This won’t be a rehearsal, this is a game to shape the 49ers’ roster

Here is my Saturday column previewing the 49ers’ Sunday preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings.

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 grantcohn@gmail.com.

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  1. I agree Kaep probably won’t play an entire half, but I do think he’ll get a quarter or so worth of work in (how long he stays in for will depend on how long/ successful the first couple of drives are). He needs some exposure to live action prior to the start of the season.

    It will be interesting to see if Marlon Moore gets some more playing time too. He’s been the presumptive starter the first two games but we’ve not seen enough of him to get a feel for whether he’s any good. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Baldwin and Patton play too.

  2. Hard to see how 4 backups will get enough reps to show much if Kaepernick plays more than a series or 2. Will one of these backup QBs get cut before Tuesday?
    The regular season cant get here soon enough.

    1. I hope Daniels is the first QB off the bench, although I’m not holding my breath. One of these guys isn’t making first roster cuts, probably Tolzien or McCoy, as they probably need to get a look at Wallace in the final preseason game.

      1. If Daniels does not play much tomorrow then I am guessing that they plan to sneak him onto the practice squad.
        I have felt all along that that might be one of the several reasons why he has not gotten much play time up to now. He fits the bill for the practice squad, talented, developmental, huge upside.

        I am going out on a very solid limb and saying that if that is their plan, it won’t work. Its too late baby, you let him show his stuff and now the sneak factor is gone.

  3. Asomugha played 1,012 snaps at cornerback last season. But Asomugha is 32 years old and may be able to cover explosive wide receivers.

    Unable to cover explosive WR’s?

    1. I am not so worried about the decision over Brock vs Asomugha because this is not going to come down to one of these players ending up on another team if they make the wrong decision. It just means a correction mid season even mid game.
      Or am I missing something?

  4. Now that the AJ issue has been resolved, I am curious to see what the Niners will do at TE. Will they keep 4 TE’s? VD, McDonald, Celek and Gray? I think it will come down to Celek/Gray…who do they keep?

    1. I think Gray stays and Celeck gets cut. I think Baalke will be trading players like Celek, guys who have potential but whom we don’t have room for on the roster. We’ll trade to teams who aren’t finding their answers with the guys currently on their rosters. We won’t trade for more players but instead late round picks. There are several teams that need a solid blocking tight end.

      1. I agree Roc.
        In the Niner drive to the super bowl, I don’t want to see them throw away the future. A couple of these young undeveloped players have future written on them. You may really need them if for some inexplicable the super bowl slips away this year.
        Okay I did not actually say that.
        Chicago,
        Gray looks to be just a couple steps away from a really sweet break out play. I will say if that does not happen in the last two presea games then a sneak onto the PS is possible.

      2. @23Jordan,
        That’s how Celek made the team last year, as a blocking specialist. He was used in jumbo packages, and in the power running game. There was no need to keep a 3rd receiving TE, we already had Vernon and Delanie. The reason Delanie was the #2 was that he could block AND catch…Celek could only block.

        Now that being said, he had okay hands, but a was primarily strong in all things blocking. So he does have value as a blocking TE, but he can also catch some balls when necessary.

      3. Roc, I just don’t think SF is in a position to trade anyone before cuts. Teams are aware of SF’s Depth at TE. They have the luxury of just waiting for those cuts.

    2. From what little we have seen of Gray he looks like a keeper. Don’t think he would make it to our practice squad if we cut him. He just looks explosive to me.

    3. I am not sure how Gray will work out but he has all the physical tools and intelligence to succeed. He looked so smooth during the last game and i love his attitude so i hope we keep him.

  5. Very disappointed to hear to what the game plan is. To me this being cautious approach is almost as frightening as plying CK into the 3rd Q.
    The best coaches in football in John Harbaugh and Belichick played their starting QB’s well into the 3rd game to build that repoire with their new teammates. Brady took some shots and so did Flacco. You need that to build that confidence armour for the regular season.
    Yeah of Kap gets hurt our season is done. But if I cross the street I might get hit by a bus. Cannot live scared.

    1. It’s a little shocking. My thought is, because JH is known for uptempo practices, he sees enough chemistry to justify not playing Kaep so much in the first 3 games. However, game 4 we’ll probably see Kaep play the first 2 quarters and maybe even the first series or two of the 2nd half.

  6. Most other NFL teams are playing their starter for a quarter to a half, even the one’s getting 15-20 mil a year and who’s teams would be sunk if they were to get hurt, Harbaugh is not going to allow Kaep. to play enough to get up to speed and get acclimated to real game situations because he’s afraid for him?He may be sorry for it when Kaep has to face the Pack in week one.. Oh, by the way, tickets for these watered down scrub games? Cost the same as real games.

