QB Blaine Gabbert, No. 2
Is the third time the charm? The 49ers really want Gabbert to win the role of No. 2 quarterback – they’ll owe him $2 million if he makes it or not – and they are giving him every opportunity to take the job. Gabbert has been a slow starter to this point. He needs to enter this game aggressively and to sustain at least one or two drives. If he doesn’t? Eh, he’ll probably make the team anyway.
QB Josh Johnson, No. 1
Given that his main competitor, Gabbert, has a built-in advantage (see above), Johnson has to do something so momentous that the 49ers have no choice but to keep him. So far, he’s been better than Gabbert but just marginally. McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the only quarterback eligible for the practice squad, meaning that if Johnson is cut he will be on the street as a free agent.
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G Joe Looney, No. 78
Each day that Alex Boone’s holdout stretches onward, it looks more likely that Looney will be the team’s starting right guard in Dallas in Week 1. Looney made improvements between his first and second preseason games. He needs to sustain that steady rise against a San Diego defense that finished 12th against the rush last season. With right tackle Anthony Davis working his way back, Jonathan Martin likely will get some work at guard in coming weeks. The 49ers will use this as leverage against Boone.
CB Tramaine Brock, No. 26
The aggressive cornerback looked very sharp during the offseason, and his penchant for interceptions last year does not appear to be a fluke. Still, Brock missed the first two preseason games with an ankle sprain and is just now working his way back. He’ll get a nice test against the Chargers’ big-bodied receivers.
DE Justin Smith, No. 94
Is the oldest member of the 49ers’ starting defense getting too old? Smith’s play seemed to dip last season. Ah, but no one knew the 34-year-old was playing with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. He’s likely to make his preseason debut in this game. If practices are an indication, Smith is a bit lighter and quicker than he was a year ago.
RB LaMichael James, No. 23
This will be James’ first game back since suffering a dislocated elbow three weeks ago. Where he sits in the running back pecking order -- ahead or behind rookie Carlos Hyde? -- will be interesting. It also will worth seeing who gets the honor of returning kicks, James or another rookie, Bruce Ellington.
S Jimmie Ward, No. 25
Last week, Ward received valuable snaps against Peyton Manning and Wes Welker as a slot cornerback. With veteran safety Antoine Bethea sitting out the Chargers game after experiencing a concussion against Denver, Ward promises to see a lot of snaps at strong safety as well. Right now the top substitute at the position is Craig Dahl. Ward, however, has better range. What he needs is more experience, which he’ll get against San Diego.
CB Kenneth Acker, No. 38
Acker made this list last week and then went on to be perhaps San Francisco’s defensive player of the game. Other teams will circle the 49ers like vultures on cut-down day, and Acker might be someone they’d poach if the 49ers try to cut him and get him on their practice squad. Another strong outing against a pass-centric team would mean the 49ers wouldn’t take that risk.
ILB Shayne Skov, No. 44
The former Stanford linebacker is coming off a good game against Denver. Still, he’s behind fellow rookie Chris Borland on the linebacker depth chart and is not as athletic as Nick Moody when it comes to a possible role on special teams. That points to a spot on the practice squad for Skov … unless he has another strong outing and other squads take notice. Skov and every other bubble player knows he’s auditioning not just for the 49ers but for 31 other teams as well. Seahawks general manager John Schneider was in the press box for last week’s game. Teams must trim rosters to 75 players on Tuesday and to 53 on Saturday.
WR Brandon Lloyd, No. 84
Jim Harbaugh says Lloyd’s “got a little something he’s working through” and isn’t sure whether he’ll play in the game. Hmm. Lloyd played against Denver and practiced during the week. If Lloyd is on the roster in Week 1, his entire salary for the season would be guaranteed. That raises a scenario in which Lloyd is cut and then re-signed at some point early in the season. The team did that last year with another receiver, Kassim Osgood.
*OL Michael Philipp, No. 61
Who the heck is Michael Philipp, you ask? He’s one of several backup offensive linemen who have been playing multiple spots on the line and who have looked good doing so. You can throw Adam Snyder, Ryan Seymour and rookie Dillon Farrell into that category. Phillip also is a rookie. The 49ers will have to figure out which of these players lands on the active roster and which they can secure on the practice squad.