SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The third preseason game is upon us. Saturday night's game in Denver between the Broncos and 49ers will be the closest thing we see to a regular season approach from Jim Tomsula's team before the opener Sept. 14.
Without Ahmad Brooks, who was sent home from Colorado this week after getting charged for sexual battery, San Francisco needs to see what it has in outside linebackers Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch, Eli Harold and perhaps undrafted rookie Marcus Rush.
Brooks' future with the 49ers remains in doubt, and the team has not given a timeframe for a potential decision on his long-term standing. But the front office likely knew about Brooks' inclusion in the civil lawsuit filed by his accuser in May. They let Brooks participate in the offseason program anyway, which could be a window into their thinking going forward.
"Where it goes from here, I don’t have that answer right now," general manager Trent Baalke told reporters this week. "I don’t have enough information regarding the situation right now. All I can speak of is today, and as of today Ahmad is away from this football team. We’re going to be here until Saturday taking care of business. In the meantime, we’ll be evaluating this as we go along day-to-day."
Brooks was having a good training camp and appeared to be in great shape after taking on yoga this offseason to help transform his body after a down year. The 49ers already lost Aldon Smith, making Brooks an integral player on a defense decimated by losses. Brooks and NaVorro Bowman are the only defensive starters remaining from the defense that played in Super Bowl 47.
As a rookie, Lynch tied Brooks for the team lead with six sacks after the 49ers took a chance on him with a fifth-round pick. His first year was promising enough to project as a long-term option going forward, but offseason back and hamstring injuries hampered his conditioning and prevented him from getting into team drills until the third week of training camp.
Lynch played six snaps in last week's win over the Cowboys. Harold played 30, Lemonier 27 and Rush 29. Free-agent signee Shawn Lemon, acquired Aug. 8, played 19 snaps. Lemon leads the outside linebackers this preseason with four quarterback hurries and a sack, according to Pro Football Focus, while going against third and fourth stringers. Rush has the only other sack among the group.
On the injury front, cornerback Tramaine Brock is dealing with an apparent hamstring injury and is unlikely to play Saturday. Inside linebacker Nick Moody tweaked his knee and will likely stay sidelined. Head coach Jim Tomsula said he believed both injuries to be minor.
Here are 10 more players to watch in Saturday's preseason tilt in Denver:
Kaepernick has completed 3-of-8 for 27 yards with no touchdowns in just three preseason drives. He hasn't thrown a preseason touchdown pass since 2013, after playing so sparingly in exhibition games last August. With Geep Chryst's new offense in place, the 49ers should plan on Kaepernick getting more extensive playing time in Denver while he continues to try to build chemistry with his new speedy receiver Torrey Smith. That duo has yet to complete a pass in game action.
Johnson received first-team reps this week, becoming the fourth cornerback opposite Brock to do so. With Brock unlikely to play, Johnson will probably get the start. He was San Francisco's best corner in the win over the Cowboys, breaking up two passes and getting a second-half interception. The 49ers' situation at cornerback remains fluid, and another good game for Johnson could cement a spot atop the depth chart.
Patton has a strange stat line this preseason: three catches, two yards, with a long catch of seven yards. That's because he inexplicably ran backwards 15 yards after a catch against Dallas, before blocking a second-half punt into the end zone for a touchdown. The 49ers need someone to emerge as the third receiving option. With Jerome Simpson facing a six-game suspension, Patton is in prime position for that role. But with just six career catches, he has a lot to prove.
Tartt showed off some of the traits that made him appealing to the 49ers in last week's win over Dallas when he notched a pair of tackles. His cameos in nickel and dime situations suggest Eric Mangini is going to use him in sub packages as linebacker, where he could match up more favorably in coverage (see: Graham, Jimmy).
Ellington could make his preseason debut Saturday after missing the first two-plus weeks of training camp with a muscle strain. The second-year receiver provides the 49ers an option in the slot they haven't had outside of Anquan Boldin over the two seasons. He'll be competing with Patton for that third receiver role and could use some burn in the new offense.
Wilhoite returned to practice this week for the first time in training camp after dealing with a muscle strain. He's unsure how much he will play Saturday. Regardless, head coach Jim Tomsula was quick to insert him backing into the first team in practice, signalling he's likely the Week 1 starter next to Bowman. Wilhoite and safety Antoine Bethea are the only likely starters on defense who played in all 16 games last season.
As we mentioned, the cornerback situation remains fluid, meaning good performances from Acker or Reaser could help them significantly in the race for playing time, particularly while Brock deals a hamstring issue. Brock appeared in just three games last season after dealing with toe, ankle and hamstring injuries. The 49ers are hoping his hamstring doesn't linger or turn into a long-term problem, which could throw Acker and/or Reaser into a prominent role.
The rookie sixth-round pick has worked extensively with the first team at right guard this week and could start their Saturday night. If he does, it will likely kick Marcus Martin one spot to the left at center. That means Joe Looney would likely work with the second team after starting at center in the first two weeks of the preseason. If Week 3 of the preseason really is a "dress rehearsal," Tomsula will trot out his favorite five-man combination along the offensive line.
The 49ers only have two fullbacks on the roster. Millard is Bruce Miller's backup and should play extensively Saturday night. Millard missed all of last season while recovering from an ACL tear suffered with Oklahoma. He would be in line for a roster spot should the league deal Miller a suspension for his arrest this off-season, which led to him pleading "no contest" for disturbing the peace. Millard played 10 offensive snaps against the Cowboys after getting just one in Houston.
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