Here are five things to watch when the 49ers travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts on Saturday in their third preseason game.
Richard Sherman’s debut
A lot hinges on Richard Sherman in 2018. He was brought in to help improve the league’s 22nd-ranked pass defense from last season and provide leadership to a young secondary. But Sherman was held out of the first two preseason games while he worked his way back from a mild hamstring injury following his recovery from an Achilles tear in November. Sherman said he plans on playing in Indianapolis, marking his San Francisco debut.
“It’s important just for defensive continuity standpoint,” Sherman said this week. “You know, everybody knowing where people are going to be on game day. You don’t want the first time you deal with communicating with someone else to be with live bullets out there. So you want to get out there and get the communication, if someone can’t hear or someone is not looking, you want to kind of get those tweaks out of the way.”
Sherman, 30, is out to prove he still has something left in the tank following his messy exit from the Seahawks. Saturday will likely be his first and only chance to get on the field this preseason before sitting out the finale against the Chargers next Thursday. Shanahan said the hope for Sherman is getting a half of action under his belt.
“Hopefully, he gets enough so that he feels comfortable,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I’m leaning a lot on Sherm with this. He’s finally got to the point where we feel he can go and not have setbacks. Now it’s what he needs to do to get himself ready for Minnesota (Week 1).”
The mix at right guard
Joshua Garnett, a 2016 first-round pick, re-inserted himself into the competition to start at right guard after playing 35 snaps last week in Houston. It was an important step as he worked back from a bruised knee that cost him most of the first two weeks of training camp.
“I was real excited for him to be able to go out there and play that much,” Shanahan said. “He did some good things, he did some bad things like everybody. But, I thought it was a success in terms of he got to play a lot and he felt good after the game.”
Garnett was second into the game behind veteran Mike Person, who remains the early favorite to start. But Person is also the backup center, particularly now with second-year player Erik Magnuson on the shelf for the foreseeable future with a hamstring injury. Jonathan Cooper, who received $4 million in guarantees on his one-year contract this offseason, is continuing to work his way back into the fold after knee surgery.
Cooper played 21 second-half snaps in Houston and will remain in the conversation as long as he gets healthy. He was also a first-round pick, though the 49ers are his fifth team in five seasons largely because of injuries.
The coaching staff might believe it can be patient figuring out who starts at right guard and who ends up in reserve roles. They didn’t solidify the interior of the offensive line until Week 2 last season after inserting Laken Tomlinson when he was acquired from the Lions during final cuts.
The 49ers on Thursday traded their their presumptive starting “Sam” linebacker in Eli Harold, leaving a void on the edge of the defense. The team’s two players at the position in early warmups were Pita Taumoepenu and Mark Nzeocha. That duo will likely see a bulk of the snaps on Saturday.
Shanahan said Nzeocha will start with first-team base defense in Harold’s place, but beyond Saturday the position’s outlook is unclear. The coaching staff could be fluid with it, depending on match ups and offensive packages.
That could also mean interior players, namely DeForest Buckner, might be used outside more often, particularly with the emergence of Sheldon Day on the interior throughout the preseason. Day and Buckner play the same “three technique” defensive tackle, though Day has seen the bulk of his reps with the second string.
“It has to do a lot with how we think we’re going to use people on game day, who’s going to be up between defensive linemen, outside linebackers, inside linebackers,” Shanahan said. “All three of those positions kind of play together and we’ve got some numbers issues at certain spots.”
Taumoepenu didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie last season. He made the team after getting drafted in the sixth round but was on the active roster for just two games when he played special teams. He’s played just 22 snaps in two preseason games, logging two tackles, including a tackle for loss, and a special-teams tackle.
The new running back
The 49ers signed veteran Alfred Morris last week after losing their top two running backs, Jerick McKinnon (calf) and Matt Breida (separated shoulder), to injuries. They also lost Joe Williams on Saturday to a busted rib, on top of other undisclosed ailments, Shanahan said.
With three runners out, Morris will have an opportunity at a roster spot despite spending the offseason unemployed. Shanahan kept three in 2017, but that could change given the potential need for an insurance policy once the regular season begins.
“We definitely think there’s four running backs on our roster that we like,” said Shanahan. “We have that at a lot of positions and stuff, and that’s why it’s going to be tough to get to this 53.”
Morris is expected to make his San Francisco debut against the Colts, which could go a long way toward defining his immediate future. McKinnon and Breida are expected to return for Week 1 and Shanahan indicated the same might be true for Williams, though his roster spot is in question after uninspiring performances in the first two preseason games.
For now, Raheem Mostert seems primed for a roster spot given his value on special teams as the top gunner in punt and kickoff coverage. Saturday will shed more light on the rest of the position group.
Injured players return
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead (hamstring), linebacker Malcolm Smith (hamstring) and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (concussion) are expected to be back on the field in Indianapolis. That’s good news for San Francisco after the injuries piled up early in training camp and during the first quarter of the exhibition opener.
Armstead is transitioning to a new role as a “big” defensive end and could see his workload increase along the edges with Harold getting traded to the Lions. The 49ers are hoping Thomas can rebound from his lackluster rookie campaign and become the dominant interior pass rusher they hoped they were adding when they drafted the Stanford alum third overall.
Smith made his 49ers debut against the Cowboys more than a year after signing a lucrative five-year contract. But he lasted just six snaps before his hamstring tightened up, sending him to the bench. Smith would be a favorite to start at inside linebacker if he can stay on the field.
Then there’s slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, who returned to practice this week after suffering a recent ankle injury. He hasn’t played in the preseason, allowing rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Reed to work as the starting nickel back and second-string free safety.