Viewer's Guide Bolts @ 49ers: What to watch

The San Francisco 49ers have to cut down their roster from 90 to 75 Tuesday, meaning Sunday's game against the Chargers could alter the career of many red and gold hopefuls. We take a look at seven key areas in flux that will go a long way towards shaping the roster.

Jim Harbaugh said the sod situation in Levi’s Stadium would not change the way he approaches Sunday’s third preseason game against the Chargers. But he didn’t commit to giving his starters significant playing time customary in the third preseason game, either.

"We’ve got a plan," he said Friday. "And as I’ve said before, it’s not always the unit, it’s not always the starters play a set amount. Individuals have different targets that we’re trying to get in terms of play time."

On defense, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Tramaine Brock have yet to play in the preseason, in which San Francisco has been outscored a combined 57-3 through two games.

The 49ers have been as cautious as ever with their injured players this summer. Willis is working through a minor injury that didn’t prevent him from dressing for warmups last week and offering an emotional pre-game speech at midfield. Smith is coming off shoulder surgery to repair an injury he sustained last training camp. McDonald has been working through a minor lower-body injury but has returned to practice. Brock tweaked an ankle early in camp and had a good showing in practice this week, breaking up a pass and returning an interception for touchdown Wednesday.

Ian Williams’ status also remains up in the air after he returned to practice last week for the first time since undergoing four surgeries to repair his broken ankle suffered in Week 2 last season.

Williams has received glowing reviews since his return to the field.

"He’s looked good right from the beginning, right from the first day he was out there," said Harbaugh. "I think our strength staff, our trainers and doctors have done a great job. And Ian himself, has done a fabulous job. So, it looks good right now, the way he’s practicing."

San Francisco will have to trim the roster from 90 to 75 by 1 p.m. Tuesday, meaning Sunday’s game could cement the fate for a number of players.

Feeling lucky? Here are seven things to watch in the game against San Diego:

Special Teams

At this point, expect the 49ers’ special teams units in the first quarter to be an indicator of favorites to land roster spots. There are a few players who could dramatically alter the way the roster is constructed going forward on special teams. Kassim Osgood and Bubba Ventrone are still productive, but are aging, and could prevent San Francisco from keeping a young player like Kenneth Acker.

C.J. Spillman is also worth watching after playing poorly on defense in the first two preseason games. Spillman’s calling card has been his great coverage on punts and kicks, but Jimmie Ward has been getting time as a gunner as well. If Ventrone makes the team, San Francisco would be hard pressed to keep six safeties, which could be bad news for Spillman. With Antoine Bethea likely out after a concussion last week, Craig Dahl will likely start alongside Eric Reid.

LaMichael James will play, Harbaugh said. But in what capacity remains to be seen. He was the team’s primary punt and kick returner last season, but that job has been handled by rookie Bruce Ellington in his absence. Ellington returned just three punts in college and could use the game experience. On the other hand, James could also afford to knock some rust off after sustaining his dislocated elbow early in camp.

Quarterback

Harbaugh said Friday the order of quarterbacks in the game will not change. That means after Colin Kaepernick it will be Blaine Gabbert, who has completed just 11 of 25 passes for 60 yards with two interceptions. He’s thrown zero touchdown passes, leading to a less-than-impressive passer rating of 17.9.

The cap-savvy 49ers are on the hook for Gabbert’s $2 million whether he’s on the roster or not, so it remains a long shot they go another direction, unless they find a way to trade him. But given his poor play, that isn’t likely. And neither Josh Johnson or McLeod Bethel-Thompson have done anything raise the idea of overtaking him on the depth chart.

It’s difficult to find any bright spots in Gabbert’s game to this point. But inside of 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, he’s completed 9 of 16 throws. However he hasn’t completed a pass of 10 yards or longer, and both his interceptions have come on such throws. Look for the 49ers to try to build Gabbert’s confidence more quick hitters as they did last week.

Inside Linebacker

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has said repeatedly the battle at inside linebacker to replace NaVorro Bowman remains even between Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite. But only one player can start next to Willis, if he plays. It will be clear which direction Fangio is leaning if that’s the case.

Borland received 86 combined snaps over the two preseason games, making eight tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Borland has shown well against the run, but remains a project in pass coverage. He admitted to struggling with assignments last week against Peyton Manning, but ultimately that experience will serve him well going forward.

