The 49ers took some final steps Sunday toward completing the team they'll put back on the practice field Tuesday to begin preparation for next week's season opener, including the surprising move of adding another rookie QB to their 53-man roster. We break down that move and several other interesting decisions the 49ers have made while cutting down to their final roster.
The QB shuffle: Two rookie backups
No doubt about it, Scott Tolzien
looked pretty darn sharp driving through the 49ers' reserve defenders for most of Thursday night's preseason finale at San Diego, completing 16 of 23 passes for 226 yards and standing up to a pounding that included five sacks. But were the 49ers perhaps a little too overly impressed by the undrafted rookie? They snapped up Tolzien on Sunday after he cleared waivers following his release by the Chargers, who kept only two QBs on their final roster. That gives San Francisco two unproven rookies who have yet to play a NFL snap as the backups to Alex Smith
entering the season, which pretty much sounds like an all-in bet on Smith being able to handle the position at least deep into the season. That is, unless another move is coming to bring in a veteran QB, which would make today's move with Tolzien illogical. Releasing veteran Josh McCown
on Saturday and now signing the 24-year-old Tolzien reeks of a team that is building for the future at the game's most important position, leaving it all on Smith's shoulders to carry the 49ers to success this year. Good luck with that one.
Too good to let go: 11 rookies make squad
Tolzien is the 11th rookie the 49ers are carrying on their final roster, which includes eight of the team's draft picks. The biggest surprise among those has to be sixth-rounder Colin Jones
, who did little to distinguish himself in the secondary this summer and wasn't a sure tackler on special teams, units of which the 49ers drafted him to be a core member. Less of a surprise – or perhaps no surprise at all – was the 49ers keeping undrafted rookie free agents Demarcus Dobbs
and Ian Williams
along their defensive line. That forced the Niners to go light at other positions, but it was the right decision because these two promising youngsters were too good this summer to let go and both show a lot of potential to be developed within one of San Francisco's strongest positional units. "We did (go) a little heavy there on the defensive line," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We felt (Dobbs and Williams) earned a spot. We feel like they have a very good upside. That's a tough position to find in the National Football League – those big bodies, so we were pleased. There were men who earned their way onto the roster and made decisions very difficult, but that's what we decided to go with."
Specialty slots: Going heavy in kicking game
Jones was one of three individuals who made the final roster almost specifically because the 49ers envision them being major players on special teams. That is particularly true for Jones, who is the team's sixth safety and might not see one snap of action at that position this season. Linebacker Blake Costanzo
and safety C.J. Spillman also are way down the depth chart but could suit up ahead of players above them on Sundays because of what they offer in the kicking game. "Yes, yes we expect them to be in uniform," Harbaugh said. "They're picked with the idea of being on the 46. In the National Football League, you've got to win two out of the three phases to win a game, and we want to be strong on special teams. That's a sign that we want to be strong on special teams." Costanzo moved from third-string to backup status at inside linebacker on Sunday when the Niners released second-year veteran Keaton Kristick
to make room on the roster for Tolzien. Keeping both Spillman and Jones on the roster leaves the 49ers with 11 defensive backs, a high number.
Backfield busters: Miller, Hunter fill key roles
The 49ers' decision to have two rookies among their five keepers at running back indicates they will be counting heavily on fourth-round draft pick Kendall Hunter
and seventh-rounder Bruce Miller
to perform key roles both within their offense and on special teams. Hunter, the NFL's preseason rushing champion with 231 yards, will assume the No. 2 role at halfback behind Frank Gore
and also will be involved in returning kickoffs. Miller will have a multi-faceted role that will include time at fullback, H-Back and also on special teams. "He is definitely going to be a swing guy in that regard for us," Harbaugh said. Miller's versatility threatened to push veteran fullback Moran Norris
off the final roster, but the 49ers wisely kept Norris to give them several mix-and-match options at fullback ahead of Gore, Hunter and Anthony Dixon
The practice squad: Rookie rewards
The 49ers rewarded the hard work and promising summer development of six other undrafted rookie free agents by signing them back to the team's practice squad Sunday. Center Chase Beeler
, offensive lineman Derek Hall
, wide receiver Joe Hastings, cornerback Cory Nelms, tight end Konrad Reuland
and linebacker Monte Simmons all will get an opportunity to extend their careers with the 49ers, along with third-year veteran running back Xavier Omon
, who was impressive during the preseason and might have stuck on the final roster had the Niners decided to keep four halfbacks and instead of two fullbacks. The 49ers still have one spot open on their practice squad, and that appears likely to go to Kristick if he clears waivers.