Most Important Preseason Takeaways for San Francisco 49ers
Rookies Carlos Hyde and Jimmie Ward looked anything but shellshocked in their first NFL preseason. The way their talent translated to the professional gridiron were two my most important takeaways for the San Francisco 49ers over the last month.
These five slides detail player and position group developments from the 49ers' four exhibition games that will have the biggest impact on San Francisco's regular season.
I considered including the Niners' bad quarterback play. But I left that out because the poor play of the backups won't matter as long as Colin Kaepernick avoids injury, and Kap's struggles in six series had more to do with the big guys blocking for him than anything else.
But before getting into offensive line issues, let's start with the brightest spot of the 49er offense during the preseason.
Carlos Hyde Is the Real Deal
From watching him at Ohio State, we knew Hyde was physical enough to play on Sundays. However, I wondered if he was quick enough to be an effective NFL running back.
He proved in his first preseason game that any questions about his speed were unwarranted.
Overall, he rushed for 96 yards on 5.6 yards per carry. He also looked comfortable in pass-blocking and running routes out of the backfield.
For the first time in the Frank Gore era, the 49ers have a backup running back who isn't a major drop-off in talent. They'll use a heavy dose of Hyde—especially if they don't quickly solve their pass-blocking issues up front.
49ers' O-Line Needs to Improve Pass-Blocking
Most of San Francisco's offensive struggles can be attributed to starters sitting and bad backup quarterback play.
However, the one issue that's most likely to linger into the season is the offensive line's pass-blocking woes.
Against the Chargers, Colin Kaepernick played three series and was hit four times. Mike Iupati, in particular, looked a step slow.
Corey Liuget ran right around Iupati and steamrolled Kap from behind, forcing a fumble to end the 49ers' second series.
Iupati wasn't alone, as on virtually every passing play, one of San Francisco's starting linemen allowed a pressure.
Iupati and Alex Boone were below average in Pro Football Focus' 2013 pass-blocking ratings among guards (subscription required). Rookie center Daniel Kilgore could struggle in first season as a starter.
The 49ers traded for Stevie Johnson to add another dimension to their offense. But right now, they're not blocking well enough to be effective in pass-heavy sets.
Tank Carradine Will Make an Impact as a Pass-Rusher
Though he finished the preseason with one sack, one hit and three hurries, defensive end Tank Carradine was inches away from having several more quarterback takedowns.
More importantly, he looked healthy and explosive. He looked like the pass-rusher Bleacher Report's Matt Miller claimed was a top-five NFL draft prospect in 2013.
Ray McDonald and Justin Smith are going to play the majority of the snaps at defensive end in the 49ers' base 3-4 defense. But Carradine will get his chances on passing downs, and he'll have a fresh motor when he does put his hand in the ground.
He has the versatility to rush the quarterback from the defensive tackle and end positions. He should be particularly effective rushing from the inside against slower guards.
ESPN.com's Mike Sando put Carradine on his top 50 breakout players list (subscription required). As long as he stays healthy, he seems destined for a big-time rookie season.
JImmie Ward Will Contribute Immediately
It was a workmanlike preseason for Jimmie Ward.
He didn't have several bone-crushing hits or athletic pass breakups. But he showed good instincts and closing speed against both the pass and the run, which led to the rookie safety earning Pro Football Focus' highest overall rating of any 49ers defensive player in the preseason.
In all, Ward had 13 tackles, two pass breakups and one interception in 124 snaps. He was around the ball more consistently than any other Niner defensive back.
The 49ers have several other candidates to play nickel cornerback, but none possesses the tackling ability of Ward. And the importance of tackling can't be overstated for a slot cornerback, as he's in some ways acting as the team's third linebacker against running plays in San Francisco's nickel defense.
The Niners drafted Ward to fill the No. 3 cornerback role. They have no reason not to give him the majority of the snaps in the nickel against the Cowboys.
Corey Lemonier, Quinton Dial Are Ready for Bigger Roles
Aldon Smith has been suspended for the first nine games of the season. Glenn Dorsey will likely miss at least that much time with a torn biceps injury. And NaVorro Bowman is out for at least the first six games of the season with a torn ACL and MCL.
To put it simply, San Francisco's defensive depth will be tested.
That's what makes Corey Lemonier and Quinton Dial's preseason play all the more important.
Among 3-4 outside linebackers, Lemonier finished second in PFF's Pass-Rushing Productivity metric. Nine pressures, six hurries and two sacks in four games will do that for you.
Will Lemonier make 49ers fans forget Smith? No. But he will ease the blow of not having Smith on pass-rushing downs.
Meanwhile, Dial finished second in PFF's Run Stop Percentage among 3-4 defensive ends. Projected defensive line starters Ian Williams, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith will play the majority of snaps in the base defense in Dorsey's absence, but Dial could work his way into the rotation to help keep the starters fresh.
Lemonier had 284 defensive snaps last year. Dial had 19. It wouldn't surprise me to see both net at least 200 in 2014.