San Francisco 49ers vs. San Diego Chargers: Matt Barrows' players to watch
Aside from Colin Kaepernick, the fourth preseason game is for the players on the bottom of the roster. In fact, Kaepernick probably falls into that category, too, given all the off-field issues -- injuries, contract, anthem -- swirling around him. Here’s a look at 10 players and position groups that are unsettled going into today’s game. The 49ers must reduce their roster from 75 to 53 players Saturday by 1 p.m. Some of those players will go on injury lists. Many will be brought back to the practice squad on Sunday. Bubble players are in bold.
WR Dres Anderson. Three receiver spots will go to Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton and Jeremy Kerley. DeAndrew White, who along with Kerley is the only healthy slot receiver on the team, is a frontrunner for the fourth spot. The fifth? Anderson, sixth-round pick Aaron Burbridge and Devon Cajuste are the contenders. DeAndre Smelter has been struggling with a persistent hamstring strain and is unlikely to play against the Chargers. Does he get a 53-man spot after such an invisible offseason? Perhaps the answer is, none of the above, and the 49ers instead search the waiver wires for outside help.
OL Fahn Cooper. When the 49ers cut Erik Pears, they left themselves without an obvious backup at left tackle. Both Cooper and Colin Kelly, who played most recently in the CFL, have been backing up Joe Staley in practice this week. Cooper also has played a lot of left guard in training camp. He and fellow fifth-round pick John Theus (right tackle) are likely to stick around this year. The question is whether it’s on the practice squad or 53-man roster.
S Marcus Cromartie. His roster spot may hinge on the health of another safety, L.J. McCray, who is coming back from a knee injury. Cromartie, who played cornerback last year, has been solid as a backup safety and even better on special teams. If the 49ers are missing McCray, Cromartie would be a good substitute. McCray played 21 snaps last week against the Packers.
QB Jeff Driskel. There's been plenty of speculation that the 49ers could part ways with Kaepernick before the season begins. That would mean the team is relying on either Driskel, a sixth-round pick, or journeyman Christian Ponder for the backup role. That would be a big gamble. Driskel is in line to get a lot of quarterback snaps against the Chargers. He also could be cut and re-signed to the practice squad, which probably would be only a small risk considering that NFL teams typically keep just two quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters.
CB Dontae Johnson. I could have put Keith Reaser’s name here, too. The two have had very similar roles throughout the offseason, playing both outside cornerback (mostly with the second-team defense) and getting a lot of work at nickel cornerback, too. The 49ers are certain to keep Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward and rookie Rashard Robinson on the active roster. Chris Davis is likely, too. One question is whether rookie Will Redmond makes the squad or goes on an injury list. He played 18 snaps against Green Bay and looked good. But defensive cordinator Jim O’Neil said this week, “I’m not sure if he’s all the way there yet” as far as his recovering from an ACL injury.
TE Bruce Miller. The 49ers' top two tight ends are certain; They will be Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek. The rest of the group is a bit muddled with Miller, Blake Bell, who was a fourth-round pick a year ago, and Je'Ron Hamm in the mix. Of that group, Miller is not a true tight end. Instead he's a jack of all trades type, and he's especially valuable on special teams. That he was voted to the team's leadership council likely seals his spot on the 53-man roster.
OLB Marcus Rush. He's had four sacks in the last two games and has shown the type of doggedness coaches love to see in their pass rushers. The 49ers will begin the season without suspended outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. The question is whether they keep the more experienced Corey Lemonier or Rush for depth. Rush is eligible for the practice squad, too, but the team would have to waive him -- and expose him to another club -- before getting him on the practice squad Sunday.
DL Garrison Smith. The 49ers want to have a deep defensive line that can weather the heavy minutes a Chip Kelly offense inevitably will dish out on a Chip Kelly defense. That bodes well for Smith, one of just two healthy nose tackles -- Mike Purcell is the other -- on the roster right now. He may be competing with Tony Jerod-Eddie for a roster spot. Smith’s spot may hinge on Glenn Dorsey’s health. Dorsey has been going through individual drills as he comes back from an ACL tear, but is not yet going through full practices.
RB Kelvin Taylor. The 49ers draft picks from Rounds 1-5 linely will make the roster in one way or another. Rounds 6 and 7? That group includes Taylor, the son of long-time Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. He is behind Carlos Hyde, Shaun Draughn, Mike Davis and DuJuan Harris on the depth chart and did not play in the third preseason game. That signals a big workload for today.
ILB Michael Wilhoite. Wilhoite's ace card is that he can play both the Mike and the Will linebacker spots and is the only one on the roster right now who has played both in the preseason. However, he was the incumbent starter and the 49ers gave him not one, but two, challengers this offseason. That strongly suggests the 49ers felt they could do better than Wilhoite. The position may be handled by playing Wilhoite or Gerald Hodges on running downs and Ray-Ray Armstrong in passing situations.