5 takeaways: 49ers preseason opener vs. Dallas Cowboys
The 49ers are about to embark on the strange portion of their preseason schedule this week with practices in Santa Clara on Tuesday and Wednesday before traveling to Denver for joint practices with the Broncos on Friday and Saturday ahead of their preseason game Monday night.
Below is the latest edition of our weekly mailbag completing our 53-man roster (and practice squad!) projection you can find at sacbee.com. To your questions.
Andy asks: It’s still super early, but is the back up job Nick Mullens’ job to lose? He looked good out there.
Kyle Shanahan was asked after Saturday’s game if there was any separation between Mullens and C.J. Beathard in the competition to be No. 2 behind Jimmy Garoppolo. His answer, “None,” was telling.
Their stat lines from the game were eerily similar. Mullens completed 11 of 17 passes, with two drops from receivers, while Beathard connected on 13 of 17. Both threw a touchdown pass to Jalen Hurd and both tossed an interception, though Shanahan conceded that Hurd could have done a better job to get in front of the defender on Beathard’s pick.
Each player has been given the same amount of second-team snaps throughout training camp and the results were similar to the preseason opener; their production has nearly identical.
What does it all mean? It’s too early to tell. The 49ers have the option of putting two players on short-term injured reserve, which could create some roster flexibility allowing them to keep three quarterbacks for the first half of the season. Running back Jerick McKinnon seems like the obvious candidate for IR, which would allow him return midway through the slate after taking more time to get his surgically repaired knee healthy.
The plan for the second preseason game is to start Garoppolo and have Beathard enter the game afterward, with Mullens being the third QB to play. It seems like Shanahan will exhaust every practice and preseason rep possible before deciding on Garoppolo’s backup and whether to keep three quarterbacks on the active roster.
Gold Blooded asks: What are the chances we keep seven receivers and two tight ends instead of the conventional six receivers and three tight ends?
It appears keeping seven receivers is a stronger possibility following Trent Taylor’s foot injury that could cost him a couple games to start the regular season. In my 53-man roster projection posted Monday, I had Richie James Jr. making the team to provide depth at slot receiver while also offering an option in the return game.
I’m not sure the numbers at receiver will directly impact the numbers they keep at tight end. Having just two tights ends would make sense if Shanahan is comfortable with a combination of Hurd and Kyle Juszczyk playing there in an emergency, but that seems like a big risk. And, as mentioned, having a player or two on short-term injured reserve creates a little more flexibility.
Ultimately, there’s still a long way to go before final cuts are made at the end of this month. There could be more injuries to account for that impact numbers at other positions. Will the 49ers try to keep 10 defensive linemen? Is eight offensive linemen enough? Do they go with five or six cornerbacks, and how will that impact their numbers at safety?
Putting together a 53-man roster is a long, evolving process.
Vince asks: Who do you feel is going to get cut that will be fought over by the league to add to their respective rosters?
There are a few potential cuts who could end up on rosters elsewhere. I think Joshua Garnett would land on another team needing depth along the interior of an offensive line. James seems like an ideal receiver for a team like the Patriots that values wideouts that get open in the middle of the field.
Sheldon Day could provide some versatile punch to another defensive line. Kentavius Street is just a year removed from being a fourth-round pick and certainly seems like he would be a sought after player if he didn’t make the cut. The same could be said for Jullian Taylor, who was more talented than his seventh-round draft status. He dealt with a slew of knee injuries in college that caused his stock to drop but has been mostly healthy since entering the league.
Would linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair make it through waivers to the practice squad? We’ll have to see if he can replicate what he showed in the preseason opener. I’d have to think Emmanuel Moseley and Adrian Colbert would be appealing elsewhere if they didn’t make the team.
Bob Cook asks: I know one hit doesn’t make a season, but Al-Shaair laid some serious wood on a screen play. He had knee issues as a senior, but could he be a nickel linebacker who could play third downs and special teams?
He could insert himself into the conversation if he continues to play well after the knee injury kept him from participating in the offseason program.
It’s hard to see him making the roster over more established players like Elijah Lee and David Mayo at the moment. It also could depend on how the team handles Malcolm Smith, who’s dealing with a hamstring injury that popped up at an inopportune time.
But Shaair appears to be playing as well as any undrafted free agent the team added in the spring. And the 49ers have played a lot of undrafted rookies the past two seasons, so it’s not crazy to think Shaair could end up making an impact in 2019.
Donovan Rozier asks: What are the odds that Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd are starting Week 1?
Probably better than before Saturday’s game, though we should be careful about reading too much into their performances. Both Hurd and Samuel made their plays against backups – and Shanahan made it clear he wasn’t altogether thrilled with their debuts beyond their splashy plays.
“The rookies, they made some good plays last night, but they also weren’t very consistent either,” Shanahan said. “There were lots of parts of their game that they have to clean up, and I thought it was very similar for the veterans, too.”
Things seem wide open in the receiver room, so it’s certainly possible both rookies earn starting gigs by the time the regular season rolls around, particularly after Taylor’s injury.
I’d still bank on Dante Pettis bouncing back from his slow start and being among the leaders in snaps played at the position. I also think Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne would both play more than the rookies if the season started tomorrow. And we can’t forget about Jordan Matthews.
But the season doesn’t start tomorrow, leaving Hurd and Samuel almost four weeks to continue ascending.
Simon Tagg asks: Why hasn’t there been more positive buzz about Austin Walter? I thought he had a really good game, and he fits what Kyle values in a running back.
Mostly because the 49ers already have a surplus of quality running backs, though McKinnon’s status is certainly worth keeping a close eye on. There’s also Jeff Wilson Jr., who could get a ton of preseason carries once he comes back from his calf injury, which could happen this week.
But Walter deserves a lot of credit. He gets beaten up during practice as one of the few healthy running backs Shanahan isn’t trying to save for the regular season. He seems like a strong practice squad candidate who could get the call if injuries continue to pile up.
That shouldn’t be surprising considering Shanahan and position coach Bobby Turner’s knack for unearthing good running backs out of thin air.
Tortured but Hopful Knicks Fan asks: Should we be concerned with the depth of the offensive line and where do you see them getting help from?
The 49ers got a mostly healthy season from their offensive line in 2018, save for Weston Richburg’s knee/quad injury that led to him starting camp on the physically unable to perform list and Laken Tomlinson’s knee injury in Week 17.
It’s fair to point out the depth behind the starters isn’t great right now. Shon Coleman being done for the year means there’s a big need for another tackle (the team on Monday announced the signing of former Dolphin Sam Young). And Garnett’s dislocated finger, at the moment, takes away a top backup along the interior.
Trading for depth along the offensive line seems like a strong possibility before Week 1. After all, the 49ers did it the past two years by sending a fifth-round pick to Detroit for Tomlinson during final cuts in 2017 and moving a late-round choice to the Browns last season for Coleman.