The 49ers will welcome the Dallas Cowboys to Levi’s Stadium in their preseason opener Thursday night. Kyle Shanahan has indicated the starters will likely play one, potentially two drives. Their workload will progressively increase in the following two games before resting in the fourth and final preseason game.
There are plenty of roster spots to be won, rendering the preseason opener as an important step in solidifying the 53-man team.
These are the five things to watch Thursday night.
Mike McGlinchey’s first NFL action
The 49ers did not waste time anointing McGlinchey as the starting right tackle as a rookie. The first-round pick has impressed coaches and teammates with professionalism, premature grasp of concepts, and a veteran-like demeanor. He sounds like he’s played in the league for 10 years.
Ultimately, he will be judged and remembered based on performance. Thursday is the first time he will work in the trenches against another NFL team.
McGlinchey’s opening assignment could briefly feature Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who logged 14.5 sacks last year, tied for the second-most in the league. The Cowboys move him all over the place, including the right and left edge.
How will McGlinchey fare against a top edge rusher? How will he move in outside zone? The starters will play a series or two, but the linemen, especially the rookies, could see more time.
For the most part, McGlinchey has produced a solid opening training camp. At 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, he’s swift and powerful. There have been times in which he has struggled to contain speed rushers, but those are part of the growing pains any rookie experiences.
Compounding the intrigue of McGlinchey’s rookie season is the precariousness of the right guard spot. It is the only position, outside of punter, without an entrenched starter. Neither Joshua Garnett nor Jonathan Cooper will play in the preseason opener as they battle knee injuries, leaving those duties to Mike Person and Erik Magnuson. Solid right guard play would only help McGlinchey.
State of the pass rush
One of the burning questions of the 2018 season is whether the pass rush will improve. The 49ers logged just 30 sacks in 2017, which ranked 26th in the league, and Elvis Dumervil, who led the team in sacks, was not re-signed this offseason.
It’s now up to the 49ers’ platoon of rushers to answer the call. That revolves around defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who has tormented whomever he lines up with throughout training camp. Buckner will line up mostly on the inside, but the coaching staff has started deploying him on the edge in select packages to give him more one-on-one opportunities.
Buckner is the only sure thing out of this group. Second-year defensive lineman Solomon Thomas has promise, and he has improved in the pass-rush in his second training camp, but he needs to sustain that production over the course of a full season. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day has had an impressive camp. The combination of Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu, Eli Harold, and Ronald Blair are all looking for breakout seasons. None of them has more than 10 career sacks.
Seventh-rounder Jullian Taylor has earned first-team reps at the big end spot with Arik Armstead sidelined with a hamstring issue. Taylor has been one of the positive breakthroughs of camp. Buckner said the rookie has “bullied” opposing linemen.
Can all of these pieces form an improved pass rush? Thursday will be our first glimpse.
The No. 3 running back battle
Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida are implanted as the 1-2 punch in the 49ers backfield. That third spot, however, still has to be sorted out.
The competition features among Joe Williams, Raheem Mostert, and Jeremy McNichols, who faces an outside shot of making the 53-man roster. It seems unlikely the 49ers will carry a fourth running back.
Behind the right guard battle, the No. 3 running back spot may be the most intriguing position outlook because Williams and Mostert provide different value. Williams is a home-run threat out of the backfield. When his blockers carve a hole, he makes one cut and commits, he’s gone and likely not getting caught. That’s been consistent throughout camp. But he provides little special teams value, at least so far, which is where Mostert holds the advantage. Mostert is one of the team’s top gunners.
In order for Williams to make this team, he will have to produce a terrific preseason. He can not afford fumbles or mental mistakes. Shanahan was hell-bent in drafting Williams last year and got his wish. The 49ers scooped him in the fourth round, but Breida was the rookie running back who stood out, while issues with ball security, lack of desire, and injuries hampered Williams’ rookie season.
Will his second preseason yield better results?
The No. 6 receiver battle
Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, and Trent Taylor are locks for the 53-man roster. Kendrick Bourne is well ahead of the next crop of receivers at the No. 5 spot.
That leaves Aaron Burbridge, Richie James, Aldrick Robinson, Victor Bolden Jr., and Steven Dunbar as the remaining options for the No. 6 spot. The frontrunners seem to be Burbridge and James, but, again, they present different value. Burbridge is an excellent special teams gunner, and James, the team’s seventh-round pick, is a pass-catcher with little-to-no special teams presence.
Robinson’s skill-set is seemingly too similar to Pettis’ to warrant a spot on the 53-man, though Shanahan likes him. Bolden hurt his chances when he was suspended the first four games of the 2018 season because of performance enhancing drug use. Dunbar, the undrafted rookie out of Houston, is more of a practice squad contestant, but he has progressed considerably throughout camp and made several tough catches in tight coverage.
Whomever occupies the No. 3 running back spot could impact the No. 6 receiver spot and vice versa, considering the special teams component.
Last year, Bourne won a roster spot with terrific preseason. The same could happen for any of those aforementioned players in the next month. It will also be intriguing to see how Pettis looks, whether he plays much with the first-team unit, and how many snaps he logs altogether in Thursday’s opener.
Rookie and second-year defensive backs
The defensive backs room is thin in experience. After Richard Sherman, the 49ers have no established secondary starters, with the possible exception of Jaquiski Tartt, who has cycled in and out of the 49ers starting lineup throughout the past three seasons. He, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, and Adrian Colbert all have legitimate promise. Jimmie Ward is a solid backup at every secondary spot other than strong safety.
But that’s it.
Second-year cornerbacks Tyvis Powell and Greg Mabin still have to prove themselves. Antone Exum Jr. is fighting for a spot. The 49ers drafted Tarvarius Moore in the third round with the plan to convert him from a safety to cornerback. They have done the opposite with fifth-rounder D.J. Reed, who went from college cornerback to a free safety-nickelback hybrid in the NFL. He has taken first-team reps with Williams, who will not play Thursday, out with an ankle injury. Sherman, who worked his way back from an Achilles rupture he suffered last November, will not play Thursday as he nurses a hamstring injury.
Cornerback depth is massively important with the inevitable attrition any secondary experiences. It’s up to rookies and second-year players to provide solid backup value.
There’s plenty to watch.