NFL

10 things I noticed during the 49ers’ first preseason game with Chip Kelly

1. Blaine Gabbert will start in Week 1 of the regular season (not that we didn’t already know this).

Colin Kaepernick was held out of last night’s 24-13 loss at Levi’s Stadium, due to arm/shoulder trouble. This means he now has two preseason games to show his stuff, since the fourth preseason game doesn’t matter for starters.

But Gabbert being the frontrunner, and eventually getting the job (probably after the third preseason game) was telegraphed. If the 49ers were truly enamored with Kaepernick’s upside, they wouldn’t have allowed him to pursue trade talks with other teams or talked with the Broncos themselves. Chip Kelly wouldn’t have gotten the job if he came in with high hopes of turning Kaepernick’s career around. The 49ers think Gabbert is “Alex Smith 2.0” (that came straight from the mouth of Ted Robinson, by the way), and with Jim Harbaugh now the spawn of Lucifer, 49ers management thinks of Smith as the one who got away.

kapbench

So, Kaepernick is the “in case of emergency” quarterback.

But why would they pay him $11 million not to play? Because they had no choice. They couldn’t release him this year because he had those surgeries that kept him from being healthy enough to cut by April 1, and based on what they’ve seen throughout training camp they aren’t going to let that happen again next Spring.

I’m not accusing the 49ers of outright faking an injury to Kaepernick, who has become far too outspoken (on Instagram, at least) to keep quiet if such shenanigans occurred. However, Kaepernick was already way behind in this so-called “quarterback competition,” and missing this game (and ceding at least a dozen reps to Thad Lewis as a result) certainly won’t help matters.

2. Gabbert hasn’t changed.

He’s still a checkdown guy who has decent chemistry with Vance McDonald. He’s a backup on a decent team! Good for him. He’s also a starter on a team that needs an incredible running game and defense to even reach .500.

3. The defense looks better, but creating a serviceable pass rush won’t be easy without Aaron Lynch.

It’s clear that the 49ers are pushing their Oregon Duck defensive line tandem as the future (they showed that McDonald’s commercial featuring DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead at least a dozen times during the broadcast), and while there will be some growing pains, they will probably get some good production from the two as early as this season. The secondary also shouldn’t be a problem, although it’s clear that Kenneth Acker needs a new start elsewhere. He’s gone from a starting cornerback to a totally confused safety with zero confidence.

The bigger issue: who’s going to pressure quarterbacks in the first four weeks of the season, while Lynch serves his suspension? Ahmad Brooks is their best option, and he somehow picked up yet another offsides penalty yesterday. Tank Carradine didn’t look very good at his new position, and we didn’t see much from Eli Harold either (besides a 12 men on the field penalty). Corey Lemonier got into the backfield and deflected a pass … against third-stringers. Maybe Ronald Blair can do something, but without Lynch the secondary will probably be unfairly judged because quarterbacks will have so much time to pick them apart.

4. Mike Davis won’t get cut. 

It was a question heading into this season, because he looked slow and easy to tackle last year. He got the message. In fact, the trio of Carlos Hyde, Shaun Draughn and Davis might end up being one of this team’s greatest strengths (although they’re going to face a lot of 8-man and maybe even 9-man fronts).

5. We don’t know what’s going on with Anthony Davis.

He came into camp in great shape, lighter than ever, and ready to work and contribute. At least, that’s what we were told heading into yesterday, and then he gave up a sack. There’s a possibility that he’ll never be the same player after taking a year off. There’s also a decent chance that he’s rusty and will end up as the starting right tackle by Week 1. He’s a total wild card at this point.

6. Thad Lewis isn’t good. 

He’s a very poor man’s Russell Wilson, and there’s a reason why no one else plays quarterback like Wilson. It’s almost impossible to evade defender after defender with jukes and spin moves, then hurl a dime that only the intended receiver can catch. Lewis has some athletic ability, but those moves he kept making to avoid would-be tacklers will only result in getting him hurt. Or, hurt more seriously than he was last night. He tossed a few nice passes and a few that seemed a little too risky. If he plays a single snap during a regular season game, the 49ers are in trouble.

7. Slow down with the Jeff Driskel hype.

It was a rookie’s first preseason action, so it wouldn’t be fair to make a judgment yet. But while he rushed for 61 yards, there was nothing there to show that he has the ability to be an above-average NFL passer. A lot of his throws were too floated too softly or in the wrong area. He has gotten some buzz with how he’s performed in training camp, but he completed 4-of-12 passes for 20 yards against third-stringers yesterday. We’re probably talking practice squad unless he gets better quickly.

8. Everyone was right about their receiving corps. 

The 49ers will probably use McDonald and the other tight ends more than any other receiver besides Torrey Smith, who may get triple-covered at times. Other than Jerome Simpson and maybe Dres Anderson, who looked like an NFL receiver yesterday? Considering the way their receivers played as a whole, some teams might even stack the box on third-and-long against the 49ers this season.

9. Chip Kelly seems competent, which is an improvement over last year.

Kelly wasn’t sweating profusely for no reason, furrowing his brow in a way that made him look like a caveman seeing fire for the first time, or punting on 4th-and-short. Then his press conference was completely normal, with rational replies given to standard questions. The 49ers will probably have trouble scoring points this season, but at least it won’t seem like the ship is completely rudderless.

10. Management is still bitter about Jim Harbaugh.

Bob Fitzgerald, who subbed in on the TV side for Ted Robinson last night, went into a completely unnecessary (and seemingly prepared) monologue about Jim Harbaugh that could’ve been titled, “C’mon people, he wasn’t that good!” Fitzgerald described incredulously how, during the team’s three NFC title game seasons, the 49ers were one of the worst third down teams in the league and set NFL records for field goals. It turned an ordinary football broadcast into something you’d expect from a state-run television network in North Korea.

The 49ers need to get over this Harbaugh thing so the fans can follow suit. They need to stop trying to convince us that the best three-season period since the 1990s was actually an abomination that needs to be scrubbed from our memories. Was Harbaugh’s regime without flaws? Absolutely not.

But here’s a little secret: no head coach is perfect.

Bill Belichick pissed away the last part of the regular season in 2015, which led to an AFC Championship game in Denver that should’ve taken place at Foxboro. The Broncos won that game with their quarterback throwing 34 mph ducks. Pete Carroll decided that a tricky pass to Ricardo Lockette was a better idea than handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line.

We all know what we saw. Harbaugh tailored his game plans and in-game decisions to his defense and was more successful than any 49ers head coach since George Seifert. You’d think the team and its broadcasters would want to move away from the past, but they keep trying to justify a decision from years ago. As the kids say, just take the “L” and move on.

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