Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers will host Matt LaFleur’s Packers to open the preseason on Friday night after breaking their hearts in the NFC Divisional round in January.
The teams and head coaches may be the same, but the situations are completely different — it’ll be in sunny California, not frigid Green Bay, as both teams will look to get their feet wet ahead of a season that features heavy expectations on both franchises.
For the 49ers, they’ll be looking to avenge their NFC Championship loss, but with an unfamiliar face at starting quarterback in Trey Lance.
Shanahan spoke earlier this week and mentioned that he expects the starters to play a little bit. Based on my translator, I’d expect the offensive and defensive starters to be mixed in for a series or two on Friday before being pulled out of the game.
Despite that, there are still so many things that I’m looking forward to seeing in the preseason opener, but here are my top three:
1. Which running backs will step up?
The most intriguing positional battle might be at running back. The 49ers will have Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. leading the way for this group — but who makes the roster behind them?
Second-year player Trey Sermon has a lot to prove after a disappointing rookie season, but he’s been playing well in training camp. Rookie Tyrion Davis-Price’s physicality has been lauded by everyone who’s seen him play, but can he carve out a role for himself in this offense?
Veteran JaMycal Hasty might be the best pass-catching back on this roster but might be the odd one out. Last, undrafted free agent Jordan Mason’s been receiving some praise and could be the next diamond in the rough at running back for the 49ers.
All of these players should receive ample playing time and carries in the preseason, and I can’t wait to see which of these backs steps up and earns more snaps heading into Week 1.
2. Can Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, and Spencer Burford hold up?
While Shanahan hinted at the fact that Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey may not be suiting up, I’d expect the other three starters (as of now) to suit up and play quite a bit on Friday night.
In my opinion, this is the biggest question mark on the 49ers’ roster heading into the season. Can this inexperienced group hold up in front of Trey Lance?
Second-year Aaron Banks probably has the highest expectations of the three players. He was drafted in the second round from a blue-chip program and expected to compete at the guard position in 2021. Banks has re-shaped his physique and is in shape to start at left guard this season.
Jake Brendel is trying to fend off Dan Brunskill for the starting center role, and the first test of their competition will begin during the preseason opener. Spencer Burford’s been the biggest surprise of the group — starting at right guard after being drafted in the fourth round this season. Given his attitude, personality, work ethic, and performance thus far in camp, I’d say the arrow is pointing up for the young rookie out of UTSA.
But a microscope will be on these three players all preseason (and season) long, as they’ll look to protect Trey Lance’s pocket from interior defenders.
3. Who makes an impact along the defensive line?
Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Samson Ebukam are the proven veterans along this defensive line. Beyond that, there are some rookies, younger players looking to take the next step, and some veterans on one-year contracts looking to flash under Kris Kocurek.
Beyond those three, there are so many players that I’ll be interested in watching during the preseason opener.
Rookie Drake Jackson will make his debut, and will his bend, speed, and athleticism translate to the NFL? Former Colt Kemoko Turay has been a pass-rushing specialist in the past. Will that translate to San Francisco? Kevin Givens and Hassan Ridgeway have been so effective as interior defenders. Can they continue to wreak havoc? Can Javon Kinlaw parlay his exemplary offseason into a productive third season?
This is the deepest position group on the roster, and this year there are quite a bit of starters that are stashed as second and third-stringers, so it’ll be fascinating to see how they perform in Kocurek’s scheme.
Beyond these three position groups, Trey Lance also takes the field for the first time as the full-time starter on Friday. His era begins at Levi’s Stadium on Friday evening, and I’m sure all the fans will be tuned in.
What are you most looking forward to watching?
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