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Breaking down the winners and losers from 49ers’ preseason opener

© Kelley L Cox | 2018 Aug 9

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers won their preseason opener in exciting fashion on Thursday night, edging out the Cowboys for a 24-21 victory at Levi’s Stadium. Here are six players who saw their stocks go up or down heading into Week 2.


WR Richie James Jr.

James was the player of the game for the 49ers on Thursday, finishing with a game-high four catches for 46 yards, including the winning touchdown catch from reserve quarterback Nick Mullens.

James, a rookie seventh-round pick by the 49ers out of Middle Tennessee State, played made both the first and final catch of the game, and started as the first-team slot receiver in place of the injured Trent Taylor. James flashed his skill on the first drive, helping the 49ers convert a third down by hauling in a Jimmy Garoppolo pass thrown slightly behind him, while running his route right behind the first-down marker.

James also showed his athleticism late in the second quarter, making multiple Cowboys miss on a run after catching a screen pass four yards behind the line of scrimmage.

With four receivers likely locks to make the 53-man roster — Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Taylor, and Dante Pettis — James is battling with five other receivers for the final two spots. His performance on Thursday night definitely pushed him to the front of that group heading into Week 2.

DE Jullian Taylor

The Niners’ other seventh-round pick in the 2018 draft, Jullian Taylor took full advantage of the opportunity to start at defensive end with Arik Armstead out with a hamstring issue. Taylor was the standout performer on defense Thursday, playing nearly the entire game while notching three tackles, a QB hit, and a sack in the fourth quarter.

“I saw him make a bunch of plays,” Shanahan said during his postgame presser. “He’s done a good job for us in camp and he looked like he showed up tonight.”

By all accounts, Taylor has been one of the stars of 49ers training camp, and could make a case for serious playing time even when Armstead returns.

QB Nick Mullens

Here’s one probably no one was expecting. In his second preseason as the 49ers’ third string quarterback, Mullens provided the game’s most exciting stretch, when he conducted a six-play, 77-yard drive in the closing minutes, including the aforementioned game-winning touchdown pass to James.

Overall, Mullens had easily his best night in a 49ers uniform (aside from a strange third quarter interception) going 11-for-13 for 141 yards, while posting a QB rating of 105.5. Mullens has never played in a regular season game and will likely have to have three more of these performances, and an implosion by C.J. Beathard, to win the second-string QB job.

If nothing else, Mullens had the best moment of his short NFL career Thursday night.


CB Jimmie Ward

One of the 49ers with the most to prove this season, Ward’s night was defined by one play on the game’s first series, when he got beat on a 30-yard touchdown pass to Cowboys rookie Michael Gallup.

What was strange about the play is that Ward seemed to be in good position, running with Gallup until stopping at the last moment, allowing the rookie to haul in the TD pass.

A first-round pick in 2014, and one of the few holdovers of the Trent Baalke era, 2018 is a make it or break it year for Ward, who still hasn’t proven himself at either the cornerback or safety in the NFL. Starting in place of the injured Richard Sherman on Thursday was his first chance to make a good impression. Ward’s gaffe on the TD pass spoiled that opportunity.

QB C.J. Beathard

Beathard was involved in one of the most exciting plays of Thursday’s game, when he connected with Pettis on a 53-yard completion in the third quarter.

The play masked a truly dismal night by Beathard, however, who posted a QB Rating of 60.6, and went 9-for-19 for 128 yards and an interception aside from his throw to James.

Beathard started five games for the 49ers last season, and enters the preseason with quite a leg up on the inexperienced Mullens. He’s a heavy favorite to make the team, but is going to need to show more than he did on Thursday to lock down the spot before Week 1.

Offensive line

The first team unit had a hard time creating lanes for the 49ers running backs all night, something Shanahan noted in his postgame press conference.

“I thought they ran hard,” the 49ers coach said. “I didn’t think we gave them a ton of space today. The times that they did have space I thought they made some good runs… But I did not think there was a lot of space in the game from what I saw.”

The 49ers running backs averaged a combined 3.8 yards per carry on Thursday, with Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Joe Williams combining for just 26 yards on 15 carries. San Francisco’s offensive line is supposed to be a much-improved unit in 2018 with the additions of Weston Richburg and Mike McGlinchey. Their performance will be something to monitor as the preseason continues.


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