    1. Pete – I’m with you…CK needs to play whole first half. I think he will. With all these new weapons, he needs way more reps to be ready for Pack and then Seattle.

    2. On the other hand “most other teams” didn’t go to the Super Bowl last year. Maybe JH is crazy like a fox.

  7. Players I’m most interested in seeing fight for a roster spot (at least this weekend)… MarQueis Gray, Daniels, McDonald, Okoye, Tukuafu, Dobbs and Looney.

    I know one thing… roster cut downs are going to hurt and the PS will be raided by other teams like it was a chicken coup.

    1. Interesting thought…last year we had at least one player from the practice squad who turned down a contract with another team to stay with the 49ers. I think we may see a similar thing. lt all depends on what JH and Baalke tell those players when they get cut.

    2. He’s not fighting for a roster spot, but I am very interested in seeing what Hunter looks like. If, by some miracle, he returns to near full strength, the added diversity to the run game will really help the offense make up for the loss of Crabtree.

    3. Brodie,
      Agreement here. Maybe because it is a given but Grant did not list this in the top three big things see / look for. For me I am looking for any of a handful of young players having a big play and even a break out performance. Not to decide whether they start but in some cases whether they are even a 49er or not.
      McDonald is not fighting for a roster spot but that other TE prospect Gray is. If Gray or Daniels or other prospects turn out to be a star on another team because we cut them then we are going to talking about that huge mistake for a long time on this blog.

    1. Nevermind special teams, the Rams will be this years NFL sleeper. They might be the 2nd best team in the NFC West.

    2. Ogletree looks really good too; hella athlete. Need to pressure Bradford. Broncos pass blocking pretty well. Peyton’s accuracy is sick.

  8. I think Boone would be a better pass-blocking tackle than Staley or Davis. If Staley is hurt we’ll be fine with Boone at tackle and Kilgore at Guard. I don’t buy it that it would be better to use Snyder instead Boone in order to avoid disrupting two o-line positions. Snyder had been nothing but an inning-eater in his last years with the niners

    1. Disagreement to a point:
      What!? Boone as better pass blocking tackle than Staley or Davis. No way. You have a short memory.
      I will give you this though. You reminded me that Boone is good enough at tackle to be the likely first back up to at least Davis if something should happen. Then we have a couple of guards who can fill his spot all though that reeks havoc on O line chemistry. So the backups to tackle would be Boone, Snyder, Netter? Still descending logarithmic slope.

      1. I haven’t been horrified nor satisfied with Snyder’s work at OLT. Netter is a bit of longshot to make 53, IMO he’s equivilent to Snyder on the outside.

  9. I just heard manning yelling Montana Montana and then he rolls right and fires a td pass to the back of the end zone.
    The catch still lives.

    1. I heard that too. Surprised to see Peyton run that play. Well executed. I hope Roman has that in the playbook….

    1. I only saw a few plays but yeah – the Steelers D looks old and slow. AFCN going to the Bengals this year?

  10. Im interested in the cornerback position. Who do you think we will keep, will Carlos Rogers remain??? Who is standing out from the young cbs do any of them have a chance of making the squad?

    1. We had some guesses the other day on this blog as to the final 53. It’s all subject to change, but there was a consensus for 5:
      Rogers-Asomugha-T.Brown-Brock-Cox
      Marcus Cooper (R) and Wright are possibilities

  11. Hey Grant. I thought it was pretty interesting that in the 11 players that you listed that we cannot afford to lose for extented periods of time, Patrick Willis was not among them. I know that Wilhoite has done a good job filling in for the pre-season, but when the real time comes, I want Willis. Do you not think that losing him for an extended period of time will effect the teams push for the 6tth ring?

    1. I would have included Anthony Davis because of rapid fall off at backup tackle and Andy Lee because there is nobody close to replace him and the returns would hurt and hurt again.
      Last year we would have included Justin Smith but there looks to be more talent on the D line this year and he is older. Will those others match him this year – I doubt it. So maybe he will prove hard to loose once again.

      1. Interesting that the list of can’t-do-withouts is so long, which tells me the Niners are stacked with talent but all teams have key players that they would miss if injured.

  12. I disagree with one player you said the 49ers would be in trouble without. Frank Gore, while frank might still have some gas in the tank, the offense wouldn’t miss a beat with hunter and James as the number 1 and 2 backs, especially if Lattimore comes back around week 11 to be the 3rd running back. If gore got injured in the first half of the season, we would most likely see the Alex Smith scenario where he is replaced by the backups then traded next offseason.

