The 49ers launched a late comeback to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 24-21, in Thursday’s preseason opener. From injuries to standout rookies, the game was eventful throughout its entirety.
These are five takeaways.
Worst case first quarter, best-case prognoses so far
The 49ers had five players suffer injuries in the opening 15:07 of the game, a coach’s worst nightmare in a preseason contest.
First, middle linebacker Malcolm Smith exited the game with a hamstring injury. On the ensuing possession, tight end George Kittle crashed to the ground on a pass over the middle, holding his right arm in a stationary position as he jogged to the sideline. He later walked to the locker room and didn’t return. Shortly after, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas injured his head and crashed to the ground, where he lay for several minutes before being escorted to the locker room. One possession later, running back Matt Breida was hurt on a block. Then left tackle Gary Gilliam injured his head and left the game. Later on, Eli Harold suffered a knee injury.
Considering the onslaught, reports from post-game and early Friday brought positive news.
Harold appears to be fine.
Very encouraging report on #49ers LB Eli Harold, who left last night’s game with a knee injury. A source just said it’s not serious — just a bruise.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) August 10, 2018
Kittle has avoided a major shoulder injury, a major breakthrough news for the 49ers and their budding second-year tight end. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero also reported Breida did not suffer structural damage.
#49ers RB Matt Breida’s MRI showed no structural damage in the shoulder he injured Thursday and the team is hopeful he can rest and be ready for Week 1, per @RapSheet and me. Could practice soon with no contact. Appears they dodged a bullet.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) August 10, 2018
After the game, the 49ers indicated Thomas suffered a concussion, though his timetable has not been disclosed.
Offensive weapons galore
Dynamic weapons have been scarce in the 49ers offense in recent years. Thanks to a couple precocious rookies, 2017 standouts who are making the leap in 2018, and, of course, Jimmy Garoppolo, that has all changed.
Seventh-round pick Richie James was fantastic throughout Thursday night’s win. He caught four passes for 46 yards and a touchdown. He ran in the slot with the first-team offense in the injured Trent Taylor’s place and caught Garoppolo’s first pass of the game — a 3rd and 8 to move the chains. James later turned a screen into a 21-yard gain, making a defender miss in the open field. And to cap his preseason NFL debut off, James snagged the game-winning touchdown in traffic. His performance improved his chances at a spot on the 53-man roster.
Dante Pettis is the better-known rookie receiver. He logged one catch and dropped a pass over the middle in his preseason debut. That completion, however, was San Francisco’s biggest play of the night, a 53-yard bomb to put the 49ers in the red zone. Pettis played with the second team all game.
Factor in Marquise Goodwin, who hauled in an 18-yard catch on third down during the offense’s opening possession, with possession receivers Pierre Garcon, Trent Taylor, and Kittle, and the 49ers suddenly have an army of dynamic pass-catchers.
The linebacker outlook is suddenly scarce
The linebacking corps is one of the team’s deepest units, but it has recently dwindled due to injuries.
Smith entered training camp with a leg injury and left Thursday’s game after hurting his hamstring. Brock Coyle has dealt with a minor hip injury and didn’t play Thursday night. Rookie linebacker Fred Warner did not play in the preseason opener, likely a precautionary measure as he battles a minor chest injury.
Korey Toomer recorded a tackle for a loss but missed an open-field tackle on Cowboys running back Bo Scarbrough. He and Elijah Lee, who played sparingly as a rookie last year, will shoulder the load of reps alongside Reuben Foster, who will miss the first two games of the 2018 season for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
Speaking of Foster, there’s little doubt he will be playing in Pro Bowls in the future. In his brief appearance Thursday night, he showed the range and athleticism that make him such a promising staple in this 49ers defense. On one play, he diagnosed a crossing route, ran alongside the receiver, and batted the ball away on the sideline.
Watch how much ground Foster, No. 56, makes up in the clip below.
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) August 10, 2018
Jullian Taylor was the defense’s bright spot
Taylor, San Francisco’s other seventh-round draft pick, has earned first-team reps at the big end spot recently during training camp as Arik Armstead recovers from a hamstring injury. Taylor parlayed an impressive week of practice into his first NFL game action.
He started the game and played through the finish, logging 32 snaps altogether. He recorded a sack, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hits. He was consistently disruptive, using his strength and leverage — the two traits his college and high school coaches identify as his strengths — throughout the game.
— Dylan DeSimone (@DylanADeSimone) August 10, 2018
— The SF Niners (@TheSFNiners) August 10, 2018
Taylor didn’t look like a rookie, but he sounded like one postgame.
“I think the only thing that was different was the people that were in front of me, just seeing Dak Prescott and players like that you see on tv from college,” Taylor said postgame. “Like, I am really out here going against them now. That was the difference for me.”
Unless Armstead recovers quickly and proves he can stay on the field, it’s highly possible Taylor could take his starting spot. Armstead has logged just 11 career starts and did not finish either of his past two seasons due to injuries.
Nick Mullens could make the backup quarterback spot interesting
Mullens, a name hardly known outside of this area, ran the two-minute drill with the third-string unit to perfection Thursday night. With 1:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing, 21-16, the third-string quarterback completed five consecutive passes to move the 49ers into the red zone. Then receiver Victor Bolden Jr. drew a pass interference call to put the 49ers at the Cowboys’ 7-yard line. Mullens found James on a slant for a touchdown to secure the win. And to cap things off, Mullens hit tight end Wes Saxton for a two-point conversion to make the score 24-21.
C.J. Beathard entered 2018 firmly entrenched as the returning backup. But he struggled Thursday night, going 10-20 with 181 yards and an interception. Mullens went 11-13 with 141 yards, a touchdown, two-point conversion, and an interception.
If Mullens strings together a couple more performances like Thursday, and Beathard struggles, this could wind up being a tighter race for the backup quarterback spot than originally expected.