On Sunday, the NFL finally got preseason games underway with the Hall of Fame game. The Saints and Cardinals faced off in Canton, and football fans everywhere exhaled a sigh of relief knowing we've reached another milestone as we near the regular season.
49ers fans in particular are excited to see their team perform because of the possibilities, storylines and expectations. The Niners have their first preseason game on Friday (8/10/12) as they host the Minnesota Vikings.
With story lines unique to each player, we need to assess where all the players stand with the team.
In this piece, we'll go slide-by-slide, posing and answering one question of each player on the San Francisco 49ers roster.
Smith has indulged in a lot of opportunities this offseason to become a better quarterback for the 49ers. With a continued offensive system, Smith has been able to focus on other aspects of his game that have never gotten the proper attention.
There are plenty of reasons to believe Smith will take a step forward in his second year under Jim Harbaugh, but whether or not he does is yet to be seen.
Can Kaepernick show enough in preseason to get rumors swirling about Alex Smith's risk-free three-year contract?
Kaepernick will have to do an awful lot to get any sort of real QB controversy started. The last thing the 49ers need during their run at a Super Bowl is rumors surrounding the quarterback position. All Kaepernick can hope to do is inspire hope for the future and ease regarding the depth at the position.
With a second-round pick invested in Kaepernick and him looking good at training camp, what is a realistic best-case scenario for Johnson?
The 49ers could carry Johnson or tell him to hold tight and offer him a nice contract to stick with the practice squad. Harbaugh could also just be doing him a favor by upping his value and allowing him to move on once San Francisco inevitably goes with Kaepernick.
Will the 49ers attempt to trade Scott Tolzien before final cut-down day?
The for the betterment of the organization, San Francisco should look into this. The 49ers might not be able to get more than a seventh-rounder, but they may be able to swap picks in certain round(s) to better position themselves. The 49ers are set at QB; this is an option if they are aggressive enough.
Will Frank Gore be a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012?
With four running backs, the odds says no; San Francisco will have a college-style approach with attack-by-committee. However, Gore has twice broken 1,000 yards with only 229 and 240 attempts, maintaining a high average. He is still the lead back in San Francisco and should get around 250 carries at least.
How will Hunter respond to a now-crowded backfield?
Hunter has the opportunity to thrive in such a diverse backfield, style-wise. With limited reps to go around, he'll be sure to make his count.
Can James challenge Hunter and win the No. 2 job behind Gore at some point this year?
Hunter was awfully effective, with only 112 carries as a rookie. James can step in and provide a different dynamic in the passing game and has the opportunity to share the No. 2 job with Hunter.
Can Brandon Jacobs be a go-to situational tailback for the 49ers?
The 49ers struggled mightily on third down and in the red zone. One of the reasons San Francisco added Jacobs to the run game was to help the offense in those situations. I expect Jacobs to get plenty of opportunities to do run downhill.
Will Dixon's attempt at fullback and contributions on special teams secure him a spot on the final 53?
It is a great effort on Dixon's behalf, but it will come down to numbers on cut-down day. The experience with the team and versatility is a huge boost for him, but the 49ers will be forced to carry the best 53 players, and he's in a tough spot.
Will Hampton be able to overcome his injury-prone ways and earn a spot with a team in the near future?
Hampton had surgery this offseason and is expected to start the season on the PUP list. An undrafted free agent, Hampton had two ACL tears during his time at Southern Illinois, though he was productive when he played.
How secure is Cartwright's place on the team? Was his one-year deal a stop-gap until the 49ers found a younger, more capable extra body with long-term value?
Cartwright could be in jeopardy. He was added before the NFL draft, and that makes his status with the team more suspect.
With Tom Rathman as a coach and a styling like that of Mike Alstott, will Miller make strides and become that next great all-purpose fullback in a league where the position is becoming extinct?
Miller is coming along quite well as a former defensive player at Central Florida. He is a terrific blocker that only looks to get better and is a threat to catch out of the backfield. The future is bright for Bruce Miller.
With so many players displaying versatility, are Bell's already slim chances of making the final 53 diminished?
