The 49ers play their first game of the exhibition season Thursday evening in Baltimore. This game won’t reveal much about the starters – they will play only a series or two. This game will reveal things about the backups and the coaches. Here’s what you should be looking for.
Look at the big picture: formation changes, new concepts in the passing game and creative utilization of the players. All offseason, the 49ers coaches have said that they’ve made changes to the offense. They say they’ve “streamlined” it, made it simpler. Some of these changes were apparent in training camp – read-option plays from the shotgun instead of the pistol, an increased emphasis on passing to running backs and the creation of a wide receiver/running back hybrid (more on that later). Will the 49ers show these things on Thursday? They have to show something.
Make sure you watch how the 49ers use the following four backups:
1. Bruce Ellington. He’s the wide receiver/running back hybrid. The 49ers drafted him in the fourth round this offseason. He’s 5-foot-9, but he’s 200 pounds and built like a running back. He has been the primary outlet for Greg Roman’s creativity this offseason. The 49ers line up Ellington in the slot, outside and even in the backfield. Think Randall Cobb, the Packers’ wide receiver/running back combo. That’s how the Niners have been using Ellington. Ellington missed the first four practices of training camp with an injury, but has made 25 catches during team drills the past seven practices. To put those stats in perspective, Stevie Johnson has made just 20 catches during team drills in all 11 camp practices. Look for Ellington to become the 49ers’ secret weapon on offense if he carries over his practice performance to the preseason games.
2. Carlos Hyde. Watch him catch passes. He’s a natural. The rookie running back has caught 18 passes during team drills. Bruce Miller, the 49ers’ starting fullback and third-leading receiver last season, has caught just 11 passes in camp. If Greg Roman starts calling more pass plays for running backs, he’s going to call them for Hyde. But Hyde’s biggest impact won’t come in the passing game. Watch how he runs. Is he faster than Frank Gore? Can Hyde threaten the outside, or is he strictly an inside runner like Gore? Hyde probably can’t make many NFL defenders miss, but can he run them over and push a pile?
3. Vance McDonald. This tight end has been targeted 48 times during camp team drills. Only Anquan Boldin has been targeted more times than McDonald. The 49ers drafted McDonald in the second round last year and seem set on making him a key member of the passing game. The problem is McDonald has dropped 15 passes in camp. That has to be a training-camp record. And even when he catches the ball, he tends to double-catch it, meaning he bobbles it and then traps it against his body. That won’t cut it. Can he improve his hands during the preseason? If not, he probably will disappear from the passing game.
4. Stevie Johnson. Tied for 10th in catches during camp team drills. Here are a few 49ers who have made more catches in camp than Johnson: Quinton Patton (37 catches), David Reed (32), Chuck Jacobs (28), and Jewel Hampton (22). Hampton is the third-string running back – it’s mind-boggling that he has caught more passes in camp than Johnson, a three-time 1,000-yard receiver. Jacobs was undrafted and has completely outperformed Johnson so far. Who saw that coming? Of course, it won’t matter how many passes Johnson caught in camp if he makes a bunch of catches during the preseason. But if Johnson doesn’t make a bunch of catches, will he be in danger of getting cut? You have to wonder if the 49ers’ coaches have a plan for him the way they seem to have plans for Ellington, Hyde and McDonald.
DEFENSE & SPECIAL TEAMS
It’s natural to focus on the rookies during a preseason game. They’re the new guys. But you should focus on the second-year defensive players and the red-shirts from last year. Five of those guys could play significant roles this year if they stand out during the preseason. They will play most of the first half on Thursday. They are:
1. Tank Carradine. He has been unblockable at times during camp. He was a defensive end at Florida State, a pass-rushing specialist. He tore his ACL in 2012, the 49ers drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft and he spent that year rehabbing and adding muscle. Now, he’s a 290-pound pass-rushing defensive tackle, like Justin Smith. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recently said he can’t feel comfortable playing Carradine in a regular season game until Carradine learns his assignments. Fine. If Carradine records a few sacks during the preseason, you can bet Fangio will find a way to use him in regular season games no matter how Carradine does on his assignments.
2. Corey Lemonier. A pass-rushing outside linebacker, like Aldon Smith. Lemonier will take Smith’s place in the starting lineup when Smith serves his suspension at the beginning of the season (the NFL has yet to suspend him but most likely will). The 49ers drafted Lemonier in the third round last year. He recorded just one sack in 284 snaps last season. Has he improved?
3. Nick Moody. Played just 10 snaps on defense as a rookie last season. Now, he’s competing with Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland to replace NaVorro Bowman in the starting lineup. Patrick Willis will play the “Mike” inside linebacker, the position Bowman played last year. Wilhoite currently is the starting “Jack,” the position Willis played last year. The “Jack” covers the tight end and the “Mike” usually doesn’t – that’s the main difference. Borland, a rookie third-round pick, doesn’t do well in coverage, so he’s suited to back up Willis at the “Mike.” Moody excels in coverage, so he has a chance to beat out Wilhoite at “Jack.” Moody is a better athlete than Wilhoite and has broken up more passes than Wilhoite in training camp.
4. Quinton Dial. Red-shirted most of last season. May become a starter by default because the 49ers’ top-two nose tackles – Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams – are injured. Dial is one of the biggest players on the team (6-5, 318 pounds), but can he stuff the run? He’s been stopping running backs in the backfield all camp.
5. Lawrence Okoye. Hurt his leg during last year’s preseason and missed the rest of the year. He’s British, a former rugby player and Olympic discus thrower. This is his second season playing football. The 49ers call him a defensive tackle but he’s not particularly skilled at that position, as you can imagine. But watch Okoye on special teams – he will cover kickoffs. He’s 6-foot-6 and 304 pounds so you won’t miss him. Imagine a 6-foot-6, 304-pound man sprinting down the field on kickoffs and clobbering people. Actually, don’t imagine that. You can see it on Thursday.