The San Francisco 49ers begin their preseason slate Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens. It’ll be broadcast nationally on the NFL Network at 4:30 p.m. PT, while people in the 49ers' broadcast area can catch it on their local CBS affiliate.
It’s always a little different watching a preseason game, especially the first one. While normally you’re rooting for your team to win, that doesn’t matter so much in the preseason. Last year, I studied whether preseason results had any real impact on regular-season success, and if you’re a 12-4 team like the 49ers were last season, the answer is no.
If the 49ers were hovering about .500 and trying to see if they would get better or worse, then the final score of these games might matter a little bit, but the team will be resting so many starters and key role players that taking any meaning from the preseason record is a fool’s errand.
So, what should we expect from this first preseason game? Who will get their chance to make an impression on the coaches, and what roles are they playing for?
First of all, don’t expect too many of the starters to make more than a cameo appearance.
In last season’s preseason opener, for example, Colin Kaepernick played 13 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien handled the lion’s share of the work. When all is said and done, the Ravens game will probably see the following players play the most time:
We’ll see Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert make cameos, but I imagine this will be Josh Johnson’s show for the majority of the game.
Johnson’s fighting an uphill battle to be the third quarterback, but the numbers game will probably squeeze him out in the long run. If you’re hoping to see more of McLeod Bethel-Thompson, you’ll probably get your chance at the end of the game but not too much—the 49ers don’t want to risk another team grabbing him when they try to stash him on the practice squad.
I’ll be stunned if Frank Gore takes a single snap, considering the injuries to Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Gore got a whopping eight snaps in preseason last year, per PFF (subscription required), and none until the third preseason game.
Carlos Hyde will probably get the start and probably play the first 10 minutes or so against mostly the Ravens' starters. Watch to see his burst early on. The majority of the carries will probably go to Jewel Hampton, though.
With the injuries at the position, Hampton has an outside shot of making the final 53-man roster after two years on the practice squad. The most likely outcome is a return to the practice squad, but he’ll get more of a chance this year to prove what he can do.
If you are looking for a starter here, I’d expect Bruce Miller to split fullback snaps more or less evenly with Will Tukuafu. Miller is coming off of a fractured scapula and could use some game time to get him back up to full speed by the start of the season.
I’d normally expect Anquan Boldin to join them on the sidelines, but considering the team is already two receivers down and they’re playing his old team, he might get a few extra series in front of his former fans.
I think we will see an above-average number of snaps from Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton as they battle for the third receiver slot, but this is more guesswork than any other position.
I am a huge fan of Patton’s potential, so I’ll be watching him very closely, and I’m excited to see with my own eyes how Johnson and Kaepernick’s chemistry is developing. They’ll be the top receivers for Kaepernick and Gabbert.
The rest of the receivers will rotate in and out at the end of the game, with Chuck Jacobs likely reprising his role of “guy who gets a lot of snaps who has no chance of making the 53-man roster.” I wouldn’t expect to see much of Bruce Ellington quite yet; he’s been a little bit slowed down by injury this preseason.
Vernon Davis doesn’t need the preseason to get ready; even if he had held out the entire training camp period, he’d probably be good to fall right back into his position once the regular season started. So, just like last year, this will be Vance McDonald’s chance to shine.
The second-year player had a fairly disastrous season as a rookie, catching only 47.4 percent of passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That number has to go up.
McDonald was at 63.6 percent last preseason, per PFF, so consider that a target number for this preseason. He’s not yet at the point where he’s a valid replacement for the departed Delanie Walker, so there’s work to be done here.
In last year’s first preseason game, this is where we saw extended action for some players, as both Joe Looney and Patrick Omameh played more than three-quarters of the snaps, joining Vance McDonald and Michael Wilhoite as the only four to earn that distinction.
The big question to me is how much third-round rookie Marcus Martin will play. He’s in a purported battle for the starting center role with Daniel Kilgore, but he was only activated on July 27 and started practicing on Sunday. If he plays a lot, that’s a good sign for his development and health.
We’ll see the starting offensive line for about a quarter or so, but I’d expect to see the likes of Carter Bykowski, Al Netter, Michael Philip and Ryan Seymour, all buried at the bottom of the depth chart, get the lion’s share of the work in the second half.