A lot of player on the 49ers are getting reps on both sides of the football. In Santa Clara, the staff has had defensive linemen step in at full back and tight end. For a player like Bell, who's already looking at Bruce Miller ahead of him, it's tough sledding for the youngster.
Will Randy Moss start and play 16-plus games for the 49ers in 2012?
This should be the first question on everyone's minds. If the 49ers maintain a winning record as predicted, Moss should be the starting flanker for at least 16 games. He looks like he can still play, and all the reports surrounding him have been positive.
Will Crabtree thrive in his more physically-suited role as a split-end receiver?
Entering his fourth year, Crabtree is in a position to excel. The physical demands of the split-end receiver are more tailored to what Crabtree does best. With players like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis stretching the field, Crabtree will find himself open quite a bit underneath.
Is Manningham good enough to push Crabtree for time or make San Francisco come out of more three-plus WR sets?
There was the concern that the 49ers might change their offensive philosophy because of their personnel. It will probably happen to a degree, but with the means to make the 49ers a more efficient offense. Manningham is definitely expected to have a significant role in the passing game.
What does Kyle Williams have to do to win the people back? Will be rebound in 2012 or won't he? And what will be considered good enough?
Williams has taken the correct approach and seems to be getting better and better as a receiver. He is a good football player who many expect to rebound this year. Williams will have a short memory this year, taking it one game at a time, and hopefully, so will the fans.
Ted Ginn, Jr.
Over the offseason, Ginn added 10 pounds of upper-body strength to help him as a receiver. Will Ginn continue to get attempts on the offensive side of the ball?
Ginn added the upper-body strength seemingly to improve as a receiver off the line of scrimmage. He maintains that top speed, and now with a bigger frame, he should be pushed around a lot less. The staff might want to see how how it's effected him as a WR.
Considering the depth of the 49ers receiving corps, what sort of role can we expect first-rounder A.J. Jenkins to have as a rookie?
As a first round receiver, Jenkins won't be asked to shoulder the workload for the offense. He will be able to take a backseat, learn and be inserted in specific game situations.
How prevalent are Owusu's medical reports (concussions) when it comes to his evaluation on cut-down day? And can he show enough to at least earn a spot on the practice squad, assuming he does make not the final 53?
I'm sure it's a slight concern but if Owusu does enough, he can make the team. He's a Harbaugh guy from Stanford and has potential as a deep threat. If he doesn't make the final 53, he's a sure-fire lock for the practice squad.
Is Palmer making enough noise to sneak onto the final 53? If he has a brilliant exhibition, could Palmer be the player who edges out Ginn for a roster spot?
He's becoming the most regularly mentioned UDFA in Santa Clara, and for positive reasons. The Niners have added a lot of new faces in the past two offseasons with Harbaugh; the 49ers are not afraid to make decisions like that if it makes the team better.
Jim Harbaugh on rookie WR Nathan Palmer: "He had an excellent day yesterday. Really stood out to all of us."— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) July 30, 2012
Has Hastings made significant strides to hopefully provide talent on the practice squad in case of injury?
Hastings is a second-year receiver out of Washburn who has stuck around with the team since last year. The 49ers have added a lot of talent at the wide receiver position, so his immediate future is to be determined.
Starting now, can Tyms show enough potential to be the No. 1 practice squad WR to be called up if the Niners incur injury at the position?
Tyms certainly has potential and is a player to watch this preseason.
Is Brett Swain out of his league with the now-loaded 49ers receiving corps?
Swain was asked to step in for the 49ers last year when they were busted at WR. He didn't contribute much, but made a positive enough impression to remain with the team. Swain signed a one-year deal before the draft and could be expendable.
The final hand-picked UDFA receiver. Like Tyms, Palmer and Owusu, what can Nelson do between now and September 2 to secure a best possible scenario with the team?
It's up to one of these receivers to step up in game situations during the preseason and be heard. Nelson is no different; he can be a sleeper receiver or hope to earn a paycheck on the practice squad.
Will Davis be used more as a receiver in 2012? How will the presence of Randy Moss and others detract from the attention Davis is used to getting?
The 49ers are more proficient offense with Davis as a pass-catcher. He is, however. an incredible blocking tight end, perhaps the best in the league. But Davis possesses 4.3 speed and is a valuable player that can get this offense moving forward. As the offensive line gets situated, Davis could see less time on blocking assignments.
