Levi’s Stadium will open its gates Thursday to a 49ers season brimming with playoff expectations.
Before the regular-season games count, and before Jimmy Garoppolo bobblehead dolls are dished out at the Sept. 16 home opener, the 49ers must first get through their exhibitions.
Here are five things to expect in Thursday night’s exhibition opener against the Dallas Cowboys:
1. Starters make cameo
Garoppolo and most of starters will play at least a series, then surely be gone by the second quarter. Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s stunt double the previous four exhibition seasons in New England, doesn’t need to be exposed to injury or show how much he now grasps Kyle Shanahan’s system. C.J. Beathard, come on down! “We’ll see how long the opening drive is,” Shanahan said of Thursday’s script. “Usually, the second game, you play guys a little more into the second quarter. Usually, the third game, they play the whole first half and sometimes start the third quarter. Then, the fourth game, they rarely play.”
A year ago, in Shanahan’s exhibition debut at Kansas City, then-starting quarterback Brian Hoyer lasted two series, having failed to get a first down and actually lost 7 yards in their first series. Injured players unlikely to suit up are cornerbacks Richard Sherman (hamstring) and K’Waun Williams (ankle), guards Joshua Garnett (knee) and J.P. Flynn (knee), defensive end Arik Armstead (hamstring), linebacker Brock Coyle (hip) and tight end Cole Wick (knee).
2. Ordinary Joe?
Running back Joe Williams is enjoying a revival this training camp and should lead the 49ers in rushing for a second straight exhibition season. Williams hasn’t played since last August, when he ran for 130 yards in four exhibitions and then went on injured reserve (ankle) amid renewed questions about his passion. “I’m just excited to watch him play out on the field,” Shanahan said. “I’m a lot more excited now than I was last year just because of what he’s shown in practice. … He’s come a long way in a year and he’s given himself a chance to be a good running back.”
He won’t pass Jerick McKinnon or Matt Breida on the depth chart, so the No. 3 role is an intense battle between Williams and Raheem Mostert, whose special-teams prowess gives him an early edge. Also competing are Jeremy McNichols and Jeff Wilson.
3. Receiver depth
Once Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garçon make an early exit, the 49ers can evaluate their improved depth at wide receiver, even more so if Trent Taylor (back) rests. Rookie Dante Pettis’ debut could entice fans to order up his No. 18 jersey as he’s a lock to make the team. How about last year’s tandem who made it as undrafted rookies, Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden?
One receiver to keep an eye on is the only holdover from Trent Baalke’s roster, that being Aaron Burbridge, who’s recovered from a 2017 hamstring tear and is perhaps their best special-teams gunner. Can Aldrick Robinson build off Monday’s solid practice? How about contrasting rookies Richie James (5-foot-9) and Steven Dunbar (6-3)? Can Max McCaffrey, Christian’s older brother, have the banner preseason he needs to remain here?
4. Defensive tone
The system is in place, key players are back and now the 49ers need to truly establish Robert Saleh’s mantras of “Extreme Violence” and “All Gas, No Brake.” Pretty much all starting spots are set, although Jimmie Ward and D.J. Reed will fill in for injured cornerbacks Sherman and Williams. Speaking of cornerbacks, the next wave to watch are Tyvis Powell, Greg Mabin, third-round pick Tavarius Moore and undrafted rookie Tarvarus McFadden.
Reuben Foster’s two-game suspension doesn’t kick in until the regular season, so he can use the exhibitions to work on a safer tackling style. Fellow linebackers Fred Warner and Elijah Lee should see a lot of action. Among those debuting on the defensive front are rookie Jullian Taylor and veterans Jeremiah Attaochu, Will Sutton and Cedric Thornton.
5. Anthem approach
This marks Year 3 of national-anthem drama, and Thursday’s controversy focuses more on the Cowboys, who’ve been ordered by owner Jerry Jones to “stand at the anthem, toe on the line.” As much as 49ers CEO Jed York would like his team to stand in unison, he remains the league’s biggest advocate in allowing players to express themselves as they desire without fear of discipline. As of Tuesday, neither York nor Shanahan had addressed players about the anthem, nor did either feel compelled to do so.
“It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind for our team,” Shanahan said. “I haven’t heard much about it and if it ever does become something that I feel I need to address, I will.” Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid are off the team but 49ers still have several players who knelt last season: Goodwin, Foster, Armstead, Eli Harold, K’Waun Williams, Adrian Colbert and Dekoda Watson.