    1. Respectfully disagree, and I don’t expect to see Lattimore at all this season. Carradine possibly. Crabtree possible.

      1. I also think Carradine is kept in the tank for next year — unless their are some injury issues on D line at some point simultaneous to when he has his wheels back.

    2. I also disagree. This is a step down different offense without Gore. Make no mistake, an older Gore with breaks/rests from the for mentioned RBs is a very scary animal for other teams. Remove the main head from that multi headed beast and it ain’t nearly as scary.
      And his hunger for that Super Bowl win has no equals.
      Lattimore’s debut is next year.

      1. I still can not figure out why Gore was removed from the game prior to the first and goal play at the end of the Super Bowl. I don’t care if he just ran 100 yard dash, let alone the great 30 yard run he had just prior. What on earth were they saving him for?

    3. Tony – I’m with you, I think Niners would be fine without Gore. They can’t afford injuries to V.D. or Boldin though.
      I’m a huge fan of Lattimore, I watch his highlight real over and over. I hope Niners play it safe and hold him back until next year. The future three-headed-monster of LMJ, Hunter and Lattimore will make Pete “the rat” Carroll go caca in his diaper.
      ♪ ♪The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades! ♪ ♪

  13. If I was the Jets, I’d be watching the waiver wire cuts for QB’s ASAP. Ryan will probably be fired by Game 4 when it becomes obvious he didn’t stack the decks with QB’s @ camp.

    We have Kaption and yet, still 5 guys are vying for reps. That’s the difference between the best minds and the Ryan family when it comes to offense.

    I think Colt gets cut, he’s NFL vanilla. Tolzien will make it by sheer knowledge of the system and he has value running the scout team & practice readiness. BJ can be kept as another position since he doesn’t just play QB.

  14. S. Wallace brought in so they have an experienced QB on the bench … which makes it easier to cut McCoy … Tolzien too…you gone.

  15. Does anyone know if SF would be on the hook for any part of McCoy’s $1.5 million salary if they cut him before the season starts? If the answer is zero or little and if Wallace shows he is at least as good, it’s a no brainer. Another thought: The longer they keep both of them, the greater the odds that one of them develops trade value.

  16. if Kaep fails to accomplish all of the following…

    1 – direct the niners to at least one touchdown
    2 – accumulate at least six first downs
    3 – average 8 to 10 yards when he runs the football
    4 – all with zero interceptions or personal fumbles, and
    5 – no delay of game penalties…

    Coach Harbaw will need to make very, very, very
    good decisions about backup QBs. Reason?
    He may find it necessary to replace Colin mid-year…
    just as he boldly did with Alex Smith last season.

    THE SUPER BOWL MONKEY IS ON YR BACK….KAEP.

    1. Are you trying to be clever? It’s not working because that take is about the dumbest thing I’ve heard lately. Go be a clown somewhere else.

  17. Hey says: When wasn’t Boone outstanding as a pass-blocking tackle? Even in his rookie camp, he was the only one who handled Aldon Smith who was running around and through Staley. And in games, the rushers not only couldn’t get to the quarterback, but usually couldn’t even get into Boone’s chest. I distinctly remember that at the time I had never seen anything like it.

  18. Correct me if I am wrong but weren’t the injuries of Crabtree and Culliver non-contact?

    Harbaw? Huh?

    Tolzein= ticket to GB as #3.

  19. I’m interested in seeing Baldwin, otherwise all I want out of this and every preseason game is a healthy team.

  20. “Not a surprise: #49ers are making calls & trying to trade QB Colt McCoy. If no takers, a release is likely.” ~ Ian Rapaport

    1. Jack, maybe the way to 75 could look like this:

      Cuts

      Marcus Cooper, CB
      Lamar Divens, DL
      DJ Harper, RB
      Lavelle Hawkins, WR
      Travis Johnson, LB
      Darryl Morris, CB
      Patrick Omameh, OL
      Mike Purcell, DL
      Jason Schepler, FB
      Colton Schmidt, P
      Joe Holland, LB
      Kassim Osgood, WR
      Wayne Tribue, OL
      Jewel Hampton, RB

      *Colt McCoy (trade, Bills, Jets?)

  21. No one will claim Daniels if he is placed on the 9ers practice squad. The team claiming him would need to keep him on the 53 man roster all yr even though he wouldn’t know play one from their playbook. All anyone has ever seen him do is beat a bunch of 4th stringers on one drive. He could possibly develop into a quality back up eventually but its more likely that he is another Cody Pickett or Nate Davis.

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