The one to watch there is Bykowski. With Jonathan Martin struggling a little, according to Can Inman of mercurynews.com, Bykowski’s got a real shot at stealing the primary backup tackle spot. He’ll be playing against subpar competition, but a clean evening would still be a great sign from him.
This might be the most interesting position to watch for this game. We won’t see much, of anything, of Justin Smith or Ray McDonald, and Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams are both out with injuries. That leaves a lot of interesting depth choices.
Six players should get a decent chunk of playing time.
At defensive end, DeMarcus Dobbs’ odds of making the team went up when Dorsey went down with his injury. The odds then probably dropped a bit more with news that Dorsey’s injury may not be season-ending, per a source, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, and that Williams was working out for executives, as reported by Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Dobbs is fighting to justify his $1.4 million salary, per Spotrac, as he’s being challenged by Tony Jerod-Eddie from higher on the depth chart and Tank Carradine from lower. Seeing how the defensive end snaps are divvied up between those three players is going to tell us a lot about how that competition is going right now.
At nose tackle, expect plenty of work from both Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell as the team tries to figure out a plan C for the position. If Williams is ready to go in a few weeks and Dorsey comes back by November, this isn’t an issue. If Williams' injury lingers and Dorsey takes forever to come back, however, one of these two men will play a large role for the 2014 49ers.
Finally, look for Lawrence Okoye, the 6’6”, 304-pound former British Olympian. He’s an absolute physical terror who has never played a meaningful football game in his life at any level. If he can develop into a real football player, he could be an absolute stud.
The big question in my mind here is how much Wilhoite will play. He’s penciled in as the replacement for NaVorro Bowman until he returns, but the team also knows how good Wilhoite is. I’d expect to see more of the young players battling for the role of replacing Bowman.
That means a healthy dose of third-round pick Chris Borland, undrafted free agent Shayne Skov and last year’s sixth-round pick Nick Moody. I’d rank them Wilhoite-Borland-Moody-Skov in terms of odds of replacing Bowman in the regular season, but that’s before Borland and Skov have a single regular-season snap to their name.
Wilhoite saw 179 defensive snaps last season, according to PFF (subscription required), so he’s got a much larger backlog of footage there, while Moody only saw 10. I’d expect the first game to be used to take a long look at the three relative unknowns, despite Wilhoite actually starting across from Patrick Willis.
Outside, the 49ers need to decide who will be starting during Aldon Smith’s likely suspension. My hunch is this will be a full test for Corey Lemonier, rather than Dan Skuta, because Lemonier is the one whom the 49ers secretly want to win the battle. He’s got the most upside, and he could be a starter next season or the year after.
We’ll also see fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch in his first extended action as a 49er. The troubled linebacker slipped because of concerns over his work ethic, and he missed the first chunk of training camp with injuries.
It sounds like since coming back, however, he’s been looking good, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation, so I’m excited to see him in action. We’ll also probably see a lot of the snaps taken by someone like Chase Thomas, a player from Harbaugh’s days at Stanford who bounced around the practice squads of the league last season.
We won’t see much of Tramaine Brock or Chris Culliver, according to Cam Inman, as they’re a little sore from nagging injuries. That means it’s time for depth to earn roles on the roster.
It will be, in no small part, the rookie show. First-rounder Jimmie Ward shouldn’t start, but he should get a long look in the second half, possibly at both corner and safety. Fourth-rounder Dontae Johnson and fifth-rounder Kenneth Acker should similarly see a lot of playing time. It’ll be their first taste of NFL action, so watch to see how their nerves do as much as anything else.
Darryl Morris, an undrafted free agent last season, has been impressing so far, according to Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. He has a chance to earn that dime slot, or maybe even the nickel, so he’s one to watch.
At safety, we won’t see much of Eric Reid or free agent Antoine Bethea, so we’re talking a mixture of Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and James McCray as they fight for probably two reserve slots there.
Dahl and Spillman are the favorites, while McCray is an undrafted free agent out of Catawba. McCray is fighting to make the 75-man cutdown and possibly earn a spot on the practice squad, so he’ll need a huge game against the back of the Baltimore offense.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.