San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Preseason Successes So Far
With the fourth preseason game little more than a dress rehearsal, the San Francisco 49ers have most of the data they’ll need to make their cuts. With teams required to cut down to 75 players by the end of the day on Tuesday and to 53 on August 30, the end of the line is coming quickly for a lot of players at the bottom of the roster.
Some players have earned a reprieve from those cuts, however, thanks to exemplary play in the preseason games. Some of them have been surprises—unhearalded players turning in above-average results against inferior competition. Some have been expected—highly touted rookies looking like the real deal as they work their way into the starting lineup.
We’re just looking at play in the three preseason games here. While some players have gotten rave reviews from coaches and reporters from their performances in practice, there’s nothing quite like game time to show who’s for real and who’s not.
Here are five of the top performers and groups so far in the preseason, from all over the depth chart:
LB Aaron Lynch
When the 49ers drafted Aaron Lynch, I ranked him as the 10th-best pick out of the 12 the 49ers made. I said that, on a talent level, he was a great pick, but I questioned his work ethic and effort.
Lynch certainly has been putting in an effort in the preseason so far! Lynch not only has a sack to his name, he was also in the backfield fairly frequently in the second half against San Diego, disrupting pass plays and hitting backs before they had a chance to get going.
He had a sack, two hurries, two batted passes and a tipped pass that led to an interception, all in the second half. He’s the one who tipped the ball that led to Jimmie Ward’s interception in the third quarter, and that’s just one of several big plays he was involved in. It seemed like opposing tackles couldn’t hold him for long.
Lynch, Corey Lemonier, Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland would make up a competent NFL linebacking corps right now, albeit one in the lower half of the league. To think that they’re the only backups on this roster right now is a pretty amazing thing. It’ll be fun to watch them develop over the next few seasons and see who can work their way into the starting lineup.
DB Jimmie Ward
If there was any doubt that Jimmie Ward will be the starting nickel cornerback, that was erased against San Diego. With Tramaine Brock back to knock Perrish Cox out of the starting lineup, Ward held on to the starting nickel-spot role and continued to shine.
Ward’s played more than half the game in each of the last two preseason games, meaning there was plenty of time for him to be exposed by a variety of different quarterbacks. Instead, Ward showed poise and solid coverage skills.
His highlight, of course, was the interception against San Diego, but he’s done well as both a cornerback and a safety over the course of the preseason. That versatility is one of the main reasons he was San Francisco’s first-round pick.
The only game where he really struggled was against Peyton Manning, but fortunately, most quarterbacks in the league aren’t Peyton Manning. I’ll take his highlights over the struggles against a future Hall of Famer in his first preseason.
TE Vance McDonald
As a rookie last season, Vance McDonald was underwhelming, to say the least. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McDonald only caught 47.4 percent of passes thrown his way, including three drops.
For a second-round pick designed to replace the jack-of-all-trades Delanie Walker, that was a really underwhelming debut. He was outperformed by his backup at Rice, Seattle Seahawk Luke Willson.
In preseason, however, McDonald has been looking like an entirely different player—he’s been looking like the guy the team was excited about during last year’s draft. McDonald has caught six of the seven balls thrown his way, averaging 10.3 yards per reception. He hasn’t been a monster in yards after the catch, but he’s shown solid hands and an ability to get open.
His play of the preseason so far was catching San Francisco’s first touchdown in Levi’s Stadium, a simple run and catch out in the flat to give the 49ers a 10-3 lead, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
"Vance has had a great camp, a tremendous offseason, catching the ball very well," Jim Harbaugh said after the game, per Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com. "We're all very confident in Vance."
McDonald would be my personal choice for MVP of the preseason so far, with one game to go.
NT Mike Purcell
In something that surprised me, Mike Purcell got the start over Quinton Dial in both of the first two preseason games, before taking all but a handful of snaps off against San Diego. While he occasionally has shown why he went undrafted and spent all year on the practice squad, his performance against Denver was exemplary.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) credits Purcell with five “stops”—solo defensive tackles which result in an offensive failure—this preseason.
Considering he’s only played 92 snaps, that’s pretty impressive; no other defensive lineman comes close to that rate, and Purcell has the added disadvantage of having to take on two or three linemen as a nose tackle. It’s not his job to make tackles; it’s his job to clog lanes and allow the linebackers to flow in, yet he still found ways to make an impact against the run.
Does Purcell make the final 53-man roster? His odds were a lot better before Ian Williams came back from his broken ankle. I think he may find his way back onto the practice squad for one more season, but don’t be surprised if he squeaks on at the bottom of the depth chart.
Left Offensive Line Reserves (Al Netter and Carter Bykowski)
With All-Pros Mike Iupati and Joe Staley mostly resting through most of the preseason, their backups have been getting the lion’s share of the offensive line work. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Carter Bykowski has racked up 117 snaps, mostly at left tackle, while Al Netter has added 77 more, both at left guard and right tackle. They’ve looked very solid in their work.
Bykowski’s really in a competition with Ryan Seymour for a backup tackle role, while Netter is fighting for the primary backup-guard role with the more experienced Adam Snyder. Both spent last year on the 49ers’ practice squad, and they could very well end up there again.
However, in light of Alex Boone’s continued holdout and Marcus Martin’s dislocated kneecap, there might be a spot or two for Netter or Bykowski to actually make the 53-man roster, at least initially. At the very least, I think they’ve earned themselves a reprieve from the 75-man cutdown, giving them one more game to try to make an impact.
Considering the struggles the starting offensive line had against San Diego, I felt it would be good to at least acknowledge that some of the offensive line has been looking quite good. It would be a very bad sign for either of them to have to play in a regular-season game, but as developmental prospects, they may be worth keeping an eye on in the future.
If I had to rank them, I’d say Bykowski has the better odds to stick around, but look at the path Netter (65) opens up on this 27-yard touchdown run by Glenn Winston. It’s not a very strong physical play, but it shows very solid technique and precision, opening the hole that springs Winston—good things.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.