Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys @ 49ers watch guide

Taking a look at the focal points of the 49ers' second preseason game when they host the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium Sunday night.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - If the Cowboys deem the grass playable, they will play the 49ers Sunday night in Levi's Stadium in preseason game number two.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones said this week he was concerned about the playing surface leading into Sunday's exhibition. "This is interesting. We’re going up here to a great new stadium where we’re going to have the Super Bowl, and we’ve got field problems,” Jones said, per the Dallas Morning News. "And this field is really causing us to have to look at what we’re going to do during the game because of the challenges of this turf not taking hold."

The 49ers have called upon a new grass provider for Sunday - Evergreen Turf of Chandler, Arizona - after the previous field provided by West Coast Turf failed to hold up early in training camp, when the 49ers were scheduled to stage their first eight practices inside their year-old venue. The team was forced to cancel a public practice because the sod continued to come up.

That field has since been ripped up and replaced after a pair of Taylor Swift concerts last week. The field for Sunday is slated to get replaced following another concert Aug. 29., and perhaps again for the season opener following the preseason game against the Chargers Sept. 3.

The grass issues are notable for two reasons. First, the 49ers were plagued last season with turf issues, and vowed to have the problem fixed this year after determing the right mixture for the base layer and securing seven fields from West Coast Turf to use throughout the season. Second, the state of the playing surface will go a long way toward deciding who plays and who doesn't Sunday.

49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman, for instance, is coming back from his knee injury and didn't suit up for last week's game in Houston. Although Bowman has been a regular participant in pracitce with no setbacks, he has not taken or given hits in a "live" setting, when tackling is allowed.

Bowman's last game action came 19 months ago in the conference title game in January 2014. If the grass isn't stable, he will likely miss a few valuable reps as he tries to get himself back to 100 percent for the season opener Sept. 14.

The Cowboys are mulling if they should play their starting quarterback Tony Romo, depending on the grass. If he sits, back up Brandon Weeden figures to get the majority of playing time Sunday, before giving way to Dustin Vaughan.

Grass aside, 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said this week the offense is fully installed, which means there might be a few more wrinkles planned for Colin Kaepernick and the first-team offense.

"I’ve seen something smoothly operating and growing and getting in tune with the other pieces of the puzzle," Tomsula said.

Last week against Houston, Kaepernick played just one series, completing 1-of-3 for 14 yards. Perhaps his most notable play was a deep incompletion to Torrey Smith, who was open behind the defense. Given the importance of Smith as a deep threat, Kaepernick will continue to work on those long throws. Maybe they try another long ball Sunday after working on it this week during practice.

RELATED: Kaepernick progressing within new offense

A pair of notable second-year players returned to full-team drills in practice this week. Safety Jimmie Ward and linebacker Aaron Lynch will likely be game-time decisions for Sunday night's game.

After winning the nickel job as a rookie, Ward spent the last week working with the third-team defense at safety. Starting corner Tramaine Brock has spent the majority of camp working in the slot with the first team, and has said he wants the job. You can read about the battle for the nickel spot here.

If Ward plays, it will likely be at safety as he works himself back into playing shape, before he starts competing for his old job at nickel.

Lynch, on the other hand, was quickly inserted back into the first-team defense, and has worked more in base after being a nickel specialist in 2014. Lynch's best spot is on the left side of the defense, allowing Ahmad Brooks to move to the right, replacing Aldon Smith. Lynch is still trying to get to his ideal playing weight after back and hamstring injuries hampered his offseason conditioning.

Here are 10 more players to watch Sunday:

Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas

The 49ers are still piecing together their starting offensive line. Oddly, after Thomas performed well at right guard in the preseason opener, his work there with the first team was scant during the last week of practice. Instead, he saw most of his time at left guard with reserve units.

That could be because the coaching staff liked what they saw from Thomas in Houston so much, they want him to get more work on the left side after doing most of his offseason work on the right.

Martin continued to work with the first team playing right guard during practice, while continuing to get reps at center. It's looking like the best center-guard combination is Martin and Thomas, but the 49ers still want to see if the more experienced Joe Looney can win the starting center job.

L.J. McCray

McCray was arguably the 49ers' best special teams player in 2014, and is looking even better in the early going. He led the team with two special teams tackles in Houston and made five more on defense. The 49ers have a surplus at safety with McCray, Ward, Jermaine Whitehead, second-round pick Jaquiski TarttCraig Dahl, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.

The 49ers aren't likely to part with Tartt, putting Dahl's roster spot on notice. Otherwise, McCray's continued development on defense is worth monitoring, along with his usual reel of tackles on special teams coverage.

