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The 49ers’ third preseason game on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders will be the last before the regular season. Kyle Shanahan has said from the start of training camp that this game would be the most consequential of the preseason and be treated as the 49ers’ dress rehearsal. Here’s what to look for:
Returners and Hurd, Jennings
There aren’t a ton of position battles raging at this point, but it’s still unclear who the 49ers favor as their returner, especially for punts. Richie James Jr. is now out of the picture with a knee which needs to be surgically repaired, leaving Travis Benjamin and Nsimba Webster as the two most likely candidates. River Cracraft was also re-signed in James’ stead.
Benjamin has had the best camp of that small group as a receiver, coming on strong down the stretch after a very underwhelming start plagued by drops. That was highlighted by his touchdown reception on a bullet over the middle from Trey Lance against the Chargers. Benjamin is also a vested veteran, meaning that while he may be more expensive long term on the cap (that’s not a massive concern for the 49ers, but it will get tight at some point until they extend Laken Tomlinson or restructure Arik Armstead’s deal), he’s also easier to cut and re-sign without waiver concerns.
If the 49ers go for pure talent at the receiving position, then it won’t matter all that much. Clearly, the top six group is Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Mohamed Sanu, Trent Sherfield, Jauan Jennings and Jalen Hurd, but only Aiyuk and Sanu have any real experience as returners, and the 49ers might prefer a more expendable returner. Jennings and Hurd have also had some injury concerns, so there’s an opportunity to put one of them on injured reserve and re-sign a returner.
It’s unclear whether Hurd will play on Sunday. Shanahan said he hopes Hurd would play Sunday “if he feels good,” while Jennings is expected to play after sitting two days this week. Jennings had a pretty solid camp after starting late, but found himself sidelined again with a heel injury, and in the four days Hurd has been targeted in 11-on-11s, he’s been seriously impressive. If both of those players finish strong on Sunday, it’ll make the decision to keep them quite a bit easier.
The point is, this is the last good chance for one of the back-end to show off their chops both as a returner and a receiver and make their case to be on the final 53-man roster, and for Hurd and Jennings to rubber stamp themselves. Right now, the 49ers don’t have much clarity with their returners, and talent may be the decider.
There has been an almost sickening amount of Taysom Hill talk out of Santa Clara this past week, and as Kyle Shanahan has stated, the 49ers made an effort to rep both quarterbacks with both the first and second team. They also did so quickly, trying to replicate the speed of an in-game quarterback swap.
Is it viable to have a rookie quarterback (and an especially inexperienced one, at that) jump in for a few snaps at a time? Shanahan said he honestly isn’t sure, but intends to find out. If the 49ers are serious about their experiment to utilize Lance as a better version of Taysom Hill, they need to rep that in this final preseason game.
The original plan for the second preseason game was to get Garoppolo one series, then two for Lance, then one for Garoppolo, but the opening 16-play drive from Garoppolo wiped that out, and Lance got that extended stretch into the second half.
This final preseason game should provide a chance for the 49ers to mix it up with their quarterbacks and get a sense of how that feels. How will the offense adjust mid-drive to a new cadence and a different-velocity thrower? If that really is the plan, it needs to be tried out on Sunday.
This team is betting a lot on its rookie corners. Jason Verrett has plantar fasciitis — an often tricky injury, especially for NBA players — which Kyle Shanahan said is not expected to be a long-term concern. Emmanuel Moseley was out early on the Reserve/COVID-19 list before a hamstring injury. K’Waun Williams is now 30 and plays aggressively at a difficult, physical position with a diminutive frame.
Injuries are going to happen, and one or both of Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir — who started repping in the slot this week — will see playing time on defense in the regular season. The 49ers may only keep five corners initially (or at least cut Dontae Johnson for a day, then re-sign him after injured reserve moves) meaning there’s a burden on Thomas and Lenoir both as special teamers and to back up the three corner positions.
Both have been fairly impressive so far, and will need to step up again, especially with Verrett out this week. It’s nice to imagine that the 49ers’ starting corners are healthy all year, but that’s exceedingly unlikely. These rookies will be called upon, and Sunday is a crucial opportunity to reprove themselves.