© Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – The final game of preseason football is notorious for its lack of sex appeal, but it might be the most crucial game in terms of finalizing rosters. Below are five players who have either done enough to show that they should make the roster, or have shown promise, but need to have a near-perfect final game to force their way on to the 53-man roster (and even that might not be enough).
Azeez Al-Shaair (LB) – Al-Shaair has had nothing short of a tremendous preseason, but is in a difficult spot. The 49ers have shifted more from a traditional 4-3 defense to predominantly nickel packages, to the point that the team might see the linebacker position as a place for cuts to be made, especially if they, as head coach Kyle Shanahan stated would be the case, keep three quarterbacks on the roster. Even if the team goes with the more predictable six linebackers, Al-Shaair has multiple genuine competitors.
Outside of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw, there’s Elijah Lee, who seems very likely to make the team, David Mayo, who’s very useful on special teams and has had himself a great preseason, Mark Nzeocha, another special teams weapon and favorite of special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, and LaRoy Reynolds, a seven-year NFL veteran who’s had as good, if not a better preseason than anyone else on that list.
What works in Al-Shaair’s favor is his speed, special teams ability and youth. He would likely have been drafted after a fantastic career at Florida Atlantic University if he hadn’t torn his ACL; an injury which appears to have had little affect on him. In preseason Week 1, he had four combined tackles (one for a loss) and recovered a fumble. In Week 2, he had five combined tackles and one PBU. In Week 3, he had a pair of combined tackles with one on special teams.
He was criticized by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh last week, but that may have been a ploy to dampen the excitement around him and sneak him on the 49ers’ practice squad. Said Saleh:
“I still feel the same. He’s undrafted, he didn’t get OTAs, so he’s still behind mentally in terms of playbook stuff. I shouldn’t say behind, he’s still playing catch-up. There’s still subtle nuances and details that come into that MIKE linebacker spot. I have a process that players should go through, you get your call, you get your alignment, you get your key, which is you place your eyes where they need to be and you execute the defense. He’s still catching up to the alignment part, and if you’re still trying to play catch-up to alignment, you’re going to be playing catch-up with your keys, which leads you to play catch-up with your execution. When he’s aligned, his eyes are right and all that stuff, he looks pretty good, but there’s still a lot of things with regards to the many different looks, plays, formations that offenses can give him with regards to all the different defenses we run where he needs to get on it from a precision standpoint to be able to take his game to another level.”
But if Al-Shaair has another solid, injury-free game in Week 4, he’ll make it tough for the 49ers to cut him, even with their depth at the position.
Kevin Givens (DT) – Givens has had a tremendous preseason, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. A lot of what the defensive tackle does is pushing an offensive lineman back into the quarterback and/or forcing a double team on him and opening up space for the rest of the defensive line to attack the backfield. His play warranted a high-praise breakdown from NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger.
The likely season-ending injury to Kentavius Street, who was probable, if not at least in the mix to make the roster, opens up another spot on the defensive line. He was, however, a defensive end, and with Nick Bosa a question mark for Week 1, Damontre Moore seems the most likely player next up to make the team.
But if the 49ers take 10 defensive linemen, which seems likely given their talent at the position, it’s probably Givens versus Jullian Taylor for the last spot. Taylor has struggled with a back injury this preseason, which bodes well for Givens. As with all the players on this list, one more good, healthy game from Givens could push him onto the final 53.
Daniel Brunskill (OL) – Brunskill’s not the most exciting name on this roster, but he took the most offensive snaps out of any player last week (43) and played with the team’s starters at right guard. He took 32 snaps (56 percent of snaps) in Week 2 and 56 snaps (78 percent) in Week 1. He can play on the interior and at tackle, both of which are question marks for the 49ers depth-wise.
He’s in a battle with Najee Toran, who’s probably in the lead at right guard, with Joshua Garnett playing his first preseason game on Thursday, and on the outside looking in. The 49ers are probably looking at him more as a fit there than at tackle, where Sam Young and Justin Skule are fighting for a spot as the new swing tackle following the season-ending injury to Shon Coleman.
Like Damontre Moore, Brunskill was signed after performing well in the AAF. He’s also only 25 years old, meaning he’d have to go through waivers, which could be a consideration in keeping him as opposed to a veteran. A lot of teams are looking for depth across their offensive line, which could work in his favor in making the roster.
Jeff Wilson Jr. (RB) – Wilson provides something a little different than the other backfield options the 49ers have. While he’s listed (6’0, 194 pounds) as an inch shorter and 16 pounds lighter than Tevin Coleman, he plays much bigger and can get downfield with power and speed.
He had 12 rushes for 45 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs in preseason Week 3, after returning brilliantly after a calf injury that sidelined him for most of the first half of training camp.
The likely IR designation of Jerick McKinnon would open up another spot on the roster; the main question is whether the 49ers want to go with four running backs plus Kyle Juszczyk, or whether they believe Wilson, considering the dearth of running backs many teams have, could make it through waivers and onto the team’s practice squad.
Richie James Jr. (WR) – James’ listing here is essentially the listing of Jordan Matthews and Kendrick Bourne as well. Trent Taylor is almost certainly unavailable in Week 1 (but is very likely to make the roster), and Jalen Hurd is a question mark as well. That would leave, barring a trade or surprising (but rational) cut of Marquise Goodwin, the 49ers with potentially four healthy wide receivers, including the sixth spot.
Jordan Matthews is solid veteran presence who can play in the slot with height and consistency, and received a pretty rave review from Shanahan. Kendrick Bourne, the team’s wide receiving yards leader a year ago, cannot be counted out either, although his drops and inconsistency are a worry. If the 49ers take seven wide receivers – something which Shanahan did not rule out, and is very much in play with the aforementioned injuries – that would seem to work in James’ favor.
He made the crucial catch in Week 3 which got Jimmy Garoppolo going and has looked like the team’s best returner, both on punts and on kickoffs, while also having a consistently good camp. That special teams ability would seemingly push him above Matthews or Bourne (the team will likely take one) if they go with seven spots. Even if the team goes with six wide receivers, another solid performance will at least keep James in the conversation.