Head coach Jim Harbaugh will have a lot to consider during the 49ers' final preseason matchup against San Diego.
Although the starting jobs are all but set by now, there are a number of key focus points to pay attention to in the upcoming matchup. A number of the final roster spots are still up for grabs. Which players will make the 53-man roster and which are in danger of being cut? Will San Francisco's depth chart change after the game?
In this game, the 49ers will attempt to hash out the finishing touches on their 2013 product.
This game will look nothing like a regular season game. In fact, the team will probably care little whether they win or lose. San Francisco is much more concerned with focusing on the individual aspects previously mentioned.
There are a number of things fans and analysts should pay attention to this Thursday.
Which Players Make the Cut
As San Francisco looks to trim its roster to 53, a number of players have already found their way out of uniform on opening day. Lamar Divens and Lawrence Okoye have already been waived and Cornellius Carradine, Quinton Dial, Marcus Lattimore, Luke Marquardt and Eric Wright have all been placed on the non-football injury (NFI) list.
In addition, wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham have been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Cornerback Chris Culliver has been placed on injured reserve.
A detailed description of the transactions can be found here.
This gives San Francisco a little bit of wiggle room to decide which players on the fringe make the team and which may find themselves on the practice squad.
One of the hot stories this preseason has focused on seventh-round draft pick B.J. Daniels and where he stands with the team moving forward. I wrote a piece projecting his prospects which can be read here.
Daniels may have been a longshot to make the final roster, yet after an impressive performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in San Francisco's second preseason game, Daniels may be a legitimate roster contender.
San Francisco acquired veteran quarterback Seneca Wallace before last Sunday's matchup against the Minnesota Vikings and then released backup quarterback Scott Tolzien a day after the game. With Colt McCoy being named Colin Kaepernick's immediate backup, the competition for third string now lies between Daniels and Wallace.
Wallace may have the NFL experience but Daniels has the hot hand. While this Thursday's game may be the deciding factor, Daniels appears to have the edge and it is likely that Wallace is shown the door.
This was evidenced by Daniels getting more playing time in the 49ers' recent preseason victory over the Vikings.
Wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin is another player to pay close attention to this Thursday. San Francisco acquired the former first-round receiver from Kansas City in exchange for one of their own first-round busts A.J. Jenkins.
With Jenkins out and Baldwin in, a future is still not guaranteed for the two-year veteran.
Baldwin is likely competing for a roster spot with fellow receivers Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton, Chuck Jacobs, Chad Hall and Lavelle Hawkins.
Moore and Patton have the upper hand at roster spots yet remaining jobs at the position are yet to be determined.
Jacobs and Hall may be odd-men out, reported Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. In addition, veteran wide receiver Austin Collie does not figure to be in San Francisco's long-term plans. Thus, the position battle comes down to Baldwin and Hawkins.
Hawkins looked good last Sunday against Minnesota, yet his excessive celebrations and antics resulted in numerous penalties that certainly thwart his chances at making the final roster. Those will not go over well with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff.
Instead, Baldwin has a lot of upside. Harbaugh has already sung Baldwin's praises and in a recent interview published by Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area, Harbaugh stated:
He’s had a nice command of the offense. The very short time he’s been here, he has shown that he absorbed it real quick and [we] put him in some situations where he hadn’t practiced. Some of the things he did there tonight showed that he was taking mental reps. He pays attention and has real good physical ability. Everybody likes him. He’s fit in real well.
This has to stand in stark contrast to Hawkins. Thus, Baldwin should get the nod.
There is also a position battle at the tail end of San Francisco's running backs. Frank Gore will start and LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter will be his primary backups.
What happens between Anthony Dixon and 2012 undrafted free agent Jewel Hampton?
Hampton looked good against Minnesota last Sunday, but Dixon has much more to offer. While he is not a typical running back, he does have intrinsic value both as a lead blocker and on special teams. He also can be utilized as a short-down back.
It is likely that Dixon is the guy San Francisco wants to see on its final roster.
Who wins San Francisco's long snapper job? Will it be incumbent Brian Jennings, the longest-tenured 49er on the roster? Or will the job fall to undrafted rookie Kevin McDermott?
While Jennings may be the last active window to the previous era of 49er good fortune, one cannot overlook that he is old and expensive. At 37-years-old, Jennings is making $940,000 in his base salary while McDermott will earn the rookie minimum of $405,000.
Even Jennings understands the situation. In an article published by Eric Branch of SF Gate, Jennings stated:
I understand the 49ers’ position. I feel like if I were in a meeting room in the offseason, I would circle Brian Jennings at the long snapper position and see if we couldn’t get younger and cheaper. You know? I would give that same advice. I know that the timeline—stretched out long enough—the survival rate drops to zero. From the 49ers’ position, I’m not going to be able to snap the football forever.
Jennings is old and expensive. McDermott is young and developing. San Francisco would like to get younger and obviously like to save money wherever it could. It seems like a logical switch—part ways with Jennings and place the team's hopes on McDermott.
Not so fast.
Both Lynch and Examiner.com writer Christian Gin argue that the 49ers are not completely sold on McDermott taking over quite yet.
Why would San Francisco part ways with a former Pro Bowl long snapper when the team's expectations are nothing short of a Super Bowl championship? In addition, Jennings would be a much easier cut next season when he makes zero in guaranteed money.
As such, Jennings retains his job.
