5 San Francisco 49ers Whose Stock Rose After 1st Preseason Game
The San Francisco 49ers' first preseason game is in the books, and there were a number of performances that may have changed the outlook of the position battles on their roster.
Despite losing, 23-3, to the Baltimore Ravens and struggling offensively, there were plenty of positives to take from this game for Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff.
Little can be read into preseason outings, however, Thursday's game at M&T Bank Stadium gave Harbaugh a good idea of the second-string players who could make a difference in 2014.
It was on defense that the Niners really stood out, and that is no surprise given that the Ravens dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 39 minutes, 37 seconds, while San Francisco had it for just 20 minutes, 23 seconds.
Harbaugh will hope for better from his offense in the next game against the Denver Broncos a week from Sunday.
Still, he will have been delighted with what he witnessed from many of his players. Here I look at five key standouts who boosted their hopes of playing a significant role in the regular season after strong showings in Baltimore.
Strength and explosion are key qualities for a pass-rushing defensive lineman. And what is evident from Thursday's exhibition is that Cornellius "Tank" Carradine has those attributes in spades.
In his first appearance as a 49er after missing his rookie year through injury, 2013 second-round pick Carradine had little difficulty penetrating the Ravens backfield.
The former Florida State defensive end finished the contest with eight tackles, one sack, one tackle behind the line of scrimmage and one quarterback hit, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. Carradine's sack was particularly impressive, as he broke through the Ravens offensive line with an inside rush move before delivering a crushing blow on Baltimore quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Despite his fine performance, Carradine still has some strides to make in order to make an impact in the regular season after admitting to feeling "a little gassed" toward the end of the game, per Barrows. Furthermore, Carradine will need to learn the full ins and outs of a defense that has regularly ranked in the top five in the NFL in recent years.
But for a defensive line that features 34-year-old Justin Smith and soon-to-be 30-year-old Ray McDonald, neither of whom are fully healthy, Carradine's display was a welcome boost.
There is still a long way to go in preseason, but Carradine has done no harm to his hopes of earning significant playing time with a showing that acted as a fine illustration of his considerable talents.
It wasn't pretty and was perhaps a tad fortunate, but Chris Cook has an interception as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
After going four seasons without a pick as a Minnesota Viking, free-agent signing Cook needed just one game to do so with the Niners. OK, so it counts for nothing, but the play should be a huge confidence boost for a player who may have been low on morale following his disastrous spell in Minnesota.
Cook has been doing work to improve his ball skills in the offseason, and that extra practice has already yielded results.
The pick came on a dreadful pass from Tyrod Taylor, with Cook showing good instincts to get a break on the ball and come down with the interception. That turnover was a rare highlight for a secondary that endured a disappointing evening and capped a relatively solid debut for Cook.
One pick is unlikely to elevate Cook into the conversation to compete for one of the starting roles, which are set to be filled by Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. However, for a player who came to San Francisco on a one-year flier, it is at least a boon to his hopes of resurrecting his career with the 49ers.
One of the primary questions for the 49ers heading into the new season surrounds the prospective replacement for injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
All-Pro Bowman is not expected to return until midway through the season as he recovers from the devastating knee injury suffered in the loss to the Seattle Seahawks in last season's NFC Championship Game.
Bowman's absence breaks up what is widely accepted as the best inside linebackers partnership in the league with perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis.
But Willis may find himself playing next a very capable partner if Michael Wilhoite's showing versus the Ravens is anything to go by.
Wilhoite has long been tipped as the front-runner to take over Bowman's job after impressing when filling in for Willis during the 2013 campaign. He was supposedly given competition when the Niners drafted Wisconsin's Chris Borland in the third round of the draft.
However, the difference in experience levels between the two was laid bare for all to see as Wilhoite excelled in a solid first preseason showing. Wilhoite recorded seven tackles and a sack against Baltimore, far from spectacular numbers, but a decent outing nonetheless.
By contrast, Borland looked very much like a rookie, appearing lost when in coverage and making just one tackle in the entire game.
Sure, this was only the first preseason game and neither Wilhoite nor Borland is going to match the level of Bowman, however, if the regular season were to start tomorrow, Wilhoite would be the starter.