In a contract year, will Walker be able prove his worth and earn a new deal to remain with San Francisco?
Walker plays an integral role in the ground game and is a very good option as a No. 2 TE. If Walker is looking for near-starter money, he might be disappointed. Walker has expressed interest in staying with the team, but the NFL is a business.
Is Byham in danger of losing his position to second-year tight end from Stanford Konrad Reuland or Michigan State rookie Garrett Celek?
The third tight end position is an open competition at this point. The spot is flexible because the third tight end isn't crucial, and the 49ers could be looking for fresh faces. If they feel there is a better option outside Byham, it could be the tight end's last season in San Francisco.
Is Reuland primed to take the No. 3 tight end position from Byham in 2012?
Reuland is one of many ex-Cardinal players who played under Harbaugh at Stanford. The 49ers didn't draft Coby Fleener, but maybe Reuland can contribute as a No. 3. In a year where San Francisco is looking for pass-catchers, the Niners could move from Byham to Reuland.
Is Demarcus Dobbs drastically hurting Celek's chances of beating Byham for the No. 3 TE spot by not only getting reps at the position, but excelling?
Celek needs all the reps he can get. It certainly does not help that Dobbs can play defense and Celek's position too. If the 49ers lean toward Dobbs to fill in at tight end, they can save themselves a roster spot and keep and extra QB, LB or WR.
How thankful is Brian Jennings to have job security at a time like this?
I'd say Jennings is a happy camper. There is a large majority fighting for their jobs in Santa Clara; luckily for Jennings, he is not one of them.
How will Staley hold up against rushers like Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Mario Williams, Jason Pierre-Paul and Cameron Wake this year?
The 49ers left tackle made his first Pro Bowl in 2011. He will have some fierce competition from established pass-rushers this season. It will be impressive to see if Staley can post back-to-back Pro Bowl years in a tough conference.
Will Davis finally cut down on the mental miscues on game day? And how will he perform with a new body playing next to him at right guard?
Davis has progressed annually, and the hope is that he'll take another step forward in 2012. I think going with a veteran guard like Leonard Davis would make Anthony Davis' job a lot easier, but it's Alex Boone's to lose. As the line tries to cut down on the sacks, it'll be nice for Davis to have that extra year of experience under his belt.
Considering the versatility San Francisco has on the offensive line, if Hall is not the clear best offensive lineman, will the 49ers carry more guard-first players who they've invested draft picks in?
Hall could be yet another former Stanford player on the 49ers practice squad. San Francisco drafted small school tackles who project as guards at the next level, while Hall came in as a UDFA. The offensive line group is versatile enough for the Niners to just go with the best overall player.
Can Wiggins show enough potential to work with the practice squad and eventually provide depth?
He is one of many attempting to do so. Only time will tell with Wiggins.
Will Iupati make the Pro Bowl in 2012? And if he does, will it be the first of many?
49ers left guard Mike Iupati is one of the better interior linemen in the NFL. With the team's recent success, a lot of good players are just starting to get recognition in the Bay. Iupati should be the next guy to start earning regular praise.
Is what's best for Alex Boone best for the team?
Boone is built for the tackle position, but the 49ers are trying him at guard even though they are already thin—depth-wise—at tackle. Boone obviously wants to start, but the best option for the team may be to start new addition Leonard Davis.
Is Leonard Davis going to start at right guard?
Davis is a proven veteran at the position and appears ready to play. He signed a deal with the Niners knowing where the team stood in regards to Boone, but came in fired up and ready to compete. Davis could win the job in camp before Week 1 rolls around.
How soon can we seriously start talking about Looney as a starter?
There could be two positions on the offensive line up for grabs sooner rather than later in center and right guard. Within the next two years, the 49ers offensive line picks from the past two years will be competing for starting roles.
Is Kilgore's experience with the team his edge over the new offensive linemen?
Kilgore was the first offensive lineman drafted under Jim Harbaugh. And even though Harbaugh has since added plenty of names to compete, Kilgore has a legitimate shot at an eventual starting position in the Niners' o-line.
Can Person show potential to serve as a solid backup in the near future?
