with Taylor sidelined with a Jones fracture, the 49ers will have to figure out if they want to keep six or seven wideouts.
So where does that leave Jordan Matthews, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James Jr.? All three players are very different – and it’s unclear how many spots are available. Matthews played only a handful of snaps, mostly with the starters, against Denver, which could be a sign the coaching staff likes what it sees. James could be a natural replacement for Taylor both as a slot receiver and return man. Bourne is arguably San Francisco’s best red zone target.
So whom will Shanahan choose? He’d love for Saturday’s game to offer up some answers.
4. What about Garoppolo’s backup?
Shanahan was asked Thursday if he decided on keeping two or three quarterbacks after final cuts.
“No, I haven’t really,” he said. “I know there’s three guys that I’d like to keep, but that has to do with D-linemen, receivers, running backs, safeties, everybody. That’s why you don’t decide until the 53.”
That came after Shanahan on Tuesday hinted at his No. 2 quarterback being apparent following final cuts, which would indicate he’s learning towards keeping two.
Nick Mullens started the exhibition opener and C.J. Beathard was the first to replace Garoppolo in Denver – and both have split reps with the second string throughout practice. If Shanahan is leaning one way or another, he’s keeping his thoughts close to the chest.
Given that, it would make sense for Mullens to replace Garoppolo on Saturday and give Beathard the start in the exhibition finale next Thursday.
5. Practice squad possibilities
The 49ers think they have their deepest roster since the Shanahan-John Lynch regime took over, which means they might have a hard time sneaking players through waivers and onto the practice squad.
Defensive lineman Kevin Givens, an undrafted rookie from Penn State, played well against Denver while getting the start. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has impressed with his play and health after tearing his ACL and MCL last October.
The trio of recent sixth-round draft picks all appear on the roster bubble and could be headed to the practice squad. Tackle Justin Skule has struggled but offers depth at an important position. Tight end Kaden Smith seems locked in a tight battle with veteran Levine Toilolo and Ross Dwelley. Cornerback Tim Harris injured his calf against the Broncos and didn’t practice during the week. He might not have a chance to improve his stock this weekend.
6. Can any defensive linemen make the jump?
We mentioned Givens, but he’s not the only defensive lineman playing well early in the preseason. Jeremiah Valoaga leads the team with 2.5 sacks. Jay Bromley was credited with two sacks Monday. Damontre Moore is tied with Valoaga and Bromley for the team lead with four quarterback hits.
None of those three are likely to make it amid the team’s talented and deep group of defensive linemen. But that could change if any more injuries pop up.
7. Will Mitch Wishnowsky hit anyone else?
A great way for a rookie punter to quell controversy about being a fourth-round draft pick is to smack return men with perfect tackling technique.
Here’s to hoping Wishnowsky can break up the monotony of a preseason game with another big hit.
8. Return of offensive linemen
Najee Toran, an undrafted free agent in 2018, is San Francisco’s fourth choice to start at right guard. But he played with the first string Monday due to injuries to Mike Person (foot) and Joshua Garnett (dislocated finger) while Ben Garland played center to replace Weston Richburg.
The good news for San Francisco: Person and Garnett returned to practice this week and could play Saturday to better protect Garoppolo from pressure up front. Garnett appears to be on the roster bubble after missing some two weeks after undergoing surgery.
Richburg has continued to ramp up his workouts and is on track to practice next week. Barring anything unforeseen, the 49ers are expecting to have their starting offensive line intact for Week 1.
9. What to do at tight end?
George Kittle returned to the practice field Thursday after missing the past two weeks with a minor calf injury. But he’s unlikely to play Saturday, which means more time for Dwelley, Toilolo, Smith and Tyree Mayfield. Dwelley has been consistent throughout camp, though he was the target on three of Garoppolo’s five interceptions last week.
Toilolo missed roughly a week with a shoulder injury but returned to practice this week. Toilolo has missed just one game in five seasons, giving him a clear experience advantage over Dwelley and Smith. Mayfield’s versatility to play fullback makes him a strong practice squad candidate.
Unfortunately, injuries have popped up in both preseason games. Reserve tackle Shon Coleman was lost for the year with a broken fibula and dislocated ankle in the opener. Reserve receiver Shawn Poindexter suffered a season-ending knee injury in Denver. Safety Adrian Colbert tweaked his hamstring.
The 49ers had nine players miss practice Thursday with injuries: Ford, Bosa, running back Jerick McKinnon (ACL recovery), safety Adrian Colbert (hamstring), linebacker Elijah Lee (hand), defensive lineman Jullian Taylor (back), receiver Trent Taylor (foot), corner Jason Verrett (ankle) and defensive back K’Waun Williams (knee).
San Francisco badly needs that list to shrink, not grow.