Wilhoite has also struggled more against the pass than the run, which is notable because if the 49ers wind up employing a platoon system to replace Bowman, they will need Wilhoite to excel in coverage in nickel situations. Look for both Borland and Wilhoite to get plenty of snaps Sunday.

Nick Moody, meanwhile, was on the first-team kick return last week, and is a favorite to land a roster spot over Shayne Skov while Bowman likely starts the season on an injured list.

Offensive Line

Alex Boone’s holdout has lasted nearly a month and it’s allowed Joe Looney to continue to get all his reps with the first team. Looney improved his play Sunday after a hit-or-miss performance in Baltimore, but still needs as much experience as possible if he’s going to be the team’s starting right guard at the start of the season. Part of that lies in developing chemistry with new center Daniel Kilgore, who also needs reps, but has played well enough so far.

Anthony Davis returned to practice this week, but is unlikely to play Sunday. He also underwent offseason shoulder surgery to repair an injury sustained early in the regular season that he played with the entire year. Over the last two weeks, Jonathan Martin has seen his time on at left tackle decrease while getting the majority of work on Davis’ right side. Considering Davis is coming back from an injury and Joe Staley is healthy, getting Martin work on the right side is prudent.

Martin has struggled blocking for the running game, but showed improvement in pass protection last week. Sunday will be another big game for the former Dolphin.

Look for rookie center Marcus Martin to get as many reps as possible after Kilgore. Martin had a nice preseason debut against the Broncos after not playing in Baltimore. Carter Bykowski was elevated to left tackle with the second team and has quietly had a good preseason.

Defensive Line

The 49ers entered last year with five defensive lineman on the 53-man roster. There won't be room for Smith, McDonald, Williams, Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell to all make the team.

Dial and Carradine appear to be locks, while Purcell and Jerod-Eddie are the only linemen with experience at nose tackle behind Williams. That puts Dobbs in an unenviable position, although that could change if there’s an injury. For now, Dobbs looks like the favorite to be traded for a late-round pick, as the San Francisco has done in the past during this point of the preseason.

Dobbs is one of the most athletic of the bunch and has been a regular on special teams. So he will be a player worth watching Sunday. Lawrence Okoye played just one snap in the loss to Denver after sustaining a lower-leg injury against the Ravens. His status is unclear, but he will be another name to follow Sunday considering the league’s rule change to allow 10 players on the practice squad.

Receiver

Harbaugh said Brandon Lloyd is working through an injury, but he was suited up for practice Friday. His status for Sunday’s game is iffy. Lloyd has played well in practice and has earned the trust of Kaepernick, but questions remain about his fit on the roster.

With Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson healthy, would Lloyd even dress on game days if he makes the 53? He doesn’t play special teams, which could be where Osgood slides back into the picture. It’s unlikely the 49ers would keep Lloyd over Ellington or second-year player Quinton Patton.

Lloyd had one reception on three targets while working with the first team Sunday. Kaepernick looked for Lloyd on a deep pass to the end zone on a 3rd-down play Sunday, but couldn't connect.

Lloyd’s best route to a roster spot would be to outplay Johnson and become the No. 3 receiver. Given Johnson’s $16 million due over the next three seasons, that remains a possibility, but is a long-shot at best.

Cornerback

Rookie Kenneth Acker made things interesting with his play against the Broncos last week, perhaps having the best game of any 49ers defender. He had a pass breakup and an interception that was called back.

Given his strong showing, it looks like San Francisco would have a hard time getting Acker to the practice squad. Another good game Sunday could add to the heat he’s already putting on Darryl Morris for a spot on the 53.

Then there’s Chris Cook, who did not play Sunday after suffering an injury during the weekend practice session in Baltimore. Cook returned to practice this week and could use another good showing to cement his status. Otherwise he might be on the wrong side of the bubble given Perrish Cox’s ability to play both the nickel and outside. Fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, but could use a confidence boost after getting beat for a long touchdown by Cody Latimer last week.

With Ward likely playing nickel corner to start the season, the 49ers will have a few interesting decisions to make at cornerback. Is Acker’s potential worth keeping around over Morris, who is the currently the better special teams player? Do they try to sneak Acker to the practice squad? Could they keep both and release Cook? Would they keep six corners?

Corner is one of the most interesting positions on the roster. And not only because Brock and Chris Culliver are entering their first seasons as starers. Sunday's game could provide some answers.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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