It is a very competitive group of guys, and Person is a part of that group. In a unit with a lot of fresh blood and new faces, Person will be fighting for whatever he can get with the 49ers.
Can Netter show enough in the exhibition games to get practice squad consideration?
A great way for Netter to get some recognition would be dominate when the opportunity comes this preseason.
Will Goodwin improve in his second year with the team and allow less sacks in 2012?
In 2011, Goodwin joined the team in a shortened league year with minimal time to adjust and learn all the little nuances of a new offensive system. Goodwin is a Pro Bowl center, but allowed five sacks last year. Hopefully, he progresses and it results in Alex Smith staying vertical.
Are players like Kilgore, Looney and Slowey making it difficult for Beeler to advance from the practice squad?
Even though Beeler is a Stanford guy, it's an uphill battle and he needs to be patient. His time will come to compete at center when Goodwin's contract is up in two seasons. There are going to be a lot of guys vying for the position, so nothing will come easy.
Will Slowey's brand of football bode well for him as he looks to secure a long-term future with the 49ers?
On film, Slowey is one of the more noticeably physical offensive lineman. The 49ers are building an offensive line that has that tenacity, and it could be an edge for Slowey when positions start opening up on the offensive line.
Can we see Justin Smith possibly go harder in 2012 with this "window" of opportunity?
Justin Smith was an absolute force in 2011. A defensive MVP candidate, Smith had his best season as a pro last season, closing out more than a couple games for the Niners. This offseason Smith spoke about gearing up to go get a title now, indicative that he could have even more fuel this season.
Will Sopoaga breakthrough as a dominant 3-4 nose tackle in his second year at the position?
Mind you, as well as he did, it was Isaac Sopoaga's first year starting at nose tackle last year. And while he did a fantastic job—especially with gap control—you can always improve. Sopoaga could bring his game to another level in his second year at NT.
Will McDonald show major signs of overall improvement with his first full offseason learning the added dimensions that come with the position?
McDonald had 5.5 sacks in his first year as a starter and is a solid defender against the run and pass. He has relied heavily on the tutelage of Justin Smith and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. In his second year as a starter, McDonald has room to grow as a player.
Can Ricky Jean-Francois emerge as the apparent successor to Justin Smith?
With Trent Baalke's philosophy of building through the draft and promoting from within, RJF is in a position this year to really audition for that role.
Is Tukuafu going to see more or less time on defense in 2012?
Tukuafu is one of a handful of players seeing multiple sides of the ball. A natural defender, Tukuafu has gotten reps on offense this offseason. With the 49ers looking to get off the field on third down and take the ball away, the starters should be able to stay on the field. Tukuafu might look to contribute in multiple aspects of the game.
Will Dobbs become a three-way player this season?
First and foremost, Demarcus Dobbs is a defensive lineman, and a very good prospect acquired after the draft. Dobbs saw time on special teams last year and has been getting significant reps at tight end this training camp. We could see Dobbs as a three-way player in 2012.
Will Jerod-Eddie make a case for himself during the exhibition games?
The former Texas A&M defensive tackle had pro potential and is in a great place to learn. Jerod-Eddie is one of a few sleeper UDFA's that could get noticed during the preseason matches.
Is Williams in jeopardy of losing his roster spot to a new face?
While Ian Williams was the other UDFA defensive lineman brought in with Demarcus Dobbs, we've heard significantly more about Dobbs than Williams. Not to say that Williams is not good, but he's certainly received less hype. It'd be interesting to see if one of these new young d-linemen can come in and challenge Williams for his job.
On a team with depth at the position, can Butrym at least make the practice squad?
Butrym has an uphill battle for sure. The defensive line has its starters, and the backups are even entrenched at their slated position on the depth chart. Butrym likely won't come in and challenge Ricky Jean-Francois, or even Demarcus Dobbs.
Will Masifilo be a surprise challenger for depth at the position or at least continue the trend of Stanford alum on the 49ers practice squad?
Masifilo is going to have to leave it on the field if he wants a shot of making this team as a defensive lineman. Harbaugh clearly sees something in him he likes, but whether or not Masifilo can bring it at this level is still up in the air.
Are we going to see Willis rush the passer more this season?
