SANTA CLARA, Calif. - After a tumultuous offseason, football is finally back for the San Francisco 49ers.
The team travels to take on the Houston Texans Saturday for its first preseason game, after 11 training camp practices have given us a glimpse of what to expect.
When looking at new coordinator Geep Chryst's offense, a few things stand out. First, the focus of the passing game is to make things far more user friendly for Colin Kaepernick, providing him more check down options if plays downfield aren't there.
Kaepernick appears to be working with his running backs and tight ends in the flat more this year than he did under former offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Kaepernick might only play a quarter or so Saturday night, but look for him to continue to work on those short-area throws that he's struggled with in the past.
Tempo has been another oft-discussed focus of the offense. New head coach Jim Tomsula wants the offense thinking and working fast, leaving the constant delay-of-game issues behind. The 49ers led the NFL in pre-snap penalties last year, and want to work quickly now so they can be more efficient when the regular season starts in September.
Defensively, it's unlikely new coordinator Eric Mangini is going to reach into his bag of complex blitz packages in the first preseason game. But expect the 49ers to create more unique looks this season than last year.
That new defensive philosophy is mostly a product of the massive overhaul of personnel. San Francisco might be looking at seven new starters from 2014, including the loss of 13 Pro Bowl appearances for Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis.
The 49ers won't be able to rely on players winning their one-on-one battles as often with those players gone, so they will need to make up the difference by taking aggressive chances with blitzes, trying to dictate where the offense goes with the ball.
That's in contrast to former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose scheme kept the field balanced. The 49ers' blitz rate ranked 26th in the NFL last season, according to our friends at Pro Football Focus.
That meant four men rushing the passer, with seven in coverage, leaving very few openings for quarterbacks to sift through. That style, paired with the talent, helped Fangio go 4-0 against Aaron Rodgers and his talented of group of receivers with the Packers, as an example.
Don't expect San Francisco to roll all of these things out Saturday, however. The start of the regular season is still a month away, and the new coaching staff won't want their secrets on tape. Expect vanilla.
Here's the list of players being held out: running back Reggie Bush, receiver Bruce Ellington, linebacker Philip Wheeler, receiver Dres Anderson, linebacker Nick Bellore, running back Kendall Hunter, linebacker Aaron Lynch, center Daniel Kilgore, receiver DeAndre Smelter, defensive back Jimmie Ward and linebacker Michael Wilhoite.
Those players, with the exception of Bush, did not travel with the team. NaVorro Bowman will be a game-time decision, but playing doesn't seem likely, particularly with the grass issues at NRG Stadium. Bowman said Thursday, "I don’t want to just go out there for two and three plays. I want to really get out there and do something."
That indicates he's a long shot to suit up, at best.
Here are 10 players to watch:
C Joe Looney:
Looney hasn't been great at the starting center spot in camp, allowing second-year lineman Marcus Martin a number of reps their with the first team. Looney is the most experienced at the position in the NFL, but Martin might have the most upside there. Martin was believed by many to be the best center in the 2014 draft before getting taken in the third round.
The play at center will have big ramifications on the entire offensive line. If it's not Looney starting, it will likely be Martin, with Brandon Thomas, Ian Silberman, Dillon Farrell and Looney as candidates to play the right guard spots. However, Looney has not gotten reps at right guard with the first team to this point.
OG Brandon Thomas:
Saturday will be Thomas' first game since he was at Clemson after missing all of last season recovering from his ACL tear he sustained leading up to the 2014 draft. He played on the left side in college, at both tackle and guard spots. But this summer he's been asked to switch to the right side, which is where he will likely spend the most time Saturday night.
We already outlined what the night means for Looney, which affects Thomas directly. The 49ers used a third-round pick on Thomas because they view him as a long-term starter. His performance against the Texans will give them an idea of how close he is to taking one of those five spots.
WR DeAndrew White:
On the practice field, White looks like a lock to make the team. He simply does too many things that they need. White has good hands, can make catches in traffic, has the speed to be a deep threat, and excels on special teams both as a returner and as a gunner.
Even cornerback Tramaine Brock this week said he believed White, the undrafted rookie, is entrenched in the battle for number three receiver duties. That's high praise, considering the 49ers already had three players vying for that role: Bruce Ellington, Jerome Simpson and Quinton Patton.
With Reggie Bush out, expect White to be the primary return man, with Jarryd Hayne, Mario Hull and others taking kicks and punts. Don't miss White on the coverage teams, either. He's been the team's best gunner in camp.
DE Lawrence Okoye:
Okoye is miles ahead of where he was three years ago when he first join the 49ers. Every now and again, he shows burst and proper technique on the practice field, both in team drills and individual sessions. Last season's knee injury sidelined him for the year, giving him time to absorb the mental side of the game. If Okoye can get his snap count up, Saturday could be valuable experience, and a chance for him to show the 49ers and the league he has staying power.
RB Jarryd Hayne:
Like Okoye, Hayne is raw, but has shown glimpses of a football player with value on a 53-man roster. His two-play sequence last week during a live goal line drill showed toughness. After getting stuffed by Tank Carradine with the biggest hit of camp, Hayne broke two tackles and scored a touchdown on the very next play. Saturday will be his first chance to really pick up a blitz, return a punt and navigate a kickoff. How he handles those things will be telling. Australia will be watching, Jarryd. No pressure.
WR Quinton Patton:
Patton hasn't done much to stand out during camp. But there's a chance he might just be a better player in games than in practice. Either way, Saturday will be important for Patton as he tries to solidify his standing in the receiving corps, and maybe fend off White for a roster spot. Patton is shifty at the line and has a knack for beating press coverage, but he has to prove he can make plays in the passing game if he wants to stick. Outside of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, the rest of the receiving corps is very fluid.
S Jaquiski Tartt:
The safeties haven't been able to do much in camp, so they've been hard to evaluate. The offense hasn't thrown the ball deep often, and the safeties haven't made many noticeable mistakes in coverage. Tartt's been tough to guage because he hasn't been allowed to hit anyone. Saturday will give him that chance. Expect Tartt to come into the game quickly to spell starters Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. Tartt is also expected to be a key player on special teams.
CB Keith Reaser:
Reaser is one of the team's athletic young corners, and he might be the fastest. After missing last year with his knee injury, he is healthy, and looking for a chance to stand out in his first game action since college. He's been getting third-team reps in practice, along with fellow "red-shirt" rookie Kenneth Acker, who missed last season with a stress fracture in his foot. Leon McFadden and Marcus Cromartie have been working with the second team because they are more experienced, but expect San Francisco to place more value in the long run on Reaser and Acker, because they were Trent Baalke's draft picks.
LB Shayne Skov:
Skov is looking much faster and more instinctive this summer after spending most of 2014 on the team's practice squad. The absence of Philip Wheeler and Michael Wilhoite has allowed Skov to get a volume of reps with the second team, where he's stood out defending the run alongside Desmon Bishop. Behind Bowman, Nick Moody and Wilhoite, spots to fill out the position are up for grabs, and Skov is one of the youngest candidates to take a roster spot. He should get plenty of snaps Saturday.
DE Arik Armstead:
The team's first-round pick should play a lot this preseason to speed up his development. The 49ers' defensive line is their deepest position group, and they won't want to put too much wear and tear atop the depth chart in the preseason, allowing Armstead to get plenty of burn. He's spent the majority of camp working as the left defensive end position, but has started to move around more of late. He can be a handful when blocked with one man, but needs to work holding his ground when double teamed. Armstead has a bright future, but he's got some developing to do. Saturday is an early test.