By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers have spent the last two weeks beating each other up on the practice field and according to them, they need new people to hit. Enter: The Dallas Cowboys.
San Fransicso and Dallas open the preseason on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium, and while this first go at game-like conditions will only see the starters for a series — at most — we have five things to look out for in the 49ers first game of the preseason:
1. How will Mike McGlinchey look at full speed?
The 49ers spent a top-10 draft pick on Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey this past April. Thursday will provide a test to see just how far the Notre Dame product has come in two weeks of practice, and if he’s capable of protecting the team’s $137 million investment in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
“[McGlinchey] will be out with the starters to start,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “We’ll see how it goes, how many reps he gets. For the most part — we do it with most rookies — even if he’s a starter, we might play him a little bit more.”
The fact of the matter is that McGlinchey will need those extra reps, not only because he’s a rookie, but also because he’s had significantly more bad moments than good thus far in camp. He’s missed run blocks and been stood up in pass protection, so showing some progression on Thursday would be essential to proving McGlinchey’s worth in relation to where the 49ers selected him in April.
2. Can Joe Williams make a case for the 49ers to keep four RBs on the roster?
After Joe Williams had a respectable training camp last season, an ankle injury landed the rookie running back on injury reserve, ending his season before it even began.
This year, Williams is back, but his competition has stiffened. Second-year running back Matt Breida is coming off of a breakout rookie season and former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon has shown up as a Swiss Army Knife back.
Along with Raheem Mostert, who emerged as a reliable special teamer last season, Williams may be on the outside looking in unless he can convince the 49ers to keep a fourth back on the roster.
“I’m just excited to watch him play out on the field,” Shanahan said. “I’m a lot more excited now than I was last year just because of what he’s shown in practice. He’s come a long way in a year and he’s given himself a chance to be a good running back. We’ll see how it looks on Thursday.”
Williams has shown immense ability as a ball carrier — nearly every practice, he’s been able to break off at least one long run — but fumbling has a persistent issue, similar to last year.
If Williams can keep showing flashes of brilliance Thursday while holding on to the ball, he may make San Francisco consider keeping a fourth back on the team this season.
3. Will Dante Pettis continue to be timid over the middle of the field?
Dante Pettis has a lot of skills that set him apart from the rest of San Francisco’s receiving corps.
While the rookie out of Washington has a unique route running style that allows him to make quick cuts and put cornerbacks on their heels in coverage, he’s a bit shy over the middle. Instead of laying out to make tough catches on intermediate dig or post routes, Pettis shrinks and drops passes.
Similar to McGlinchey, the 49ers will likely give Pettis an increased amount of reps compared to some of the veterans. Those could provide a great opportunity to get over some of the fear that comes along with catching passes between the hashes.
“If you are a guy who is timid, you better make a conscious decision before that play starts that I’m going to man up for this one play and then do it again the next play,” said Shanahan. “But, you have to talk yourself into it because once that creeps into this game, you can’t do it.”
4. What does San Francisco do at right guard?
The 49ers are in a jam at right guard: Their tentative starter, Joshua Garnett, hasn’t practiced in nearly two weeks due to a knee injury. Second-string guard Jonathan Cooper isn’t ready to play either. So, what does San Francisco do?
It’s looking like the options are starting either backup center Erik Magnuson or backup left guard Mike Person.
Both players have taken first-team reps at right guard over the past week during practice. Both have also been dominated by the 49ers’ defensive line in those practices.
With rookie McGlinchey also on the right side, San Francisco needs to find some stability. The only thing the team can do now is see how the offensive line performs as a whole and pray no one misses a block that puts Garoppolo in the hospital.
5. Which young DBs can make set themselves apart from the pack?
This group started camp as perhaps the deepest of any position group. That narrative has quickly shifted as the 49ers defensive back unit has become thin thanks to list of injuries that seemingly grows by the day.
First it was Jimmie Ward, who was laid up with a hamstring (he’ll start at left corner on Thursday). A few days later Richard Sherman suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain. Finally on Sunday, nickel corner K’Waun Williams sprained an ankle, which has left the 49ers without three potential starters.
While injuries are never a good thing, they have, however, opened the door for some young DBs to show what they can provide for a secondary looking to improve from last season.
Antone Exum Jr. Tarvarius Moore, Emmanuel Moseley and D.J. Reed Jr. will all have the chance to prove to the 49ers coaching staff that they belong on the roster, or at the very least, to survive the first round of cuts.
So far, Exum and Reed have taken turns with the first defensive unit in practice, making it likely that one of them will start at nickel on Thursday.
The rest will have to make their impact with the second and third teams, but since it’s the first preseason game, there should be plenty of those reps to go around.
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