Patrick Willis is trying to become a more well-rounded linebacker, surprisingly. There's the chance that the 49ers install more blitzes for Willis given his speed and familiarity with offenses by obsessively studying game film. The emergence of NaVorro Bowman will provide those freedoms for Willis.
Will NaVorro Bowman lead the 49ers in tackles once more in 2012?
Willis missed a few games in 2011, and Bowman wound up being the tackle leader for San Francisco and one of the top guys in the league. Bowman became an All-Pro in 2011 in his first season as a starter. With Willis primarily covering tight ends, Bowman should have more opportunities to get tackles.
Could the 49ers trade Grant and Tolzien in a package deal for picks?
Larry Grant is a very good inside linebacker. He had an opportunity to start in Willis' absence in 2011 and performed at a high level. This would be a business decision, and not a bad one. They could afford to make the move, and it would give them even more firepower in next year's draft than they already have.
Will Gooden be able to step up as a special teams leader with Blake Costanzo's departure?
Gooden mostly sees time on special teams, but is an inside linebacker for depth purposes. With Costanzo's departure to Chicago, the 49ers will need a leader to step up for the special teams unit. Gooden has the potential to take command, but we'll see if he does.
Will Ahmad Brooks get more sacks in 2012 with Aldon Smith as a starter?
Like the presence of Randy Moss should benefit, predominantly, Michael Crabtree, the presence of Aldon Smith should be huge for Ahmad Brooks. Offenses will be pretty focused on No. 99 and No. 94 and forget all about No. 55. Brooks could have more sacks in his second year as a starter.
If he transitions well with pass coverage and stopping the run, does Smith have Defensive Player of the Year potential?
Aldon Smith is one of three potential candidates for the award this year. Smith is an unbelievable pass-rusher but if he can become a complete outside linebacker, he should get serious consideration for the honor.
Is Haralson okay with his humble pie?
Haralson has been a starter and is now being asked to take a backseat as they look to insert Aldon Smith as the starter. Haralson has not made a fuss at all despite being a starter last year for the league's top defense. It seems he knows the 49ers have to do what's best for the team, and he can't argue with a championship, so he'll take what he can get.
Will Johnson display his pass-rush abilities as a standup linebacker in the preseason?
Johnson was 4-3 at the University of Virginia, where he mad a name for himself rushing the passer. San Francisco would like to get that type of production out of him, but would like for him to do it from a stand-up position. He should have some opportunities to rush the passer this preseason against Denver, San Diego and Houston.
Of the undrafted free agents, is Brown a sleeper candidate to make the final 53?
Brown is a physical freak at the outside linebacker position, and the 49ers like those kinds of players. He is a lengthy pass-rusher that has the physical tools you'd like for in a dynamic edge-rusher. If Brown shows flashes in the preseason and has a steady training camp, he could edge out Cam Johnson for a roster spot.
After sustaining a season-ending ACL injury, how proactive will Fleming be in learning the defense as he rehabs?
Fleming can be a big man and try to be even more involved in the 49ers defensive scheme mentally since he can't perform physically.
Will Bakhtiari's history with Jim Harbaugh help as someone looks to fill in with Fleming's absence?
Harbaugh has brought in a lot of his old players from both the University of San Diego and Stanford. And while the connection may have got them to Santa Clara, the players have to do the rest. Bakhtiari won't have anything handed to him.
If Holland can't make the final 53, will he show enough in preseason to make the practice squad?
Holland is in a rough spot as a late addition UDFA. Luckily, Holland has an education from Purdue and should be able to catch up to speed.
Will Rogers build on his breakthrough season or regress?
The change of scenery seemed to be huge for Rogers. He capitalized on a great opportunity in 2011, and if he can stay consistent, he can finish off his career on a high note.
Can Tarell Brown do enough to remain a starter for the 49ers?
Brown stepped in during a shortened league year, became a starter for the first time and played exceptional. He was a great complement to Rogers in 2011 and is only improving. The 49ers staff likes their two starting CB's.
What can we expect from Perrish Cox?
It's always good to manage one's expectations, especially when it comes to sports. However, don't be surprised if Perrish Cox comes on strong for the 49ers in his first season back. He is a talented cornerback and former starter.
