By Gabe Schapiro
August 5, 2013
This Thursday, August 8 at 6pm, the preseason schedule kicks off when the San Francisco 49ers take on the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park. This matchup features two of the league’s best squads from 2012, and the two odds-on-favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII. Last season the Broncos finished 13-3, winning the AFC West before losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers finished 11-4-1, winning the NFC West, before falling to the same Ravens in the Super Bowl.
First the obligatory disclaimer that this is still just preseason football. The outcomes don’t matter and aren’t indicative of how well a team will do during the regular season. Instead, it’s a time to hope for good health, to keep an eye on a few key position battles, to look for growth and improvement from key players, and to hope for good health some more.
San Francisco has already been dealt a couple of blows due to injuries, most notably to their top wideout Michael Crabtree who is expected to be out until at least around week 12 with a torn Achilles. He joins receiver Mario Manningham on the PUP list. The 49ers have a stockpile of receivers in camp vying for roster spots, with really only Anquan Boldin penciled in as a sure thing as the new go-to option for Colin Kaepernick. AJ Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Kassim Osgood, and rookie Quinton Patton have all also been limited or have missed several practices due to minor injuries. The team recently signed Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins to join the fray at the position, which also includes Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, and Chad Hall. The wide receiving corp as a whole may be the biggest single thing to look for during the preseason, both in terms of who can stay on the field and who can seize the opportunity and fill out the depth chart behind Boldin.
More recently, San Francisco lost cornerback Chris Culliver for the season with a torn ACL. He had been penciled in as the team’s third corner behind Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. It’s a big blow at a position that already had questionable depth. Keep an eye on Nnamdi Asomugh, Tramaine Brock, and Perrish Cox who will be fighting to take over the spot.
The other major position battles to watch will be at kick and punt returner, free safety, and nose tackle.
LaMichael James appears to have the inside track to be the return specialist, as he is listed atop the first game release depth chart the 49ers have issued at both kick and punt returner. He struggled when he was given brief looks at returning punts last season, but reportedly has impressed during camp.
At free safety, CJ Spillman is currently listed as the starter. First round pick Eric Reid, who the team traded up to get, however, is still considered the favorite to start game one of the regular season. Craig Dahl has reportedly had a very strong spring, but is on the outside looking in at this point.
Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey are fighting it out for the nose tackle spot. Both have been performing well at camp, but Williams has the edge.
Notes: Star linebacker Patrick Willis suffered a fracture in his right hand, which will require surgery. Willis has a history of broken hands, and most importantly a history of playing through them without missing a step. He is still expected to be ready to go for the season opener against the Packers, but will be sitting out Thursday’s preseason opener.