San Francisco 49ers

Ten things to watch for when 49ers and Cowboys open preseason Saturday night

Scenes from 49ers training camp

The San Francisco 49ers training camp practice featured Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo among others, on July 28 and 29, 2019.
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The San Francisco 49ers training camp practice featured Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo among others, on July 28 and 29, 2019.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t a fan of the NFL’s four-game exhibition format.

“You absolutely don’t need four preseason games,” Shanahan said Thursday. “I’d rather have zero than four. Preferably, I’d like two. One to evaluate the people trying to make the team and then just one to knock a little rust off.”

Asked if he places more value on training camp practices than preseason games, Shanahan didn’t hesitate. “A ton more value, yeah.”

Shanahan’s team has a strange streak of three preseason games over a 10-day span later this month. But first, San Francisco opens up its preseason slate Saturday night by hosting the Dallas Cowboys. And no matter how much Shanahan dislikes the idea, he’s going to have to coach the game and we’re all going to watch, whether we like it or not.

So here are 10 things to look for in the game Shanahan prefers didn’t exist.

1. Starting quarterback drama

Shanahan didn’t say which quarterback will start Saturday’s game. The only certainty: it won’t be Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s already been ruled out of the opener but expected to play in the second and third preseason games at Denver and Kansas City, respectively. That leaves Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard, whom Shanahan has said are dead even in the battle to serve as Garoppolo’s backup for the regular season.

Will Saturday’s starter be an indication Shanahan is leaning one way or another? It’s unlikely. Neither Mullens nor Beathard has done much to distinguish themselves throughout training camp. And whoever doesn’t start Saturday would probably end up starting the fourth preseason game (after Garoppolo starts the second and third tilts). It could be Shanahan doesn’t divulge his preference until his backup quarterback is needed during the regular season – or if one of them isn’t part of the 53-man roster come Week 1.

2. What will we learn about the receiver battle?

There are only four stone-cold locks to make the roster at receiver – Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd – while the remaining two spots seem in the air between Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, Jordan Matthews and Richie James Jr.

It remains to be seen if anything meaningful comes from Saturday’s game regarding this complicated battle. The most telling thing would be if certain receivers are kept from playing to avoid injuries (*stares at Goodwin*). Or perhaps a big play is made on special teams that forces Shanahan to think about keeping a player as a return specialist (*peaks at James*).

More than likely: Undrafted rookie Shaun Poindexter and Malik Henry will lead the receivers in playing time before winding up on the practice squad, leaving readers to wonder why they ever looked at item No. 2 in the first place.

3. The Mitch Wishnowsky world premier

The 49ers used a fourth-round pick on a punter for this moment.

Okay, not really. But everyone is wondering if Wishnowsky is going to live up to the hype of being the highest-drafted punter since 2012. He’s dazzled during practice, nailing punts a mile in the air while 49ers return men have struggled to handle his array of kicks that spin all sorts of different directions.

But punting in a game is different, particularly against players aching to get noticed by blocking one or making a big play in the all-important third phase. Wishnowsky needs to make a strong debut to avoid any added pressure heading into his first regular season. Let it fly, Mitch.

4. The fill-ins at defensive end

Dee Ford (knee), Nick Bosa (ankle), Arik Armstead (calf) and Ronald Blair (groin) are all dealing with injuries. That’s right, the team’s top four defensive ends.

So who fills in? Solomon Thomas should play some, though it would be foolish to keep him out there for more than a few series. DeForest Buckner has played defensive end exclusively the last two practices, but the 49ers would be insane to stick their defensive pillar in the first preseason game for longer than a handful of plays.

Which means it could be time to get acquainted with newcomer Jeremiah Valoaga, who was signed Thursday amid the injury onslaught. He spent all of last season on the Miami Dolphins practice squad. It’s time to see how that vaunted Dolphins practice squad prepares players for the rigors of preseason Week 1.

5. Dre Greenlaw’s first crack

The rookie fifth-round pick has played well enough since getting drafted to get most of his practice time with the starters, indicating he’s in line for a significant role once the regular season starts. Greenlaw has been competing with veteran Malcolm Smith for the starting “Sam” linebacker role and could have a leg up, given his advantages in age (22 to 30) and salary ($575,000 to $5.4 million).

Greenlaw’s been one of San Francisco’s most promising stories of camp, particularly since John Lynch and Shanahan’s best Day 3 defensive player drafted, to this point, has been Adrian Colbert, who went from starting at free safety last season to possibly getting demoted to third string behind Tarvarius Moore and Jimmie Ward.

6. Sixth-round pick mania

The 49ers in April drafted three players in Round 6: tight end Kaden Smith, tackle Justin Skule and cornerback Tim Harris. None are guaranteed roster spots, though strong performances in preseason games wouldn’t hurt their chances.

Smith has mostly been quiet during training camp as he learns the nuances of a difficult position to grasp. But he made arguably his best play of camp when he hauled in an athletic, “game-winning” touchdown grab to cap a two-minute drill Thursday. Smith is trying to fend off the more athletic and versatile Tyree Mayfield for the No. 3 tight end job.

Skule will need a good showing to convince Shanahan to keep four tackles on the active roster, which is a possibility. He could develop into the future “swing” tackle, but that job is Shon Coleman’s in the meantime. Harris figures to get a bunch of playing time throughout the preseason because he needs reps – and the 49ers don’t have much depth at the position.

7. Will any UDFAs stand out?

Undrafted free agents can often be the hidden treasure of roster building and it’s rare those players make an impact on the practice field right away (which explains their undrafted statuses, after all). Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair should lead the linebacking corps in playing time throughout the preseason.

Defensive lineman Kevin Givens has played all over the place in training camp, including defensive end this week after the slew of injuries. Mayfield, as mentioned, is competing hard for the No. 3 tight end job and could have a leg up given his value on special teams. Guard Ross Reynolds was highly thought of at Iowa for his run blocking, though that’s tough to gauge without access to the All-22 tape from practice (help a guy out, Shanahan).

8. The uniforms

Is there any more aesthetically pleasing uniform match up than 49ers versus Cowboys? The red and blue contrast each other perfectly, as do gold and silver. Plus the unis invoke the memories of all those classic games between these two storied franchises. Long sigh.

That should be enough to keep your attention for at least a quarter and a half.

9. The Papa Effect

The new radio voice of the 49ers, Greg Papa, will be making his debut with his new club, only it will be on the local television broadcast, not the radio waves. The former Raiders play-by-play man is regarded as one of the best in the business and there’s no doubt the longtime Bay Area media stalwart will bring maximum effort and enthusiasm to his new gig.

Plus, we’re all waiting for exactly how that first touchdown call from Papa is going to sound. Hearing, “TOUCHDOWN, 49ERSSSS” is going to take some getting used to.

10. Will anyone else get hurt?

Sorry for bringing this up, but injuries have been the story for the 49ers for most of Shanahan-Lynch era. And things took an unexpected bad turn this week when Bosa went down with an ankle injury that will keep him from playing until some point in September. Same for Jerick McKinnon (knee), K’Waun Williams (knee) and Jason Verrett (ankle). As much as fans dislike reading about injuries, reporters are just as tired of writing about them. Here’s to a healthy and happy preseason slate.

Given Shanahan’s comments about the length of the exhibition schedule, I’m sure he agrees.