Eli Harold

Harold played 63 snaps against the Texans, the second most among defenders, registering two quarterback hits, a hurry, a tackle and four assits, per Pro Football Focus. As he cuts his teeth as a pass rusher, the third-round pick figures to see a lot of action this preseason in Aldon Smith's old spot at right outside linebacker.

Even if Lynch plays, it won't likely be for long, leaving Harold plenty of chances to get his first sack as a pro. Harold's camp has been promising, but he's still working on his secondary pass-rushing moves. His best skill is the speed rush. Third-year player Corey Lemonier remains ahead of Harold on the depth chart, but don't be surprised if that changes at some point over the next three weeks.

Jarryd Hayne

Hayne's start was awfully promising for the 49ers, who could use a feel-good story after everything that's happened this offseason. He led the 49ers in total yardage (63 rushing, 24 punt return and 33 kickoff return yards).

His elusiveness in open space wasn't a secret to 49ers coaches or their scouting department.

"Jarryd has proven himself as a world-class athlete in Australia playing rugby on a field with other professional athletes," Tomsula said this week. "So, that part of it I think we all know. I wasn’t surprised at his ability to do things, I guess other people were."

The "other people" Tomsula might have been mentioning were Austrailian media members, who have been around the team covering what's becoming the biggest sports story Down Under.

The story would get much, much bigger if Hayne found a way on to the 53-man roster. That appeared unlikely at the start of camp, but given Bruce Ellington's nagging muscle strain that's kept him sidelined the last two weeks, the 49ers are short a return man, giving Hayne ample chance to take kicks and punts for the remainder of the preseason.

To be sure, other teams needing a spark in the return game are keeping a keen eye on the former Rugby League star, which might make it hard for the 49ers to get him to the practice squad if there's no room on the 53.

Mike Purcell

The third-year nose tackle was the star of San Francisco's defense in the preseason opener, looking like another productive piece along the team's well-stocked defensive line. The question becomes: is there room for Purcell to make the roster? The 49ers plan on starting Quinton Dial, Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey, while Darnell Dockett and Tank Carradine rotate in during nickel situations, with first-round pick Arik Armstead and Tony Jerod-Eddie also getting time.

Purcell finished last week with six tackles, a big number for a nose tackle, in just 23 snaps. Last year, the 49ers kept eight defensive linemen on the 53-man roster after final cuts. Keeping Purcell with the group mentioned above would give them eight. But do the 49ers need a fourth nose tackle, who doesn't play defensive end? Time will tell.

Blake Bell

The rookie tight end caught both his targets in Houston while playing 17 snaps. With the trades of Asante Cleveland and Derek Carrier this week, Bell is in line for more playing time Sunday. 

The 49ers are going to rely heavily on their tight ends in the passing game this season, and Bell could be a big part of that, assuming the fourth-round pick makes the opening day roster. Blaine Gabbert looked for tight ends on his first five throws of last week's game.

DeAndrew White

White made just one catch for three yards in the first preseason game, and will look to have an expanded role against the Cowboys. With Jerome Simpson suspended for the first six games, the 49ers have an open competition for the third receiver spot. And with Bruce Ellington out with an injury, there should be plenty of chances for White to make his mark in the preseason, along with the next guy...

Quinton Patton

Patton's been quiet in practice, and wasn't targeted in last week's game. The third-year receiver is in prime position to take hold of the number three receiver's role, but has to start producing, taking pressure off Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Patton has six catches in his two seasons.

Patton is one of Kaepernick's closest friends on the field, and the quarterback elaborated on their relationship this week.

"I have great trust in him as a person, as a football player," Kaepernick said. "He’s someone that, he’s constantly learning, constantly talking to me about what I’m looking at. I think that’s really helped our chemistry on the field and his development as being a reliable receiver."

Shayne Skov

Skov led the 49ers defense last week playing 66 of the 83 snaps due to injuries at inside linebacker. With Bowman on a limited rep count (if he plays at all) and Philip Wheeler out with a muscle strain, Sunday figures to be another busy night for the Stanford alum.

Skov made eight tackles, second to fellow starter Nick Moody. New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said this week of Skov, "He’s a very, very smart guy, does a great job with adjustments. Very rarely do you have to coach Shayne twice on the same mistake."

Skov dealt with a myriad of injuries prior to 2015, including calf and hamstring strains leading up to least year's draft, in addition to tearing his ACL and MCL and fracturing his tibia as a sophomore in college. Had he been healthy last spring, there's a good chance Skov would have been drafted.

Skov is healthy now, and looking like a player worthy of a spot on an NFL roster, whether it's with the 49ers or somewhere else.


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