The 49ers kick off their 2021 preseason slate on Saturday night when the Kansas City Chiefs visit Santa Clara. Here are five burning questions to keep an eye on throughout the game:
1. How will the revamped offensive line perform?
The 49ers invested heavily in their offensive line during the offseason. After struggling throughout 2020 with inconsistency in the middle, San Francisco made the move to add Alex Mack during free agency. The addition of the veteran center should help provide a boost to this group. Mack has experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system which will help with getting the correct assignments called out at the line of scrimmage.
With Mack in the fold, Daniel Brunskill has been able to focus primarily on the right guard position which should pay dividends. After bouncing back and forth between center and guard a season ago, Brunskill has been able to settle in at right guard during training camp.
The starting offense is only expected to play about one series. When the second team hits the field fans will be able to get their first look at the second-round draft pick, Aaron Banks, at right guard and fifth-round draft pick Jaylon Moore at left tackle in addition to the 2020 fifth-round draft pick Colton McKivitz at left guard.
At 6’5” and 338 pounds, Banks is not the size of the prototypical guard in Kyle Shanahan’s offense but has shown the ability that made him a standout at Notre Dame, where he was simply dominant as a pass protector. In addition to his pass blocking, Banks has done a very good job of opening holes in the run game throughout training camp.
Moore is competing with Shon Coleman for the swing tackle role and appears to be the front runner. Moore and McKivitz both have the ability to play guard and tackle. That type of versatility is needed for a group that will likely carry only eight onto the final 53-man roster.
Banks, Moore and McKivitz should face a very stiff test, especially early on. It is expected that the young group will face most of the starting Chiefs’ defense through the first quarter.
2. How is the third wide receiver position shaking out?
Mohamed Sanu has been the front runner for the third wide receiver position during the early part of training camp. The veteran impressed coaches and teammates by coming into camp in excellent shape.
The primary competition to Sanu may be Trent Sherfield. The former Arizona Cardinals special teams ace has turned heads since the pads came on. Sherfield has shown the ability to make plays at all levels of the field, including a number of contested catches over the middle.
The other receivers to keep an eye on Saturday night will be Jauan Jennings, River Cracraft and Richie James. Jennings has been impressive since rejoining the team after starting camp on the reserve/Covid-19 list. Cracraft is often overlooked, but has routinely been receiving snaps with the first team offense and has made a number of big plays in recent practices. James on the other hand has been struggling to catch the ball thus far in camp.
Kyle Shanahan has ruled Jalen Hurd out.
3. Is the defensive line as good as advertised?
The defensive line has been the biggest story throughout the early stages of training camp. There are easily more than ten players talented enough to make the roster, setting up some tough decisions for the 49ers coaching staff and front office.
Having looked dominant facing their own team, going up against the Kansas City front should provide a good litmus test for the strength of this unit.
Nick Bosa and Dee Ford along with Samson Ebukam have already been ruled out for Saturday’s contest. It is also unlikely that Javon Kinlaw and Arden Key will play, both have been nursing injuries.
With many of the starters out, role players such as Jordan Willis, Maurice Hurst, Zach Kerr, Kevin Givens and Ryan Yarbrough will get plenty of opportunities to show if they have what it takes.
4. Can the secondary depth hold up?
While the starters have shown to be very good, one area of concern for the 49ers early in training camp has been the depth of the secondary.
Former undrafted free agent Jared Mayden and 2021 sixth round draft pick Talanoa Hufanga are currently backing up starting safeties Jimmy Ward and Tavon Wilson. On the outside, the 49ers have another rookie, Ambry Thomas backing up Emmanuel Moseley and Dontae Johnson playing behind Jason Verrett. Out of this group, only Johnson has ever played a snap during a regular season game in the NFL.
5. What will the running back rotation be?
Raheem Mostert will be the starter and rookie Trey Sermon will be the primary backup. Beyond that, the running back room is a little bit of a mystery. Free-agent acquisition Wayne Gallman would seem like a natural to fill the third spot, but rookie Elijah Mitchell has made big play after big play on a regular basis during camp. Don’t forget about JaMycal Hasty either. The second year back appears to have put on some muscle and has been impressive over the last few days. How this group settles in will be a fun battle to watch.
Bonus Question: How is the quarterback competition going?
You didn’t think I had gone crazy and forgot about the quarterbacks, did you?
Here is what we know as of right now. Jimmy Garoppolo will be playing with the starting unit and is expected to play only one series; however, this may change if that ends up being a three and out.
Trey Lance will then come on with the entire second unit. Kyle Shanahan stated yesterday that Lance will finish out the first half, and may play a bit into the third quarter. This is all dependent on the number of snaps the offense gets in the first half. The goal is for Lance to finish the game with around 30 total.
The second half? That’s anyone’s guess. Neither Josh Rosen nor Nate Sudfeld have been able to create any separation from the other as both have been inconsistent. This battle, while seemingly inconsequential could prove to be very important. If Trey Lance proves to be capable of giving the 49ers the best chance of winning, Rosen or Sudfeld could find themselves as the backup quarterback this season.
Jack Hammer is a lifelong 49ers fan who shares insights on the team, and leads discussions on all football and team topics. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackHammer_NFL and subscribe to his YouTube Channel, YouTube.com/c/JackHammer49.