At this point, the hype surrounding rookie running back Carlos Hyde has been completely justified.
The selection of the former Ohio State star in the second round has been widely lauded, with many believing that the 49ers managed to boost an already potent ground game with the best tailback in the 2014 class.
It may be extremely early in his fledgling NFL career, but the pressure on Hyde has already been ratcheted up due to the season-ending knee injury to the 49ers' longtime backup Kendall Hunter and the dislocated elbow suffered by LaMichael James.
Those blows have thrown Hyde into the spotlight as the leading candidate to back up the 49ers' all-time leading rusher Frank Gore in the coming season.
Hyde will be expected to take some of the load off Gore, who is approaching his 10th season in the league at the age of 31, and help the San Francisco starter remain effective in spite of his advancing years.
And if his display against Baltimore counts for anything, then Hyde may be the ideal player to eat into Gore's carries. After being given the start, Hyde had five carries for 39 yards at an average of 7.8 yards per rush attempt, slicing through the Baltimore defense with little difficulty.
In addition to his play with the ball in his hands, Hyde was able to show his proficiency in pass blocking, knocking C.J. Mosley out of a play to allow Blaine Gabbert to find Steve Johnson for a six-yard completion on third down.
Further evidence of the quality of Hyde's display was evidenced by the failings of Jewel Hampton, who recorded eight carries for just 18 yards and appeared out of his depth on blocking assignments.
With the injuries to Hunter and James, Hyde has an ample opportunity to make the No. 2 spot his own.
So far, it is a chance he is taking full advantage of.
Following Glenn Dorsey's bicep injury, nose tackle has become a position of concern for the 49ers. But the doubts over their level of talent at that spot have been somewhat allayed by Quinton Dial's showing in the preseason opener.
The former Alabama lineman, who was selected in the fifth round in 2013, played 56 of the 80 defensive snaps—per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—against the Ravens and was nothing short of outstanding.
Dial had little opportunity to prove himself in his rookie season, competing in just three games in his maiden year in the league due to a toe injury. But he grasped this chance with both hands, starring on a defensive line that was predominantly bullied by the Ravens by displaying impressive power and strength.
The 24-year-old—who stands at 6'5" and 318 pounds—weighed in with a team-high 10 tackles and was responsible for two forced fumbles in a simply superb display.
With Dorsey set for a long spell on the sidelines and Ian Williams—who won the starting role last year before getting injured in Week 2—still recovering from an ankle injury, it was just the kind of showing that 49ers fans will have been hoping to see from Dial and may elevate him into the running for the nose tackle job.
San Francisco is a team suddenly in need of a solution at nose tackle and if he maintains his current form, Dial could well prove to be it.
The quintet I have earmarked for praise were not the only ones to make an impression in the 49ers' preseason bout.
Indeed, a number of others produced eye-catching performances worthy of some notoriety despite the disappointing nature of San Francisco's overall showing.
The majority of those who impressed were on the defensive side of the ball, although offensively, tight end Vance McDonald will have been pleased with how he played, recording two catches for 24 yards as he aims to prove that he can be a factor in the passing game.
Reed—a member of the Ravens team that beat the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII and a former Indianapolis Colt—looks unlikely to make the roster given the depth of quality at receiver. However, he was one of the better performers for the Niners offensively on Thursday and may well have boosted his prospects of landing with another team.
One player that is certain to earn a spot on the 49ers roster is rookie first-round pick Jimmie Ward, who showed flashes of his undoubted ability, totaling two tackles and a pass breakup and earning plaudits from Harbaugh for his aggressiveness in his debut.
With Aldon Smith facing a suspension from the league, San Francisco will need a strong contribution from its reserve pass-rushers.
Thankfully, second-year outside linebacker Corey Lemonier, a likely candidate to step in for Smith during his absence, gave Niners fans hope that he can help fill the void with a solid display.
Lemonier, a third-round pick in 2013 out of Auburn, produced three tackles and a sack and will be eager to build on that and make the case for his inclusion among the starters if and when Smith is suspended.
Note: Statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.
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