SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Don't expect the 49ers to play too many of their projected starters in Thursday's preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers.
However, a number of jobs are still up for grabs. And if new head coach Jim Tomsula has shown anything during training camp over the last month, it's that he's willing to make last-minute changes.
Tuesday's announcement was a prime example. Tomsula, unexpectedly, announced former Patriot Jordan Devey would be the team's starting right guard for the time being, after getting just nine snaps with the first unit in Saturday's game against the Broncos. His playing time came on Colin Kaepernick's most successful drive in the game, where his two longs runs accounted for 53 yards, resulting in a Phil Dawson field goal at the end of the half.
Tomsula is unafraid of taking chances and going against the grain, particularly when it comes to mixing and matching players to see where they fit. There's been little consistency in terms of lineups playing together throughout training camp, most evident along the offensive line and at cornerback.
Currently, there are four candidates to start at corner opposite Tramaine Brock: Shareece Wright, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker. They've all worked with the first team either in practice or preseason games.
Devey became the fourth right guard to get considerable playing time with the first unit.
With that constant tinkering, it's fair to wonder about chemistry, particularly along the offensive line. If Devey remains the starter heading into the season opener, he will have just two weeks to work with the starters before the Vikings' talented front comes to Levi's Stadium. How will he handle two-man pass rushing games with right tackle Erik Pears? Will they have their communication down pat so Kaepernick isn't scrambling for his life like he was in Denver?
"We have brought in a guy late in the year, so it’s going to be a work in progress," left tackle Joe Staley said Tuesday. "It’s not like we’ve played five years together. But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for your play on the football field. You’re responsible for what you’re doing out there. And that continuity and all that stuff is sometimes overblown. We feel confident with the talent that he has and what he’s shown us on the football field and the practice field. We expect him to go out there and play high-level football."
To be sure, all the adjustments Kaepernick made in the offseason will be made moot if the offensive line can't give him time to throw. That makes Devey a key player to watch in Thursday night's game, assuming he's allowed to play more than the nine snaps he received in Denver.
Otherwise, teams head into training camp with a good idea of their 53-man roster will shake down, barring injuries, suspensions and other unforeseen circumstances.
However, there are a few factors that could open up roster spots for players that would have otherwise been cut. First, Ahmad Brooks' situation regarding his sexual battery charge has not been resolved, and it's unknown if he will be on the active roster in time for start of the regular season. He will not practice with the team this week. There's a chance Brooks could go on the commissioner's exempt list, as Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy did last year while dealing with their legal troubles, opening spot on the 53.
Fullback Bruce Miller's offseason arrest, and pleading "no contest" to a disturbing the peace charge, is still being reviewed by the league. And given the NFL's recent patterns of discipline, Miller could be facing a suspension to start the year, also opening up a roster spot.
That means a number of players on the roster bubble will need to play well Thursday and make a good final impression before final roster cuts are made Saturday afternoon. Here are 11 (bonus!) players to pay attention to:
After averaging over 21 yards per punt return in the first two exhibition games, Hayne took a back seat to Reggie Bush and Bruce Ellington last week, who were both making their preseason debuts. It's unclear what that means for Hayne's chances of making the final roster. But, Tomsula said, "I've seen what I need to see. I think we've done a great evaluation on him," following the Denver game. The 49ers have plenty of options at running back and might be afforded the luxury of adding Hayne if a roster spot opens up via Miller or Brooks' situation. The former Australian Rugby League star will certainly be a player to watch Thursday.
Hunter got his first game action since the conference title game in Seattle in January 2014 Saturday against the Broncos. He rushed for 15 yards on seven carries (2.1-yard average). Hunter looked rusty and didn't have the same explosive burst he was known for when healthy. And because last year's ACL tear was his second major leg injury (he tore an Achilles midway through 2012), it's fair to wonder if Hunter is worth a spot on the 53-man roster.
With Carlos Hyde, Bush, Mike Davis and Hayne potentially filling out the running back corps, Hunter might have a hard time being on the active 46-man roster when the regular season starts, in part, because he won't be contributing on special teams. The 49ers didn't give Hunter and injury list designation to start training camp, meaning he cannot open the season on PUP or NFI, leaving open a roster spot while the team retains his rights. He will either be on the team, or potentially looking for employment elsewhere come Saturday after final cuts.
