49ers vs. Saints: Ten things to watch

The Jim Harbaugh era – exhibition style – begins Friday in the closed confines of the Louisiana Superdome, and it will be a new-look team of 49ers that takes the field against the established, veteran-led New Orleans Saints. With the Niners, there are manifold things to look for here and watch for there, and here's 10 primary items to keep an eye on as the long-awaited preseason finally kicks off.

Colin's cool

Two weeks of training camp practices pretty much have established that Colin Kaepernick possesses a big-league arm and, at 6-foot-5, a towering presence that allows him to stand tall in the pocket and see easily over the line of scrimmage and view the entire field. Those are two vital tools for a quarterback. But how well the rookie second-round draft pick responds to his first NFL test with "live bullets" coming his way, as coaches like to say, will be a great indicator of how much progress he's really made in his professional cram course at QB, and how close he actually is to contributing at the position this year. We'll certainly have a better idea after Friday night, because Kaepernick figures to get a heavy dose of action and play more than any San Francisco QB in his pro debut. Kaepernick has looked like a pretty cool QB so far, but tonight there will be no coaches blowing whistles when defenders get in his face.

McKillop or no McKillop?

Scott McKillop's slipping status as a 49er was first revealed earlier this week when the team's first depth chart of 2011 had the young veteran listed third at the inside TED linebacker position behind presumed starter NaVorro Bowman and newcomer Larry Grant, who just joined the Niners off the waiver wire near the end of July. That could have been explained by McKillop missing several recent practices due to an undisclosed injury. But then, curiously, McKillop's name popped up on the 49ers' team page on NFL.com, which listed him as getting cut by the team on Thursday. The 49ers quickly denied releasing McKillop, and his name has since been removed from the transactions list on that team page. On his @smckillop56 twitter account, McKillop tweeted earlier Friday morning, "believe none of what you hear and half of what you see." So, if you see McKillop on the field against the Saints, believe that he's still on the team, or at least half believe it.


There will be one Smith to watch in particular on each side of the ball for the 49ers. On offense, see if you notice anything different about Alex Smith, who has exhibited a certain change in his demeanor since taking charge this spring and organizing 49ers player workouts during the lockout. Smith is far ahead of Kaepernick in the technical aspects of running San Francisco's offense, and he looks calmer and more comfortable in the pocket than he ever has before. It's a clean slate for Smith under Harbaugh, and he'll be eager to make a good first impression on his new coach on the night the real competition at quarterback actually begins.

… and Smith

The long arm of the law breaks loose from the posse on Friday, which is an exaggerated way of saying that rousing rookie Aldon Smith and his seven-foot wingspan are about to be unleashed upon the offenses of the NFL, and quarterbacks everywhere need beware. If he continues to develop as a pass rusher at the rate he's displayed during his first two weeks as a professional, San Francisco's first-round draft pick indeed is destined to become the impact edge rusher the 49ers have needed for their 3-4 defensive system since Mike Nolan first installed it in 2005. For a 21-year-old rookie, there's a certain amount of hype surrounding Smith as he makes his pro debut, and now comes his chance to show everybody whether that hype is more than just a concoction of those close to the 49ers.

The play relay

Harbaugh already has talked a few times about how play transmission in the NFL is different than it is in college, where quarterbacks typically get their play calls from the hand signals of coaches. The system is a bit more advanced in the NFL, where quarterbacks have headsets in their helmets that transmit plays from the sidelines, so Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman must adapt to the technological upgrade and find what works best for them. This is essential, because the 49ers looked like fools last year when coaches had trouble getting plays into Alex Smith in the season opener at Seattle, as though the Niners didn't have enough time to prepare for that before the season began. Those kind of communication breakdowns are real in the NFL, where timing is everything, so if the preseason is to be the new coaching staff's trial-and-error period, now is the time to start getting it right.

Show it off or keep it simple?

You just know that Harbaugh wants to give everybody a peak of his version of the West Coast offense that was so effective and brought him coaching fame at Stanford, and he needs to see how up to speed his team is in it after such an impacted learning and preparation stage this summer. At the same time, Harbaugh is well aware the preseason is no time to give away offensive tricks and tendencies. But he has to find out where exactly his offensive players are on the learning curve, and that will require more than just running a bunch of vanilla plays. How much we see of shifting formations and players in motion Friday could be indicative of how much we can expect those to be regular staples of Harbaugh's offense.

Hot time on the corner

The 49ers have a lot of key new faces in their revamped secondary, but even if free safety Dashon Goldson doesn't play Friday (and he almost certainly won't), the Niners will have some veteran experience and leadership to get things started at the safety position in newcomers Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams. That's not necessarily the case at cornerback, where veteran newcomer Carlos Rogers will make his 49ers debut as the starter on one side, but the team is missing two of its top veterans – Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown – on the other side. Those holdovers are nursing injuries and are likely to watch from the sidelines, leaving a prime opportunity for third-round draft pick Chris Culliver to step in and get a heavy dose of accelerated development. Culliver has looked good in camp, but the competition is about to take a serious upgrade when he faces the Saints and the NFL's No. 3 passing attack from 2010. This will be a chance also for Phillip Adams to show he's ready to get back into the cornerback mix after his devastating ankle injury at the end of last season.

An A-Mays-ing audition?

Would it be a total surprise to see the 49ers showcase safety Taylor Mays, sending the second-year pro onto the Superdome's plastic turf for extended playing time after giving him the cold shoulder pad for extended periods of training camp? The word is out that the Niners are shopping their 2010 second-round draft pick around the NFL, and even though San Francisco's depth chart shows Mays listed as the team's third-string strong safety and he has practiced regularly with reserve units during summer camp, Mays could find himself thrust into a more prominent role tonight to pump up his value. And who knows? Maybe Mays will shine under the bright lights enough for the 49ers to actually want to keep him.

Hole in the middle

The 49ers will be without the big-bodied mainstay that has anchored the front wall of their defense the past four years, and also without the player they have targeted to replace him. Aubrayo Franklin will now be on the other side of the football playing for the Saints after performing admirably the past four seasons as San Francisco's starting nose tackle. Isaac Sopoaga – who will slide over from left end to become the 49ers' new nose tackle this year – has yet to practice this summer due to a leg injury. The nose position is so crucial to the overall operation in San Francisco's defensive system, and now it is being manned by undersized Ricky Jean Francois, who already has been overworked during training camp because of the Sopoaga's absence. How well Francois and a couple of undrafted rookies can hold down the fort until Sopoaga returns could determine whether the 49ers need to think about bringing in some help here before the summer gets much longer.

Cameos or extended stays?

Since this is Harbaugh's first preseason game as a NFL head coach, he never has had to balance the desire to give front-line players the work they need but also keep them fresh and healthy for the rigors waiting down the road. Harbaugh has given indications that he plans to give his starters some real work, and since he's implementing new systems with a new coaching staff and trying to make up for lost time after missing an entire offseason of on-field preparation, it's not illogical reasoning. But how much of Frank Gore or Patrick Willis does anybody really need to see at this stage of the 2011 grind? Some teams leave certain key veterans on the bench the entire preseason, so coaches must decide how much of a look they need at some veterans who have very little to prove until the real games begin.

Niners Digest Top Stories