Is Chris Culliver the X-factor for the 49ers secondary?
In 2012, Chris Culliver will come off as sneaky good. He is such a talented, rising player in this league, and the 49ers have him as a No. 3 cornerback. With the schedule San Francisco has in 2012, a lot of teams will be throwing a lot at them. Culliver should find himself in position to make plays, as he will basically be a starter.
Is Brock in danger of missing out on a roster spot?
Brock is a very good player, and the 49ers will want to carry enough corners in this pass-heavy league, and considering their schedule. Brock provides the best depth when you get past the first four cornerbacks. He is an improving player for San Francisco.
Can McBath show his skills in the preseason to validate his late addition?
McBath was signed late last month, right before training camp. McBath needs to work on making some plays and show progress day by day.
What type of impression can Purvis make between now and even the first cut-down day?
The defense has reportedly been getting the better of the offense in training camp. Purvis needs to get in on the action.
Like McBath and Purvis, is Mosely getting enough opportunities to make a case for himself?
The reps at training camp are few and far between, especially at position groups that are loaded, and even more so for UDFA's. Mosley, like McBath and Purvis, will have to make himself heard on the field.
Is Nelms going backward or going forward?
Nelms is in a competitive environment, and although relatively new to the league out of the University of Miami, he needs to make himself heard if he intends to stay with this team.
Could Holcomb's time as a 49er be coming to an end?
The amount of competition at the cornerback position in San Francisco is among the league's best. The 49ers have four capable starters. Holcomb could be the next victim of the new regime.
Can Goldson match his takeaway ability (interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries) from last season in a contract year?
Goldson reached career-highs for himself in 2011; he posted 6 interceptions and was great in run support. It will be hard for Goldson to replicate 6-plus interceptions but if he somehow does, it says a lot about him.
With two more years left on his deal, can Donte Whitner earn a contract extension?
Whitner, 27, and the 49ers could reasonably add two years to his current deal. Besides the leadership he has displayed, Whitner's brand of football is a perfect fit in San Francisco. The 49ers might want to see Whitner retire in the Bay and Whitner may feel the same.
With his versatility as a safety or cornerback, is Thomas a threat to make the team as a UDFA?
Thomas is a Stanford alum, familiar with Vic Fangio and his defense. Thomas played a key role in the Cardinal defense and has the versatility to play both safety and cornerback. He could be a sleeper UDFA to make this team.
Who is Robinson learning to replace?
Robinson, 5'9", is an undersized safety, but makes up for it with good instincts and physical ability. We know the safety positions are interchangeable in San Francisco, and Robinson is primarily learning from Donte Whitner (SS), but Goldson is the one with the uncertain future in San Francisco.
Will Spillman be surpassed by the rookie defensive backs when it comes to defense?
C.J. Spillman is a special teams ace. He has seen time on defense, but for now, he is a key member of the Tony Montana Squad. Trenton Robinson and Michael Thomas appear to have an edge at the position as San Francisco looks to establish depth at safety.
Is Colin Jones strictly a special teamer?
Jones is a special teams stud as a gunner. In Goldson's absence during his brief holdout, Jones was able to get reps at safety. That is his natural position on defense, but at the moment, Jones seems to be excelling on special teams while the 49ers are set on their starters.
Can Legree have a good enough offseason to be added to the practice squad?
LeGree should look to make an impact not only on defense, but on special teams. For a player in his situation, showing versatility and more overall value is a good way to secure a spot with the team.
Does Hannula's history with Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego help him at least make it to the practice squad?
The 49ers could use good depth at safety, and I think that works more to Hannula's advantage than knowing Harbaugh does. As I mentioned prior, the connection got Hannula to camp, but it will not get him a job; he has to do that on his own.
Is Andy Lee the man or what?
These could be very close games, and instead of thanking Akers for supplying a record-setting amount of points, fans can be appreciative of his clutch game-winners.
How much longer will the 49ers keep Tavecchio? Will he stay with the team on the practice squad?
David Akers has several years left before he potentially considers retirement. Tavecchio is not going to be the kicker in 2012 or anytime in the foreseeable future. Whether or not the 49ers sign him to the practice squad is yet to be determined.