The San Francisco 49ers open their preseason slate Thursday night in Baltimore and are expected to keep things as vanilla as possible. With three more exhibition games still to come, the main objective will be to remain healthy.
That aside, there are still a number of ongoing positions battles that could go unresolved in the coming weeks leading up to the regular season opener in Dallas Sept. 7. Thursday will provide the first significant bullet point in that process. It will also give rookies their chance to make a positive first impression in a game situation.
Here’s your viewer’s guide to Thursday night’s tilt against the Ravens:
It’s hard not to hear to the praise heaped on Carlos Hyde from his head coach during practice. During a number of his runs - all of which go mostly un-defended - Jim Harbaugh has been heard belting adulations that echo off the fences surrounding the 49ers compound in Santa Clara.
But Thursday’s runs against the Ravens will be defended, and Hyde will have his first chance to show off his physical running style that made him attractive enough to San Francisco to take him in the second round of May's draft. Given the injuries to Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, however, Hyde will likely see only a handful of carries. But that handful will be worth keeping an eye on given the boom-or-bust nature of running backs drafted in the early rounds. Jewel Hampton, Alfonso Smith and Glenn Winston will likely get the majority of carries.
Justin Smith has yet to practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. But the way he’s lifting weights while the rest of the team practices would lead you to believe he could play if the regular season began Sunday. And with Ray McDonald in a similar situation while dealing with his leg injury, reserves Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie will get ample time to back up their solid performances in 2013.
Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie will likely get the work with the starters Thursday. But look for second-year players Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial to get the majority of the work throughout the game. Carradine didn’t play at all in 2013 while Dial played 19 snaps over three games. Those two, along with Lawrence Okoye, have a lot to gain in the preseason as they push for playing when the regular season comes around.
Okoye is far ahead of where he was at this point of 2013 and figures to get far more snaps than his 18 he received last August. He should see an increase in the second half as he continues to learn to play defensive end. Mike Purcell is also a player worth watching at nose tackle, where Dial should also get some work as well.
Anquan Boldin will likely play, but do so sparingly. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which there’s football to be played and he doesn’t participate. With Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd out, expect the 49ers to be cautious with Stevie Johnson as well. That will pave the way for Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, David Reed and Devon Wylie to get the majority of playing time.
Patton has had a strong camp after being unable to catch passes this time last year while dealing with a broken finger. He’ll look to make a strong impression among the team’s deep receiving corps. Look for Ellington to play mostly in the slot and work as the primary punt and kick returner. Ellington has had a solid camp since coming back from his ankle injury that kept him out early.
Perhaps the most up-for-grabs battle at camp. Coordinator Vic Fangio has said he’s no where close to finding Bowman’s replacement. It could come from just one guy playing in both base and nickel situations, or it could be mix-and-match of Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland and/or Nick Moody.
The early takeaway from the start of camp is the job is Wilhoite’s to lose. However Borland could play his way into a more prominent role, particularly in base or running situations. Moody is the most athletic of the three, but faces the steepest learning curve after playing safety at Florida State. Shayne Skov will be in the mix, as will Blake Costanzo. However Costanzo’s ticket to a roster spot will come via his play on special teams, where Moody also shined during his college days.
Fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson has had an up-and-down camp. But he has the look of a player that could benefit greatly from being allowed to play physically. He’s tall and long, which should allow him to excel in press coverage, which the 49ers have not done a lot of in training camp. Look for Johnson and Chris Cook to get long looks in Thursday’s game.
The team feels pretty good about Perrish Cox and his ability to play both outside and inside at nickel. With Tramaine Brock dealing with an ankle injury and Chris Culliver coming in and out of practice over the last week with a minor injury, the 49ers won’t want to expose Cox too much. That will allow first-round pick Jimmie Ward to get his first long look at nickel before he likely moves to safety later in the game. Ward has spent time working at safety with the second unit behind Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid, neither of whom are likely to play more than a series or two.
When healthy, the 49ers have some real depth along the offensive line. But with Anthony Davis still recovering from his offseason shoulder surgery, Marcus Martin just a week removed from his return from his ankle injury and Jonathan Martin working his way back from mononucleosis in the spring, there are plenty of question marks along the o-line heading into the preseason.
Throw in Alex Boone’s holdout with Joe Looney’s ascension to a starting role and suddenly one of the league’s premier units is in serious flux. Oh, and Daniel Kilgore is starting at center for the first time.
Things should even out with the return of Davis and the improved physical status of the Martins by the time the regular season rolls around. But the first two groups of offensive linemen will be worth a close watch in Baltimore.
If you get up to grab a refreshment, you might miss Kaepernick. But if you’ve been waiting to see if Blaine Gabbert can reinvent himself in San Francisco, Thursday night will be your first opportunity. Look for Gabbert to get as much time with the 49ers No. 1 offensive line group (relatively speaking) as possible as he looks to get comfortable in his new surroundings (or more importantly: not subject himself to a bruising behind the reserve offensive line).
Gabbert has had a good camp and still has the tools that made him the No. 10-overall selection in 2011. Thursday night will be his first shot at proving he’s a capable quarterback after an offseason of tutelage from Harbaugh. McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Josh Johnson figure to split snaps in the second half.
With Aldon Smith meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell Friday, the 49ers will want their reserves to get some playing time to prepare for a potential suspension to start the regular season. Smith has been awfully good in training camp to this point so his shoes won’t be easily filled. But with a full season under Corey Lemonier’s belt, the next step in his development will be to play in base situations and not just nickel. Dan Skuta held down that spot in base situations in 2013 when Smith was on his leave of absence, rotating with Lemonier.
The wild card of the group is rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch, who will likely get a lot of snaps in the second half. Lynch has upside, but has practiced for less than a week. He’ll have his first chance to put his potential on display Thursday.
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