In the final preseason game Thursday in Houston, three days after the 49ers trimmed the roster from 90-75, there might be more to take away from seeing who doesn’t play than who does.
The 49ers have proven to this point they aren’t overly concerned with getting their players on the field this preseason. And that won’t change with the regular season opener 10 days from Thursday’s exhibition finale. There will even be second stringers the team won't risk to injury.
When projecting the roster, there's a handful of roster spots up for grabs. The 49ers have remained relatively healthy, all things considered. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey are expected to be the team’s only starters to miss significant chunks of the regular season. That, of course, is not including Alex Boone, who continues to hold out while looking for a new contract.
Safety Antoine Bethea returned to practice this week after sustaining a concussion in the second preseason games against the Broncos. LaMichael James returned from his dislocated elbow sooner than expected, playing 23 snaps against the Chargers Sunday.
Here are a few areas to watch in Thursday’s always-riveting fourth preseason game:
Jim Harbaugh said he expects Colin Kaepernick to play this week, likely just a possession or two, before turning things over Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson. The team released fourth QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson Monday, who remains a practice squad possibility.
Gabbert is likely to get a majority of the playing time as he looks to build on what he did against the Chargers when he led a touchdown drive at the end of the first half. Gabbert’s guaranteed $2 million salary makes it very unlikely he gets usurped by Johnson for the backup job. The 49ers will want a good showing from Gabbert, but also hope it’s his last opportunity to get prolonged playing time this year.
The depth on San Francisco’s roster means it’s unlikely the team keeps three quarterbacks, especially considering the situation at offensive line (more on that later). Johnson is likely auditioning for a spot on another team’s roster.
There’s intrigue at the bottom of the depth chart at cornerback. The 49ers have seven viable options for the 53-man roster. The pleasant surprise of the group has been sixth-round pick Kenneth Acker, who backed up a strong camp with a good showing against the Broncos in the second preseason game. The question becomes whether or not he’s done enough to overtake Darryl Morris, who can play nickel and special teams.
The numbers might be against Acker making the 53-man roster, and San Francisco would like to get him to the practice squad. But given his height (6’0”) and production this preseason, they not be able to get him through waivers to the practice squad. Should he get picked up, it would be the second time in a calendar year the team couldn’t get a corner through waivers to the p-squad, harkening back to Marcus Cooper in 2013 when he was nabbed by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Undrafted free agent Glenn Winston turned heads with his second half against the Chargers last week, averaging 7.3 yards per carry and scoring a touchdown. But the 49ers will generally go with the better special teams option when looking at reserves, and that could mean Alfonso Smith gets the nod if the team keeps four tailbacks, as it did in 2013. Look for Winston to get the bulk of the carries Thursday as he hopes to land on another roster. Otherwise, expect San Francisco to try to stash him on the practice squad as an insurance policy.
The battle for jobs behind the first four safeties (Eric Reid, Bethea, Craig Dahl, Jimmie Ward) will come down to special teams. C.J. Spillman could use a good outing on kick and punt coverage as he competes with fellow safety Bubba Ventrone for roster spot. Ventrone left Sunday’s game early with a hamstring injury and missed practice time this week. That will allow Spillman some time rebound after a rough preseason to this point. Undrafted rookie James McCray survived the first round of cuts and looks like practice squad candidate.
The 49ers have a tough decision to make regarding third-round pick Marcus Martin. After suffering a kneecap injury that will reportedly keep him out for two months, the team will be looking at potentially shutting him down for the season on injured reserve, keeping him on the roster or giving him the IR/return designation. If he gets kept on the 53, San Francisco would still likely need eight healthy linemen. Adam Snyder, Joe Looney and Dillon Farrell can also play center, Harbaugh said. Martin’s injury might have opened up a roster spot for Ryan Seymour, who has played both guard and tackle this summer.
At tackle, it appears the team feels comfortable with Jonathan Martin, as long as Boone continues his holdout. Last season’s seventh-round pick Carter Bykowski has made good strides so far and is another 49ers young player that might not make it through waivers to the practice squad.
With Marcus Martin out and Boone away, the likely scenario would be to have Jonathan Martin, Snyder and Seymour as the team's reserves.
Nick Moody has been working with the first group on special teams, which makes him a favorite to land on the 53-man roster to take Bowman’s spot. Shayne Skov has performed well after going undrafted, but lacks Moody’s natural athleticism and prowess on special teams. Add Skov to the growing list of 49ers that might get snatched up on waivers before getting to the practice squad.
Brandon Lloyd’s status might be the toughest to gauge of any player on the roster. He’s performed well in practice, but has played in just one preseason game. Kaepernick speaks highly of him and their rapport shows on the practice field. But Lloyd’s inability to play on special teams make you wonder if the 49ers would keep a fourth receiver that doesn’t contribute in the third phase. Lloyd’s status could be directly tied to Kassim Osgood, a special teams ace who enters the season at 34 years old. Otherwise, it would be a surprise if Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington didn’t round out the receiving corps.
Coordinator Vic Fangio said he wanted Ian Williams to get more snaps against the Chargers, but “he started tightening up a little bit so we went the conservative route with him and took him out there,” Fangio said. It’s unlikely the 49ers keep more than one true nose tackle, so they will want Williams to get more reps after making his debut just last week. Mike Purcell has shown steady improvement after struggling mightily in the preseason opener. Given Dorsey’s injury, San Francisco would be smart to get Purcell back to the practice squad, where he spent 2013.
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