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The 49ers Still Have A Few Spots To Fill

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A.J. Jenkins is on the hot seat. Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.
A.J. Jenkins is on the hot seat. Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.

While much of the buzz around this week’s exhibition game between the 49ers and Chiefs was about Alex Smith facing his old team, that’s really just a small tidbit in the ongoing preseason storyline. The manufactured “rivalry” between Smith and the Niners aside, there were important issues at hand for San Francisco on Friday against Kansas City.

I’ve seemingly written about Niners’ wide receiver battle every week since training camp began, but the second and third preseason games are crucial for guys on the roster bubble. No wideout has more pressure on them than 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. He has strung together some quality practices in August, but it didn’t translate on the field against Denver.

Many in the online draft community questioned Trent Baalke’s pick in 2012. If the 49ers were to waive Jenkins, it would be a clear acknowledgment of their mistake. For the maligned second-year man, it’s not about the snaps he’ll get tomorrow night; he’s sure to see plenty. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are searching for a reliable receiver or two to pair with Anquan Boldin. Whoever shows the slightest bit of chemistry with Colin Kaepernick may win a role on the team. At this point, though, it’s fair to question whether Jenkins has the talent and drive to succeed with the Niners.

Additionally, cornerback is another important position battle. While there is really nothing to report on that front, as recently signed Eric Wright still isn’t cleared to practice, could the Niners be interested in making a trade to pick up another potential cornerback? This is the point in camp when teams start to leak out possible release or trade candidates. Would Baalke take a chance on an out-of-favor player for a late round pick? His track record says yes.

A non-wide receiver or cornerback issue is the defensive line. With rookies Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial already on the shelf, it was announced on Wednesday that Demarcus Dobbs would be suspended for the first game of the season. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio were aiming to go with more of a rotation on the line, but that may not work out Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.

Clearly, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are entrenched as starters at the end positions. However, Ian Williams performed well against the Broncos, and Glenn Dorsey and Will Tukuafu also are fighting for playing time as well. I wouldn’t expect Fangio to tip his hand in the preseason, but in the regular season we can expect to see some exotic formations, especially on third down. Whether it’s Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, or Corey Lemonier with their hand in the dirt, or Justin Smith standing up, we should see an array of different personnel up front for the Niners this season.

Another interesting battle to watch is at the quarterback position. Neither Colt McCoy nor Scott Tolzien did much to standout against the Broncos. McCoy is locked in as the backup to Kaepernick right now, but he may not be long for the position. Although the former Texas man can probably do a reasonable impression of Alex Smith, he doesn’t have the talent of Tolzien. As the starter at Wisconsin the season before Russell Wilson, Tolzien possesses a strong arm, but hasn’t looked very accurate in game action. The door is still wide open for the No. 2 job though, so look for McCoy, Tolzien and even rookie B.J. Daniels to see some snaps under center.

There’s less than two weeks until teams have to cut their rosters to 75 players, so there are fewer and fewer opportunities to put positive tape together for the coaches. While some dismiss the preseason as meaningless, and it’s true to some extent, there are players who need just a few reps to get ready for the season. For the vast majority of players, though, these two weeks are important to making the team. The Niners’ roster hopefuls got another chance on Friday against the Chiefs.