Before we get into specific players to watch when the San Francisco 49ers face the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park, here’s what I’m most curious to see tomorrow:
Can Alex Smith and the rest of the offense move the ball against a non-49ers defense?
The next four games are exhibitions. They don’t count for much … other than to the players fighting for roster spots Nos. 45-53 or so. But after following off a surprisingly competent performance against the New Orleans Saints with a conference title game where San Francisco’s offensive flow was comparable to that of a BART escalator (Have no fear, most of the pee and poop has been wiped clean!), this unit will receive about 93% of the preseason scrutiny (the rest will hone in on every Kyle Williams punt return).
If you’re one of those
crazy loyal 49ers fans who, like me, will watch every second of tomorrow evening’s game, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily head over to your kegerator for a refill (or if you’re recording the game, press fast-forward) whenever the Christian Ponderers have the ball. After seeing a couple minicamp practices and three training camp practices, here are some players I’m excited to see at “game speed.”
The Quarterbacks: Groundbreaking analysis, I know. But sometimes things are obvious for a reason.
— Has Alex Smith improved since last year? Announcers will probably call him a “game manager” until the day he retires (even if he passes for 4,000 yards and 30 TD this season … “But Aaron Rodgers had a higher QB rating!”), but all we’re looking for is accuracy in the first series or two. A touchdown would be nice, as well.
— Colin Kaepernick is a former second round pick who could either push Smith out of the starting lineup by Week 6 or see his trade value sink to “a seventh rounder and a chuckle” if he flails this preseason. In practice he freely switches from dreadful to dominant on a whim. I have no idea how he’ll play tomorrow.
— Josh Johnson doesn’t wow you in practice. Like Kaepernick he’ll tuck it and run fairly often, only Kaepernick looks better equipped to handle that kind of pocket-skittishness since he’s bigger and faster. But I can see Johnson completing a bunch of passes across the middle to Konrad Reuland and jumping ahead in the depth chart if Kaepernick flounders.
— Scott Tolzein has almost zero chance to make the 53-man unless there’s an injury to one of the first three guys mentioned. But it’s not like any of the other QBs totally outshine Tolzein during practice.
Ted Ginn: Jim Harbaugh said today that Ginn would start alongside Michael Crabtree. I think we know what Crabtree will do: he’ll catch an 8-yard pass on the sideline, throw a block and bask in the afterglow a man enjoys after playing in his first ever preseason game. But why is Ginn starting? I think it’s because he’s looked really good in camp. He’s catching passes all over the field during 11-on-11 drills from each of the quarterbacks (including a long one from Scott Tolzein near the end of Tuesday’s practice).
A.J. Jenkins: Another obvious one. Jenkins — the subject of a fairly ridiculous controversy last week — looked much better in practice on Monday and Tuesday than the times I saw him earlier as a receiver. His hands have looked shaky in punt return drills, and he’ll probably get a shot there against Minnesota. If he drops a punt, the 49ers might shelve that experiment for a while.
Anthony Dixon: He’s going to have to block his ass off to make this team.
LaMichael James: My expectations for James are way too high, but I can’t help myself. He’s missed some practices, but he doesn’t look the least bit like an overwhelmed rookie … at least to my untrained eye.
Andy Lee: Just checking to see if you were paying attention.
Konrad Reuland: I mentioned him earlier for a reason — the guy catches a lot of balls during practice. Unless Nate Byham’s some sort of blocking savant, Reuland might have a chance to make the final roster.
Leonard Davis: For one thing, if there’s a sinkhole in the Candlestick turf we may lose him forever. The man is LISTED at 375 lbs. He makes Anthony Davis look like Brandon Jacobs, and he makes Jacobs look like A.J. Jenkins. But if he can effectively run-block and get in the way of pass rushers, he might be the 49ers’ starting right guard in Week 1.
Deante’ Purvis: I wasn’t surprised to hear that when Williams got in a fight during Wednesday’s practice, Purvis was on the other end. Not that Purvis is a dirty player or an instigator, it’s just that it seems like the undrafted rookie corner from UNLV (and Pinole High) is always around the action.
Michael Thomas: Similar to Purvis’ No. 40, it seems like I’ve seen a lot of No. 36 during practices. Thomas is on the smallish side for a safety, even in today’s cover-centric NFL. The 49ers aren’t going to bother with a guy who can’t be trusted against the run, so it’s on Thomas to prove he can grow from being a key contributor at Stanford to a versatile safety in the pros.
Aldon Smith: He’s been a full participant in practice. But with an expanded role in 2012, will the 49ers line him up in new spots tomorrow? Then again, Smith is so good they might wait until Week 1 of the regular season to show all the different ways they plan on using him. Something else to watch: he might get some extra run compared to most of the other defensive starters, just to gauge his stamina. One last thing: after weeks of not being allowed to hit quarterbacks, Smith might take out some aggression on Ponder.