These are always important.
The quarterbacking depth chart has already been described. The wide receiver depth chart has been described in some detail, yet some of the aspects and projections are still pending.
Thursday's game should provide the final answers to everyone's speculation.
As previously noted, Collie, Hall, Hawkins and Jacobs will likely not make the roster. Anquan Boldin shall be the No. 1 receiver. He will receive little, if any, playing time this Thursday. Behind him, the No. 2 position is up for grabs.
The No. 2 receiver is likely to be decided between Moore and Kyle Williams with Patton being the wild card.
Moore has been an interesting story thus far into the preseason. On one hand, Moore saw 29 snaps last Sunday and, along with Patton, led all wide receivers in that category.
On the other hand, Moore did not have a stellar night on the field. Sure he caught three passes for 32 yards but he was targeted seven times.
The three-year veteran felt he could have done a lot more. He stated so after the game:
That’s part of being a football player. You always want to think about the stuff that you did wrong—you're never going to think about the stuff you did right. One expectation will be met if I’m still here when the final 53 is here. Then after that I got a whole new set of goals for myself to achieve. Expectations are never really met.
While Moore is a shoe-in for the final roster, it is questionable whether or not he earns the No. 2 job. Williams may also factor into that decision.
Up to this point, Williams has yet to participate in any of the 49ers' preseason games. Having just returned from his 2012 ACL injury and subsequent surgery, it is likely that San Francisco is being careful with their veteran receiver.
It is also possible that Williams may not even see any playing time in the game against the Chargers.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation suggests this by writing:
It will be interesting to see what happens when Williams gets back on the field. The 49ers have given Colin Kaepernick limited snaps, so they would seem to not be overly concerned with rust or any chemistry issues. The 49ers have plenty of question marks at wide receiver, so we'll see if Williams gets any snaps in the preseason finale this Thursday.
What is clear is that Williams wants to get back onto the field. He tweeted such when the 49ers entered training camp.
I'm fine!! Good day of work for us first day in the pads!— Kyle Williams (@KyleWilliams_10) July 28, 2013
Now, the only question is how soon San Francisco wants him back on the field. Will that happen against San Diego or in Week 1 of the regular season?
Also, fans should keep an eye on what happens with Patton.
After his impressive debut last Sunday against the Vikings, Patton has an outside chance to thwart the current depth chart and earn his way towards a No. 3 or potentially a No. 2 receiver. NFL Spin Zone listed Patton as the 49ers "Player to Watch" this Thursday.
It will be interesting to see how it pans out.
Another intriguing development will focus on San Francisco's secondary, and more notably their cornerbacks.
There was a time earlier this training camp where recently acquired veteran Nnamdi Asomugha was rumored to be on the roster bubble.
Following the season-ending injury to fellow corner Chris Culliver, Asomugha's job appeared more secure.
Even Asomugha recognized the need to step up and fill the void left by Culliver. After being called out by 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Asomugha stated:
I'm highly critical of myself. Highly, highly critical of myself. So there's not much that someone else might say that makes me feel like I need to be motivated in a different way. Like I said, I'm a self-motivated guy, and I'm probably saying worse than the next guy is saying anyway. I think I've progressed each day, which is the goal of this time of the year, especially being on a new team.
Asomugha has backed up his claims with three impressive performances thus far into the preseason.
Fellow corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers figure to earn the No. 1 and No. 2 cornerback slots respectively. Asomugha has been in a battle for the No. 3 spot with corners Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox.
As of now, it looks as if the job is Asomugha's to lose.
Fangio recently stated via an article by 49ers writer Andrew Pentis that Asomugha has gained the edge in the battle for the No. 3 position. Fangio further elaborated by saying, "He’s done well in his reps that he’s had in the game and in practice. Particularly the last two or three weeks, he’s played much better."
Whether Asomugha retains that spot is yet to be determined. If Asomugha sees substantial playing time against the Chargers, whether or not he deserves the job should be clear.
Other Notes to Watch
As stated, this will look nothing like a regular season game.
Fans will likely see very few of the 49ers' starters and, if they do, for a very limited amount of time—perhaps no more than a possession or two. Instead, the focus will be on position battles and depth players.
Up to this point, the 49ers have revealed very little of their regular season game plans. The hybrid read-option style offense has been all but nonexistent thus far.
Will San Francisco open up the playbook more Thursday night?
That is a simple answer—no.
Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers' coaching staff will continue to keep their cards close and their playbooks closer. There is no reason for San Francisco to reveal their hand early.
We can expect to see a lot of playing time from players like Daniels, Moore, Patton and Baldwin. The true revelation from each of these players, among others, should give the coaching staff a much better indication of who is deserving of climbing depth charts, let alone a roster spot in some cases.
The 49ers will also be paying close attention to players they deem may be worthy additions to the practice squad. Some, like Hall, will not be eligible according to the NFL's practice squad rules.
Few of these potential practice squad players will have an impact in 2013, but San Francisco may be eyeing the development of such players for future consideration. Players like Hampton, linebacker Cam Johnson and undrafted rookie MarQuies Gray may factor into the team's long-term plans.
Fans may see a glimpse of those plans against San Diego.
To the players still fighting for a roster spot, San Francisco's final postseason game means much more than just the last tune-up before the regular season begins.
That fact, if nothing else, makes the 49ers matchup against the Chargers something worth watching.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.