Meaningless exhibition? Not when you know what to watch

Here is my preview of the 49ers-Chiefs preseason game.

Five things to watch in the 49ers’ preseason game against the Chiefs Friday night:

1. Colin Kaepernick in the red zone. Kaepernick has something to prove here. As terrific as he’s played in his brief career, he needs to improve his passing in the red zone. Last season, his red zone passer rating was 83.9, nothing special. Compare that to Alex Smith whose red zone passer rating was 97.1, or Russell Wilson whose red zone rating was 104.2. Kaepernick has a rocket arm, but he’s still developing touch on shorter throws and improvisation near the goal line.

He may be the most difficult quarterback to defend in the middle of the field because he can throw the ball 70 yards and take any run the distance. But when he gets to the red zone, the field compresses and defenses don’t have to worry about the deep pass. Kaepernick becomes easier to defend.

In the Super Bowl, he failed as a passer in the red zone, throwing no touchdowns and completing just two of seven passes. On his final play, it was fourth and 5, he threw a pass out of the back of the end zone. Even if Michael Crabtree had gotten himself open, he would have had no chance to catch the ball inbounds.

Kaepernick and the first-team offense has been practicing red zone passing all offseason, especially this past week. The starters should play the entire first quarter Friday night. If Kaepernick drives the offense to the red zone, watch to see if he’s improved his touch and decision-making in a short field.

2. The tight ends. Since Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles’ tendon in May and Anquan Boldin became the 49ers’ de facto No.1 receiver, the question has been who will be the No. 2 receiver? The answer may be a tight end.

The tight ends have been the story of training camp. The 49ers have four good ones – Vernon Davis, 2013 second-round pick Vance McDonald, 2012 undrafted free agent Garrett Celek and 2013 undrafted free agent MarQueis Gray. Don’t be surprised if all four make the team and Greg Roman uses some three- and four-tight end formations this season with Vernon Davis split out wide.

Vance McDonald probably will not play against the Chiefs – he missed practice all week with an undisclosed injury. So, pay close attention to Gray. He wears Delanie Walker’s old number, 46, and he plays Walker’s old position, H-back. With McDonald on the sideline, Gray has been the 49ers’ second-best offensive weapon in practice this past week behind Vernon Davis. Gray makes easy catches, tough catches, short catches and deep catches, and he blocks. He was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota and he didn’t look like a natural pass catcher during OTAs when he dropped at least one pass per practice. But in training camp, he’s looked like he’s been catching passes his whole life.

3. The wide receivers. Last week against the Broncos, you only got a sneak peak of Marlon Moore, the 49ers’ current starting split end. That’s because the starters played just one series. This week, you should get much more of Moore (sorry).

He’s been the best deep threat in the 49ers’ wide receiving corps all offseason, and it hasn’t been close. He isn’t the fastest receiver in the group, but he’s a natural at catching deep passes because he fights cornerbacks for the ball and he usually wins.

There are other receivers to watch besides Moore. Watch the slot receiver battle between Kyle Williams and Austin Collie. Williams didn’t play against the Bronocs because he was recovering from a pulled hamstring. This week in practice he’s been gradually working himself back to full speed.

Collie had an excellent week of practice, leading the team in catches Wednesday afternoon. He’s currently beating Williams in the slot receiver competition.

Finally, watch A.J. Jenkins and the rest of the receivers battle for the fifth and final wide receiver spot on the 49ers’ 53-man roster. Jenkins has the edge because the 49ers spent a first round pick on him just 16 months ago, but Kassim Osgood could beat him out. Osgood has outperformed Jenkins at receiver in practices and in the first preseason game and Osgood is an excellent special teams player. He could take Chris Culliver’s spot as one of the starting gunners on the punt coverage team. Jenkins does not play special teams.

4. The running backs. The 49ers’ No. 2 running back, Kendall Hunter, returned to practice this week for the first time since he tore his Achilles’ tendon in November. But he barely practiced, just a few reps. Don’t expect him to play against the Chiefs.

Until he regains all of his quickness and explosion, the 49ers need another backup running back they can rely on in the regular season. Is it LaMichael James or Anthony Dixon? James currently has the edge, but he’s fumbled in his past two games and he is not a good blocker. Dixon is an excellent blocker and he has never fumbled in the NFL.

5. The backup quarterbacks. Three quarterbacks – Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels – are competing for two spots.

It’s pretty safe to say Colt McCoy will make the team. In April, the 49ers traded a fifth and seventh-round pick to the Browns for McCoy and a sixth-round pick. He’s the only backup QB on the roster who has started a game it the NFL.

B.J. Daniels probably will make the team, too. The 49ers recently spent a seventh-round pick on him and, although he’s just 5-foot-10, he has the arm strength and athleticism Harbaugh covets in a quarterback. Plus, Daniels can play running back, slot receiver, kick returner and punt returner.

That leaves Tolzien as the odd man out. But that doesn’t mean Tolzien will be the odd man out Friday night. Don’t be surprised if he plays the entire second half and Daniels doesn’t play at all, just like last Thursday against the Broncos.

If the 49ers already know they’d prefer to keep McCoy and Daniels, it stands to reason they would want to trade Tolzien rather than release him outright. Maybe they could get a fifth- and seventh-round pick for him.

So, if Friday night becomes the Scott Tolzien Showcase Hour, you know why.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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