SANTA CLARA — After waltzing into the endzone with defenders grasping at his heels, 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. danced, as quarterback C.J. Beathard met him to celebrate.
Just thirty seconds earlier, Wilson had reversed field on the the visiting Los Angeles Chargers and take an outside zone run 41 yards, with a little help from Beathard, who delivered a downfield block.
“I just made the decision to stick my foot and go backfield,” Wilson said. “And then to see the cornerback sitting over there and C.J. [Beathard] behind me, that just gave me the extra power and I had to put it in [the end zone].”
The play highlighted the San Francisco 49ers’ 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in their final preseason game of the year, helping Mostert made his case to earn a spot on San Francisco’s 53-man roster. That roster must be set by Aug. 31 at 1 p.m. Pacific, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has several decisions to make.
Coming out of North Texas as an undrafted free agent, Wilson stood out in a beaten and battered 49ers running back corps with 266 yards on 66 carries in six games.
“We wanted to run the ball tonight and he did a really good job in the first half,” Shanahan said. “Jeff ran very well.”
Wilson provided some necessary relief after free agent signee Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL before the start of last season, Matt Brieda battled through ankle injuries and backup Raheem Mostert snapped his forearm in Week 9. In his second season with San Francisco, it’s been much harder for the 25-year old to make an impact, considering the amount of talent that resides in the 49ers running back room.
Wison has been shuffled to the back of the group with McKinnon coming back, and former Atlanta Falcon Tevin Coleman now in the mix, along with a healthy Brieda and Mostert.
Just as it seemed like Wilson would be on the verge of being a candidate to be cut, McKinnon — who has yet to play a down for San Francisco — suffered a setback in his recovery while cutting during practice on Tuesday.
“I can’t get into exact details of it,” Shanahan said, “but it wasn’t the type of two days that we were hoping for him.”
With McKinnon out for an undisclosed amount of time, Wilson was presented with the chance to sneak onto the roster. He ran the ball 20 times for 100 yards and one touchdown.
On that 41-yard run, Wilson took the play to the left side of the field, as designed, only to reverse field and utilize a surprising down-field block from Beathard on his way to the end zone.
“I was like ‘I have to put it in now,’” Wilson said. “If C.J. comes out there to make a block for me in the fourth preseason game, that speaks to his character. I was just trying to make his block that much better.”
Wilson’s performance makes a strong case for Shanahan to keep the second-year back on his roster, but Shanahan said that he does not plan on keeping a fifth running back — not including fullback Kyle Juszczyk — on his roster.
Last week, Shanahan stated that there is undoubtedly a roster spot for McKinnon, even with his lingering injury. Coleman and Brieda did not even dress on Thursday, indicating that each of their positions on the team have been secured.
This means that the final running back spot is likely coming down between Mostert and Wilson.
“Did I do [enough] or not? I guess we’ll find out pretty soon,” Wilson said. “Those decisions are way above me.”
With two days left for the 49ers to make their final decisions on the remaining spots for their roster, all Wilson can do is wait to see if he’ll remain a 49er for Week 1 of the regular season.
Regardless of how things shape out, Wilson hopes that his play on Thursday night impacts their decision.
“All I can do is come out and practice and play and show these guys that I can help,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”
– While starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo Watched the entirety of Thursday night’s game with team sweats on, Beathard played the whole first half.
With a run-first mentality, Shanahan only gave Beathard nine pass attempts. He was able to complete six of them for 58 yards and one touchdown.
“I thought he did a good job, not perfect,” Shanahan said. “Some good things, some bad. Decent job.”
Nick Mullens, who has been competing with Beathard for the No. 2 quarterback position, on the other hand, was only given three plays before undrafted rookie Wilton Speight was inserted for the remainder of the game.
“The plan was for them both to start the same amount of quarters,” Shanahan said in regards to the battle between Beathard and Mullens. “C.J. had six (series) and we wanted him to get six. I was going to debate on how long to keep him in, but after he got hit a few times in protection, I just pulled him out.”
– Going back to Beathard’s one touchdown, the 21-yard pass was thrown to Kendrick Bourne, who projected to squeak onto San Francisco’s roster for the third-consecutive year.
With that single catch for 21 yards, Bourne was the 49ers’ most productive wide receiver for the evening. He even out-performed former Philadelphia Eagle Jordan Matthews, who was confined to special teams play for the night.
“I mean, I wouldn’t look too far into that. We had a bunch of guys out today,” Shanahan said. “We didn’t want to play the guys too long on offense, maybe see the second half… receivers were doing so much, we had to spell those guys a little bit with gunner work.”
Both Bourne and Matthews, who are on the bubble for final cuts may get some help for what Shanahan called a “more serious” injury to rookie receiver Jalen Hurd than originally thought.
Dealing with back problems, Hurd is apparently in danger of missing at least the season-opener against Tampa Bay next Sunday. With this in mind, an additional roster spot for receiver depth could be added.
– Former first-round pick Josh Garnnett saw his first in-game action of 2019 after undergoing surgery to repair a broken ring finger earlier in training camp.
Since being drafted in 2016, Garnett has only played in seven regular season games as the Stanford product has dealt with a slew of injuries, keeping him off of the field.
In his first game back since hurting the finger, Shanahan says he was encouraged by Garnett’s effort.
“From what I saw, I thought he played well,” Shanahan said. “We ran the ball towards him, I thought he did a good job and he ended up getting cramps there towards the end, but when he was in, I thought he played well.”
But that’s what it will ultimately come down to for Garnet: can he stay available?
So far in his career, he has not been able to do so, which begs the question if San Francisco can afford to spend another roster spot on a lineman who cannot play.