San Francisco 49ers

What to watch in 49ers’ preseason finale: An open starting spot, key position battles

San Francisco 49ers tight end Cole Hikutini (83) drops a pass in the end zone under Indianapolis Colts defensive back Malik Hooker (29) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Indianapolis on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018.
San Francisco 49ers tight end Cole Hikutini (83) drops a pass in the end zone under Indianapolis Colts defensive back Malik Hooker (29) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Indianapolis on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. AP

The 49ers wrap up their exhibition slate with their annual game against the Chargers on Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium. Most of San Francisco’s starters will sit, but the game won’t be entirely meaningless ahead of final cut-down day on Saturday.

Here are five things to watch for before general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan trim the roster to 53.

Battle at right guard

Joshua Garnett appears to be putting heat on Mike Person while edging away from Jonathan Cooper in the only remaining open competition in the starting lineup. Garnett, a first-round draft choice in 2016, received a positive review from Shanahan in the aftermath of Saturday’s game against the Colts. He played 37 snaps and helped the offensive line put together its best performance of the preseason, particularly in the running game. Shanahan said Tuesday the job was Person’s to lose, but Garnett could still beat him out.

Garnett has answered questions about his fit with the 49ers after playing in a power-based scheme at Stanford and sitting out last season with a knee injury. Garnett could get extensive work against the Chargers while he continues to acclimate to the system, providing the coaching staff with a better idea of whether he deserves a starting spot. He missed two weeks of training camp and the exhibition opener.

The game could also be important for Cooper, who is continuing to round into shape following an off-season knee surgery. Cooper played 17 second-half snaps in Indianapolis and still must prove he could handle more playing time if called upon.

Who will be the third tight end?

Cole Hikutini dropped a potential touchdown pass in the first half of Saturday’s game after Cole Wick worked with the starters the previous week against the Texans. Wick later made a first-down catch on a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo and continues to put heat on Hikutini for a roster spot.

The players have differing skill sets. Hikutini is more known for his work as a pass catcher, while Wick is a stout blocker. Thursday could offer Shanahan and his coaching staff a better idea of who will be a better fit on the 53-man roster with George Kittle (shoulder) on the shelf and Garrett Celek unlikely to play.

Crowded group of receivers

One of the 49ers’ most difficult decisions will come at receiver, where they have more viable options that they can realistically keep on the back end of the depth chart. The locks appear to be Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis. That would leave Kendrick Bourne, Aldrick Robinson, Richie James and Aaron Burbridge competing for the final two spots.

James, a rookie seventh-round pick, has impressed. He made the game-winning touchdown catch in the exhibition opener and has special-teams value as a returner. Burbridge is one of the team’s best gunners, but he’s dealing with a hamstring injury and it’s unknown how long he would be out — and if it will affect his chances at making the cut. Bourne emerged late last season, but it’s unclear if he’s played well enough to stave off James for the roster spot. Robinson is a trusted veteran who played under Shanahan with Washington and Atlanta before coming to San Francisco last off-season.

Back end of the secondary

The 49ers on Tuesday released Chanceller James, who was a leading candidate to back up Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety. Recent sixth-round pick Marcell Harris hasn’t played this preseason due to a hamstring injury after missing all of 2017 at Florida with a torn Achilles. He’s unlikely to play Thursday. Tartt, who missed seven games last season with a fractured forearm, doesn’t have a clear backup at the moment.

Perhaps the 49ers will find a true strong safety off the scrap heap during final cuts. For now, Tyvis Powell is transitioning from cornerback to safety and debuted in that role during the loss to the Colts. But Powell isn’t a lock to make the team. The other options would likely be Antone Exum Jr. or Jimmie Ward, who’s undersized for the position and on Saturday added a quad strain to his long list of recent injuries. Ward likely won’t play Thursday, so how Powell acclimates to the position could define the team’s direction to finding Tartt’s backup.

Who’s auditioning for jobs elsewhere?

There will be over 1,000 players cut throughout the NFL this weekend. Many will wind up on other teams, including some players cut by San Francisco. Some surprise 49ers could end up on the open market, which means Thursday’s game could be their final auditions for prospective employers in 2018. A few names to keep an eye on:

NT Earl Mitchell: Will the emergence of D.J. Jones and Sheldon Day allow the 49ers to part with their top nose tackle? Moving on from Mitchell would save over $1 million in cap room for a position that plays roughly 15 snaps per game.

WR Kendrick Bourne: The 49ers might prefer their recent draft pick (James), a more valuable special-teams player (Burbridge) or a versatile veteran (Robinson) than Bourne if they’re steadfast in having six receivers on the 53-man roster. Only two nose tackles were activated on game days throughout last season.

DL Ronald Blair: Rookie seventh-round pick Jullian Taylor seems to have a firm grasp on a roster spot, overtaking Blair in the process. Blair would likely wind up on another team needing a versatile pass rusher on the back end of the depth chart.

CB Tarvarus McFadden: The 49ers’ most sought-after undrafted rookie has shown promise but appears unlikely to make the team. He might not slip through waivers to the practice squad given his appeal to clubs like the Seahawks, Chargers, Falcons and Jaguars, who run the same defensive scheme as San Francisco. McFadden was once considered a top prospect following his 2016 campaign at Florida State, when he logged eight interceptions and won the Jack Tatum Award, given to college football’s top defensive back.

Follow The Bee’s Chris Biderman: @ChrisBiderman
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