If you expect the 49ers to treat Sunday’s preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings like a dress rehearsal for the regular season, you may be disappointed.
Most NFL teams treat the third exhibition game like a dress rehearsal. The 49ers did that last season – Alex Smith played the entire first half. But, I’ll be surprised if Colin Kaepernick plays the entire first quarter Sunday night against the Vikings.
That’s not to say Kaepernick doesn’t need the practice. Every quarterback needs the practice, especially when he has new receivers like the 49ers. That’s why Tom Brady played 46 snaps against the Lions and Joe Flacco played 61 snaps against the Panthers Thursday night. They were cramming for the regular season opener, trying to build chemistry with their new receivers at game speed as fast as possible.
The 49ers probably won’t have that luxury. I’ll be surprised if Kaepernick plays more than 10 snaps against the Vikings.
So far, he’s played just 17 snaps in two preseason games. Jim Harbaugh can’t get him off the field fast enough. He’s also making Kaepernick wear a black, non-contact jersey in practice for the first time. Alex Smith never wore one. The message is simple: “If you hurt Kaepernick, you sabotage our season.”
The 49ers already have lost two players for the significant portions of the season – Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver. The 49ers can’t afford to lose Kaepernick. He has to carry the team to the playoffs. His backups probably are incapable of doing that this season.
Besides Kaepernick, there’s a long list of players the 49ers absolutely cannot afford to lose for an extended stretch this season: Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Counting Kaepernick, that’s 12 players.
So, don’t expect to see them very much Sunday night.
But here’s what you can expect to see:
1. The Battle of the Backup Quarterbacks: Colt McCoy vs. Scott Tolzien vs. Seneca Wallace vs. B.J. Daniels. Two stay, two go. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who stays or goes because, if any of these quarterbacks has to play more than a game or two this season, the 49ers are done for.
Colt McCoy most likely will take the field first after Kaepernick. McCoy has been firing blanks all this preseason. He’s completed just six passes, thrown two interceptions and his passer rating is a miniscule 25.3. Even though he’s been the favorite all offseason to win the No. 2 job, he may get cut. See if he has the arm strength to make all the throws in the 49ers’ offense.
Scott Tolzien has been bad, too. So far, his passer rating is 57, and his arm may be weaker than McCoy’s. Tolzien is a bright guy and could be a coach one day, but he probably is not an NFL quarterback, not even a backup.
The 49ers signed 33-year-old Seneca Wallace a few days ago. He didn’t play in the NFL last season, but he could instantly become the front-runner for the 49ers’ No. 2 QB job if he does anything against the Vikings. He has experience, is more mobile than McCoy and Tolzien and has a stronger arm.
The final contestant is rookie seventh-round pick B.J. Daniels. He played very well against the Chiefs last week, leading a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against fourth-stringers. The 49ers may want to put him on their practice squad, but another team probably would claim him off waivers if they try that move. So, if the 49ers like Daniels, they may have to put him on the final roster.
2. Tramaine Brock vs. Nnamdi Asomugha. One of these two cornerbacks will take the injured Chris Culliver’s place as the 49ers’ third cornerback in their nickel defense. Brock is younger and faster than Asomugha, but Brock has played just 183 snaps at cornerback in his three-year NFL career. That’s almost nothing.
Asomugha played 1,012 snaps at cornerback last season. But Asomugha is 32 years old and may be unable to cover explosive wide receivers. Against the Vikings, he’ll face one of the most explosive receivers in the league – rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. Watch how Asomugha and Brock match up with him.
3. Eric Reid and Jon Baldwin. Get to know the 49ers’ most recent first-round pick, Reid, and the guy the 49ers traded their 2012 first-rounder to get, Baldwin. The 49ers have to rely on both players this season. Are they reliable? Reid is replacing Dashon Goldson, and Baldwin is replacing Randy Moss.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Reid will start against the Vikings, and Harbaugh said Baldwin will play even though he’s been a 49er for less than a week. See if Baldwin can catch deep passes, and see if Reid is ready to take over the starting free safety job Week 1 against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
For all the players I just named, Game 3 isn’t a mere exhibition. It’s serious business.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.