Anquan Boldin

First impressions after 49ers preseason debut

The first preseason game tells us about as much about the 49ers’ chances this season as this year’s “Why Your Team Sucks” feature on Deadspin, in which Drew Magary was even more scathing than usual. It tells us even less about Jim Tomsula. Still, I feel like I should at least write SOMETHING about the team, since I haven’t been able to attend training camp practices this year and a post about today’s trade isn’t going to cut it.

If you haven’t heard, the 49ers shipped tight end Asante Cleveland to the New England Patriots for offensive lineman Jordan Devey. Devey is 6-6, 317, and can play guard or tackle. He started four games at guard for the Pats last year, and the results weren’t good.

Devey didn’t play after Week 7, but he could get a chance with the 49ers, who have noted depth issues on their line. Cleveland, on the other hand, just hit the jackpot. Instead of being a forgotten guy on a roster with nine tight ends, including two re-signed free agents and two draft picks, he goes to a team that wants him — one which also happens to employ a far better quarterback who runs an offensive system that has made several tight ends into stars.

Besides the Australian rugby guy making a preseason game look like one of his many highlight clips on YouTube, Saturday’s game wasn’t all that fun to watch. The goal-line stand was impressive, and there were a lot of short passes completed by Blaine Gabbert. That was pretty much it, and we can see Trent Baalke’s vision coming to life.

Baalke likes BIG, and he has created a team of tight ends and defensive linemen. That’s a drastic oversimplification, but they’re pretty well-stocked at both positions. Unfortunately, none of the tight ends are guys you’d consider drafting this month in your fantasy league, and there’s no way they can play Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Mike Purcell, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine, Darnell Dockett and Arik Armstead at the same time. And like the tight ends, there are no clear stars on that d-line, either.

A lot has been made of Colin Kaepernick’s overthrown deep pass to an open Torrey Smith. It’s preseason, so who cares … BUT, the season clearly hinges on Kaepernick. And here’s what I’m sick of hearing.

  1. He needs to go through his progressions.
  2. Watch these guys get to the line of scrimmage so quickly!
  3. Kurt Warner Kurt Warner Kurt Warner Kurt Warner

I don’t care about any of that. If he goes through his progressions, cool. If they avoid delay of game penalties and oddly-timed timeouts, bonus. Warner used to carve up the 49ers with regularity, so he has some credibility. Great. Fine.

All I care about is accuracy. That’s it. Can he throw short, intermediate and deep balls accurately? If not, it doesn’t matter if he darts his eyes back and forth on every passing play, looks off safeties, audibles 20 times a game or marries a woman with crazy hair.

Can Kaepernick put the ball where it needs to be? Can he throw it close enough to Smith on those post routes to collect a few pass interference calls this season, let alone right on target so Smith can come down with the ball more often than not? Smith comes from Baltimore, where he got to play with one of the best deep-ball passers in the league in Joe Flacco. Kaepernick has the arm strength, but that’s meaningless if the ball lands eight yards away from its intended target.

As for Blaine Gabbert, puh-lease. He was completing six-yard passes to tight ends against second-stringers in a game that didn’t matter. Here’s a note from Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus:

10 of Blaine Gabbert’s 11 attempts were less than 10 yards downfield. Average depth of target on the night was 3.3 yards.

In other words, exhibition season Alex Smith. It’s better than nothing, and this team hasn’t exactly seen a lot of short passes completed over the last few years, but Gabbert’s high completion percentage is hardly cause for celebration.

Bright spots

— I’ve been cynical about the Baalke Redshirt Squad (as you’ve probably noticed), and Brandon Thomas showed well in his first game. There was some talk about Thomas struggling this offseason, but if he’s serviceable they should just kick Marcus Martin to center and kick Joe Looney to the curb, because he is not good. Then again, the jury’s out on Martin too.

— Purcell was a stud in this game. Again, it’s the first preseason game and these guys are just displaying their power, speed, technique and effort in one-on-one, scheme-free situations. But Purcell has definitely taken advantage of the coaching and conditioning opportunities he’s been afforded with the 49ers.

— Jerome Simpson still looks fast. Even with all of this talk about DeAndrew White, it wouldn’t surprise me if Simpson was kept on the 53-man roster as this year’s Randy Moss/Brandon Lloyd.

Jaquiski Tartt might already be better than Jimmie Ward, who can’t seem to stay healthy.

— Carlos Hyde looks like he’s ready to carry the ball 250 times this year.

— Jarryd Hayne might be the team’s most entertaining punt returner … ever? If he makes the team, that is.

Uh ohs

— Sorry, I just don’t see it with Shayne Skov, who couldn’t cover at all a year ago. Maybe Skov has boosted his game in that area since, but I don’t see him as an upgrade over Michael Wilhoite, let alone Chris Borland. The fact that he played so many snaps shows that he probably doesn’t figure too much into the team’s plans this year.

— I’m on the fence with Nick Moody, who’s impressed some of the folks who’ve gotten to cover the team in person this offseason. He seemed too undisciplined when he got a shot late last season after Borland’s season-ending injury, but he’s definitely someone who has the athleticism and safety experience (in college) to cover. He also had some nice penetration on those goal-line run plays. Although, to be fair, Houston went totally vanilla, time after time, with the intent of testing their offensive line (and their blockers failed).

— Antoine Bethea didn’t look good in Houston. Maybe he was just messing around, seeing as he’s a vet who’s been through a lot of these meaningless exhibitions, but the 49ers have to prepare for the possibility of a quick fall-off for their 31-year-old safety.

— 49ers fans live in the past, and anyone who’s old enough surely remembers how the 49ers would start nearly every exhibition season during the glory years: Joe Montana or Steve Young would trot out on the field and lead the team to a touchdown on their first and only series, while making the whole thing look effortless. It was like a game of two-hand touch, only Montana and Young were the only ones who didn’t get hit.

Kaepernick had one series. He completed a first down throw to Anquan Boldin (something we already knew he could do in his sleep), missed that deep ball to Smith, and was flushed out of the pocket on third down. The 2015 defense probably won’t be all that bad, but they aren’t going to be able to exert their will on opponents like the 2011-13 teams. Kaepernick is going to need to sustain drives and chew up some clock, especially if the 49ers are focused more than ever on getting to the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible. And, from time to time, he’s going to need to make things look easier than they did on Saturday.

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