© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers play their preseason finale against the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium. With most of the starters sitting out, the bubble players fighting for roster spots will have extended opportunity to make one final impression. Final cuts have to be made by 1 p.m. on Sept. 1.
Let’s review the players to watch.
For the first time this preseason, the 49ers moved Tyvis Powell from cornerback to strong safety in the second half of last Saturday’s 23-17 loss. He drew solid reviews from Kyle Shanahan.
“I thought he did a good job,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “He hadn’t been at it for too long, so there was a lot on his plate just X’s and O’s-wise. But, he showed it wasn’t too big for him, did a good job. He should get some more reps in this game, also.”
Fast forward to Tuesday, and the 49ers waived Chanceller James, one of the team’s backup options at strong safety behind starter Jaquiski Tartt.
The competition now features Powell and rookie Marcell Harris. Powell practiced with the safeties Tuesday. He played the position at Ohio State, but he was converted into a cornerback with the 49ers, similar to their plan for rookie Tarvarius Moore, largely because of Powell’s 6-foot-2, 211-pound frame.
If he proves he can play safety, he would present value at multiple spots in the secondary, similar to rookie D.J. Reed at nickel corner and free safety. Powell’s inclusion on the roster would likely send Harris to waivers, with the hope of stashing him to the practice squad.
That is, if Powell plays well Thursday.
Trading Eli Harold opened a door for Pita Taumoepenu, San Francisco’s seventh-round draft pick in 2017. Taumoepenu is battling with Mark Nzeocha and Dekoda Watson at outside linebacker, though Watson has played LEO since the onset of training camp.
The allure with Taumoepenu lies in his potential. He’s a fluid athlete with quickness off the line. But he hasn’t truly made an impact yet, perhaps a result of limited opportunity. He was active for just two games last year despite making the 53-man roster.
Taumoepenu has logged just 31 defensive snaps this preseason, but he leads the 49ers with 34 special teams snaps in three games. The importance of versatility is repeatedly preached around Santa Clara, deeming Taumoepenu that much more valuable because of his special-teams presence.
The decision to trade Harold underscored the coaching staff’s confidence in rookie Fred Warner. Nzeocha started at outside linebacker last Saturday and looks like a solid bet to make the 53-man roster. Elijah Lee is also fighting for a spot.
It may take a stellar finale for Taumoepenu to emerge from the logjam at linebacker with a roster spot.
A clear winner in the battle of the Coles has yet to emerge.
Cole Hikutini opened camp as the favorite at the No. 3 tight end spot behind George Kittle and Garrett Celek. But Hikutini has struggled in recent weeks, most notably dropping a perfect throw from Jimmy Garoppolo in last Saturday’s preseason game for a would-be touchdown. Wick, meanwhile, has been steady and consistent. He caught a pass on third down to move the chains last Saturday.
The 49ers’ decision may boil down to what they want in their third tight end. Hikutini is the faster and more dangerous receiver. Wick is the better blocker.
Rookie Jullian Taylor’s emergence has not helped Ronald Blair’s roster prospects. He is No. 3 on the depth chart at the big end spot behind Arik Armstead and Taylor.
Blair, a strong, sturdy pass-rusher, has proven that he can produce at the NFL level in limited playing time. He compiled five sacks and a forced fumble in just 102 career snaps. That production puts him on par with most of the additional 49ers defensive linemen, none of which have more than 10 career sacks.
Blair’s inclusion on the 53-man roster may hinge on whether the 49ers choose to retain nine or 10 defensive linemen.
Rookie receiver Richie James has been one of San Francisco’s most impressive players throughout the preseason. He has a team-leading eight catches for 112 yards through three preseason games. If the 49ers cut him, it seems unlikely he would escape waivers unclaimed, considering his prolific college numbers, solid preseason, and recent health— one of the concerns surrounding him entering the league.
His performance has most immediately affected Aaron Burbridge for the No. 6 receiver battle, though it does not appear Kendrick Bourne is a lock. Burbridge is one of the team’s top special teams gunners, but he has offered little in the passing game. It seems unlikely the 49ers would retain a player simply for his special teams coverage abilities, particularly at the expense of a nifty pass-catcher like James.
With James’ momentum, Thursday’s preseason finale is important for Burbridge to show he can impact the passing game.