After starting at center in the first two preseason games, Looney has worked almost exclusively with the second unit since. His immediate future is unknown after the promotion of Devey to the starting lineup. Since the 49ers liked rookie sixth-round pick Ian Silberman enough to start him against Denver, he appears to be a top option as a reserve guard. With Daniel Kilgore starting the year on reserve/PUP, the 49ers could afford to keep Looney as the back-up center until his return, which could come as soon as Week 7. But now, Looney is in direct competition for a roster spot with Brandon Thomas, Silberman and the next player on this list:
Farrell appeared in eight games as a reserve last season after making his NFL debut against the Rams in September. Farrell can play all three interior line positions and finds himself right on the roster bubble with the additions of Thomas, Devey and Silberman to the fold this summer. Farrell is versatile, but might be on the wrong end of the numbers game. A good performance Thursday could help him out significantly toward making the roster over someone with a higher salary, like Looney.
The former undrafted free agent has quietly put together a strong training camp and preseason, registering five quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and a sack against the Cowboys. If Brooks is not on the final roster, Rush could be the player to benefit. However, his time on special teams has been limited, which could be the difference. If Rush doesn't crack the 53, he's a candidate for the team's practice squad, should he make it through waivers and not wind up on a roster elsewhere.
Physically, Skov appears in his best shape since joining the 49ers as an undrafted rookie last year. He's played more snaps than anyone one the 49ers' defense (Eli Harold is second with 132), and leads the team with 13 tackles, per PFF. It looks like Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody have wrapped up the second and third spots at inside linebacker, leaving a wide open competition for the fourth spot. Skov is right in that mix, and must prove as a capable special teams player if he's going to make the roster. If not, the 49ers would love to get Skov to the practice squad again, but they might have a harder time getting him through waivers if another team has a need at inside linebacker.
With seven years and 60 starts under his belt, Wheeler came to the 49ers as a favorite to back up NaVorro Bowman and Wilhoite. But a leg injury has kept Wheeler sidelined for the majority of training camp. He practiced for the first time since sustaining his injury Tuesday and looks primed to make his preseason debut in Thursday's exhibition finale. San Francisco likes his experience amid its young roster, but if he's not healthy enough to play, he might have a hard time making the team over someone like Skov or special teams standout Nick Bellore.
Speaking of Bellore, he's a player the 49ers brought in because of his play on special teams and familiarity with new special teams coach Thomas McGaughey. He's spent most of time this preseason at outside linebacker, but can also play inside in the team's 3-4 scheme, making him an appealing candidate to round out the linebacking corps.
As we noted before, the competition among interior linemen is jumbled and convoluted. And because we've seen players move from first team to third team recently, Silberman will be a player to watch Thursday. After a rough outing Saturday in Denver, Brandon Thomas worked at right guard with the second team Tuesday (to start practice, at least. The media is no longer allowed to watch the entire practice), which means Silberman might be asked to work extensively with the third line Thursday. The sixth-round pick had a good August, but will it be enough to make the team?
With Vance McDonald dealing with an ankle injury, Anderson still has an outside shot at making the final roster. The tight end has gotten better as camp has gone on. The trades of Asante Cleveland and Derek Carrier were a vote of confidence in Anderson and, perhaps, Xavier Grimble. However, if McDonald's injury is minor as the team has indicated, Anderson is more likely headed to waivers and the practice squad. The 49ers are likely to keep four tight ends: Vernon Davis, McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.
On a personal note, the hatred of Dahl on social media is amusing. If not for Blaine Gabbert, Dahl would be the fans' most dispised player. For what reason? No one knows for sure. But he did give up a touchdown or two in coverage last preseason. Dahl has been a staple on special teams since coming to the 49ers in 2013 and has been first to play when Eric Reid sustained his three concussions over the last two seasons. But with Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and L.J. McCray around, Dahl might be on the wrong side of the numbers game.
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