Five to Watch: 49ers vs. Cardinals

The 49ers revamped and refined roster - the best the team has assembled during the Mike Nolan/Scot McCloughan regime - is ready to take the field for Sunday's crucial season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. With the quarterback decision settled and season starters in place, all eyes will be on certain key players to see if the 49ers made the right decisions. Here are five to watch on Sunday.

1. J.T. O'SULLIVAN
Selecting O'Sullivan over Alex Smith and Shaun Hill to be the team's starting quarterback entering the season certainly was the most consequential decision the team made this summer. But O'Sullivan justified the decision in just about every way over the past month with his command of the offense and performance on the field during the preseason. There will be debate regarding whether O'Sullivan is the right choice until he goes out and gets it done - or doesn't get it done - on the field, but there is little doubt O'Sullivan is prepared for the challenge that awaits him. Don't expect him to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. O'Sullivan has an edge to him and has been through enough during his well-traveled career that nothing appears too big for the guy at this point. Now he needs to show that he's big enough to lead the 49ers and their offense forward in the first start of his NFL career, and everybody will be watching.


2. JUSTIN SMITH
Is the eighth-year defender really a difference-maker, an impact performer that can push San Francisco over the edge and into the upper echelon of NFL defenses? The 49ers certainly are paying the free-agent newcomer to be just that, and he was all of that during his cameo appearances during the preseason, when San Francisco pretty much kept Smith under wraps but also gave a glimpse of how he will be used and how much he will be moving around throughout the team's defensive front seven. Outside linebacker? Defensive end? Defensive tackle? You will be seeing Smith at all those positions this season - on each side of the defensive alignment. It promised to put Smith in optimum situations to make plays, particularly as a pass rusher as the 49ers look for more juice from a pass rush that has been mediocre at best in recent seasons. The 49ers are putting Smith in a position to be a defensive star this season, and he needs to be better than just good to fulfill his potential in his multi-faceted role with his new team, not to mention justify the huge financial investment the 49ers have made in him.


3. BRYANT JOHNSON
After missing several weeks of training camp and the first three preseason games with a hamstring injury, Johnson looked pretty comfortable within the offense while starting San Francisco's final exhibition game last month, and he will play a major role in the team's overhauled passing attack now that he is working every day with O'Sullivan. After playing third fiddle behind Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to begin his career in Arizona, Johnson now gets his first opportunity to be a No. 1 target against his former team with Boldin and Fitzgerald looking on from the opposite sideline. They won't be the only ones watching. Johnson will be getting multiple opportunities throughout the afternoon to make an impact on the game as the 49ers figure to come out throwing while showing off their new offensive system. Johnson has to show that he's the right guy to take over a leading role in what has been one of the team's weakest areas for several seasons.


4. TONY WRAGGE
Who's Tony Wragge? You'll be finding out Sunday when he lines up at right guard to start a season opener for the first time in his career. The fourth-year veteran established himself as a reliable performer over the past two years with the 49ers, starting five games along the line interior while also seeing time as a backup. He was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard before the team's May minicamp after regular starter David Baas suffered a torn pectoral that kept him out the next four months. The expectation was that Wragge would just be keeping the position warm for Baas, but Wragge performed well throughout spring drills and training camp, then showed that he's the real deal with strong play during the exhibition season. Though Baas is now ready and certainly capable, the 49ers decided not to mess with a good thing, so Wragge will begin the season as the starter while Baas watches from the sideline. Wragge is a strong, technique-sound player with savvy, and he is absolutely chomping at the bit with the opportunity the team has given him. He may surprise with his effectiveness. If not, well, Baas is waiting in the wings and wants his job back. So Wragge must produce immediately.


5. MANNY LAWSON
Welcome back, Manny. Lawson, a 2006 first-round draft pick, was on the verge of a breakout season in 2007 before he tore a knee ligament during practice in Week 3 and had to sit out the rest of the season. The San Francisco defense was never quite the same after his injury, and it's because Lawson does so many things for the unit with his rangy, sideline-to-sideline play. Lawson is excellent in both coverage and pursuit and presents a different dimension on the edge with his height and long arms. The 49ers also want to get him more involved as a pass rusher, which remains an unknown dimension in his game. Lawson is wound tight this season to be a playmaker and, like Justin Smith, he'll be moved around quite a bit in defensive formations to take advantage of his strengths. Lawson needs to show that the 49ers' decision to use him that way is the right thing, and the first chance to do that comes Sunday.



Niners Digest Top Stories