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Watch How These 49ers Issues Play Out

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We'll be watching rookies like Nick Moody, Lawrence Okoye and Eric Reid closely in Thursday's preseason opener. Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images.
We'll be watching rookies like Nick Moody, Lawrence Okoye and Eric Reid closely in Thursday's preseason opener. Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images.

Football is back! Well, in the sense that we get to see grown men don pads and uniforms, and go after each other in the heat of battle. Although the games don’t matter — and some of the main characters only play a handful of snaps — we are now just 4 weeks away from the real thing. The 49ers kick off their final season at Candlestick Park against the Denver Broncos. While it would certainly be a high profile matchup if they were playing in the regular season, Thursday is more about the fringe players and demonstrating their skills to the coaching staff. So, what should Niner fans look for the most on Thursday? I’m glad you asked.

Receiver, Receiver, Receiver

Anquan Boldin is the only wideout who has really secured a roster spot at this point. Mario Manningham, the 49ers’ next most experienced receiver, is likely to start the season on the PUP list, so he’ll be unavailable for the first six games. With some lingering injuries to other potential candidates early in training camp, the 49ers signed free agents Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins last week. It’s no lock that Boldin even plays on Thursday, but I’m looking at the other guys.

A.J. Jenkins is over his tender hamstring from early in camp. After playing very few snaps in his rookie season, Jenkins just needs to see the field. Whether it’s with Colin Kaepernick, Colt McCoy, or Scott Tolzien, the Illinois man figures to see plenty of snaps on Thursday.

There are others that need playing time, too. Austin Collie should see some snaps despite only being with the team for a week. It might be too early to see anything substantial, and with his considerable injury history, it may be the right move to limit his preseason snaps.

Additionally, Chad Hall and Marlon Moore will get looks. According to multiple beat writers, Hall and Moore have been two of the more impressive receivers through 10 days of camp. There is also Kyle Williams, who is tentatively penciled in as the starter across from Boldin on the Niners’ first depth chart. He’s returning from a torn ACL, so he’s questionable to play in the preseason opener.

It’s probably for the best because Ricardo Lockette, Quinton Patton and Kassim Osgood also need to see the field. I expect some separation in the wide receiver corps ... the question, who steps up?

Defensive Line Questions

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has already said the 49ers are planning on more of a rotation on the defensive line this season. Will Tukuafu and Demarcus Dobbs are the backups to Ray McDonald and Justin Smith at defensive end. They should see plenty of snaps against the Broncos. Dobbs and Tukuafu were two-way players last season, with Tukuafu playing 94 offensive snaps and 56 on the defensive side of the ball. He won’t be asked to play fullback in the jumbo package on offense, if he’s playing more snaps on defense — so we’ll get our first chance to see him play extended snaps on the defensive line this year.

Another factor along the defensive line is the injury status of rookies Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial. Carradine tore his ACL in November, so we’re not likely to see him until the middle of the season. Dial had surgery for his turf toe in January, so his status is certainly up in the air. Dobbs and Tukuafu will be motivated to show their ability before the two draft picks return to the fold.

The player I’m looking forward to seeing the most is Lawrence Okoye. He may not see a ton of time due to his lack of football experience, but I want to see the improvement he has made since arriving in San Francisco earlier in the summer. The 2012 Olympian, and British record-holder in the discus, possesses great physical attributes and while he might not make the final 53 at the end of the month, he’s a guy whose potential alone may keep him on the practice squad.

The Cornerback Conundrum

We’ve already documented the Niners’ issues in the secondary this season and beyond, but the battle is just beginning to replace Chris Culliver as the third cornerback. Tramaine Brock has the inside track on the job, but there’s certain to be plenty of opportunity for others. Because of Brock’s relative inexperience, he may see the greatest number of snaps for any cornerback Thursday. If Denver rolls out its starters for at least a series, it would be a quality experience for Brock to match up against a Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker.

The Niners are still poking around free agent Eric Wright, but he apparently isn't healthy enough to sign yet. That will allow elder statesman Nnamdi Asomugha to see plenty of time for evaluation. After receiving mixed reviews from Fangio early in camp, the former All-Pro can take the field and prove his critics wrong. Similarly, late-round pick Marcus Cooper and undrafted rookie Lowell Rose can start making a run at a roster spot with a strong effort. 

Even with the loss of Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver, the 49ers still maintain one of the strongest rosters in the league. However, the competition for the vacant wide receiver and cornerback positions are just starting to heat up. The various competitors can start to get a leg up on Thursday. We will be watching closely.