The San Francisco 49ers have their second preseason game this Sunday against the Denver Broncos. With the third preseason game usually reserved for the starters to have a dress rehearsal and the fourth preseason game coming after the 75-man cutdown mark, this is the last chance for many players to prove they are deserving of a spot on the 49ers final roster.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, we mostly saw backups taking the field. On offense, the player with the most snaps was Ryan Seymour, per the official game book, so most of the snaps were taken by players who may not even make the final roster. It was a slightly different case on defense; the lead snap-getter was Corey Lemonier, who looks to play a large part during the likely Aldon Smith suspension.
Who will we see take the field against the Broncos? With a national audience on the NFL Network, here are the my predictions for the players who will see the most playing time.
Last year, Colin Kaepernick only played four snaps in the second preseason game, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and I would expect something along the same lines this year. The 49ers aren’t going to expose Kaepernick to Denver’s new array of defensive players.
It should be an all-out battle royal for the second quarterback spot, though. None of Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson or McLeod Bethel-Thompson exactly wowed against the Baltimore Ravens, leaving the position as much up in the air as it was coming in.
With so few snaps available in the third game and a dress rehearsal for the No. 2 player expected in the final game, this might be the last chance Johnson and Bethel-Thompson have to knock Gabbert out of the chief backup spot. Expect each to get a full quarter or more to show his stuff.
Frank Gore will continue to be heavily protected leading up to the start of the regular season; he won’t even sniff the field. We’ll see a little of Carlos Hyde too but not more than one or two series; I think the team is fine with him as its second back and will rest him some for the regular season.
That opens snaps for the battle for third running back. With Jewel Hampton having a poor night against Baltimore, I think Alfonso Smith will get his chance to show what he can do with the second-string offense.
I think LaMichael James still ends up with the slot when all is said and done, but he only just returned to practice on Thursday, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com; he’s not ready to go just yet. That means more snaps for Smith to try to show something, anything to stay on the roster.
Leading the way blocking will be Will Tukuafu, who can concentrate on that now that he won’t be forced into emergency defensive line duty as he was against Baltimore.
I’m most excited to see Brandon Lloyd for the first time this preseason. Lloyd returned to practice on August 9, according to Matt Barrows, and so he should be ready to see some playing time against his old team in Denver.
Lloyd is one of many receivers we’ll see battling for the No. 3 slot—Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton should get a fair number of snaps themselves. They’ll see plenty of action because the two starters, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, won’t.
Crabtree only returned to practice on Thursday, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, and Boldin saw just a series of work against Baltimore. That means mop-up duty will be handled by the very bottom of the roster, your Kassim Osgoods and L’Damian Washingtons.
Your tight end with the most snaps against Baltimore? Derek Carrier, who is battling Garrett Celek for the third tight end role. Carrier didn’t have a catch against the Ravens, but with Celek still nursing a back injury, expect him to get the lion’s share of work once again. He has a real shot, with all this game time, to earn the third spot outright.
A tale of two Martins. Jonathan Martin had a rather disastrous game against Baltimore and then had to miss practice this week due to a death in the family. He’s missed a lot of time this offseason for reasons outside his control, including a bout with mononucleosis, so that’s vital practice time he’s missed. He has to show something, as making the final roster would cost the 49ers a seventh-round draft pick.
Also having missed time this preseason is third-round rookie Marcus Martin, who was expected to battle Daniel Kilgore for the starting-center role. That seems out of the question at this point, but Martin is active now and has been practicing since the end of July.
He should make his 49ers debut on Sunday. He was the draft pick I was most excited about, so this is a big moment. Martin has the potential to be the starting center from 2015 through 2025, so keep an eye on his play behind Kilgore.
The rest of the offensive line should be mostly deep reserves. Ryan Seymour was starting at right tackle when Jonathan Martin was gone, according to Matt Maiocco, and has a chance to earn the swing tackle position. Al Netter and Michael Philipp are more depth players who are fighting to make the 75-man cutdown and should soak up snaps in the second half.
The starters are back! Ian Williams, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith are finally healthy enough to begin to participate in practices. Don’t expect to see them against Denver, however, especially Williams: There’s no need to rush them back in a meaningless game. We’ll see the reserves get plenty of snaps once again.
That means Demarcus Dobbs, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Quinton Dial will get the bulk of the snaps against Denver. Dial was very impressive against Baltimore, especially against the run. Jerod-Eddie struggled a little more, getting pushed around a bit early on. Dobbs only saw nine snaps due to a minor injury, but he should be ready to go.
These three, along with Tank Carradine, are the primary backup defensive line, so hopefully they’ll have a better showing. That’s tough against a Peyton Manning-led team, but that’s the sort of challenge they may need to overcome to become full-time starters.
Deeper on the depth chart, I thought Lawrence Okoye looked good before leaving with an injury against Baltimore; hopefully, he’ll be healthy enough to repeat against Denver. Mike Purcell got the start at nose tackle against Baltimore and should get a lot of snaps with Ian Williams still hurt, but he’s fading to an afterthought at the position.
The starters should again get most of the night off, so we’re looking at the second and third units getting most of the reps.
The primary backups to watch will be Corey Lemonier, coming off a busy night against Baltimore, as well as Nick Moody and Chris Borland. Borland’s still battling Michael Wilhoite to replace NaVorro Bowman, and Vic Fangio has said that battle is “very even," per Matt Barrows.
Meanwhile, Barrows has also described Moody as the “most impressive candidate from a speed and athletic perspective," though he didn’t look fantastic against the Ravens. He’ll be looking to have a better night against Denver.
Deeper on the depth chart, fifth-round draft choice Aaron Lynch should get his first defensive snaps of the year, so that’s something to keep an eye on. Also keep an eye on undrafted free agents Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas; it’s very likely they are battling one another for one slot on the practice squad. It’s hard to carry two linebackers when you only have eight spots to use.
Will we see Eric Reid and Jimmy Ward playing both safety positions at the same time? That’s the future of the 49ers defense, and it’s not something we got to see against Baltimore, as Reid was out of the game after a series.
I’ll be interested to see if the 49ers give them a chance to work together against Manning and the Broncos. C.J. Spillman should also see plenty of work at safety as he tries to earn one of the final spots on the 53-man roster.
At cornerback, Ward should see plenty of action with the rest of the reserves. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are still slowly working their way back to health and should see limited action. That leaves some combination of Chris Cook, Darryl Morris, Perrish Cox and Dontae Johnson fighting for the primary backup jobs at both the nickel and boundary corner positions.
Cook and Cox look like they have the lead at the moment, as they’re the more experienced players. It might take a year before Johnson and Morris are ready to play a significant role, so they’re ones to watch for the future.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.