Aldon Smith

49ers’ first preseason game of 2011: 10 things to watch

For anyone who hasn’t checked out the 49ers during training camp yet, tonight provides the first opportunity to see what exactly the team looks like. Not what kind of plays they’ll run, since Jim Harbaugh has only been coaching the team for a couple weeks and based on the way he describes injuries to his players, he’s a pretty secretive guy. But with a lot of new players and hopefully a new, far less miserable era of 49ers football in its infancy, seeing the initial progress should be fascinating. Here are 10 things I’ll be focusing on this evening:

1. Colin Kaepernick

Whenever a guy’s described as “raw” and “athletic,” watching how that translates in actual game situations is a crapshoot. You never know if someone like Kaepernick will slice up New Orleans’ second-team defense and excite everyone even more than Nate Davis did during his preseason appearances, or if he’ll try to show off his arm and sling an ill-advised deep ball into triple coverage. It’ll be interesting to see how Kaepernick, an adept runner, will look outside the pocket — or if Harbaugh will even allow such freelancing. However, if Harbaugh calls a bootleg while Kaepernick’s in the game, you’ll know that Harbaugh’s feeling good about Kaepernick’s progress.

2. Aldon Smith

Very similar to Kaepernick in terms of how he’s been described over the past couple weeks. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says Smith has a lot to learn, but when you’re talking about someone who’s got a 7-foot wingspan with arms as big as young redwood trees and excellent speed, you can’t help but put a mental spotshadow on him at all times. Seeing his instincts after transitioning from defensive end in college to outside linebacker with the Niners will be the key tonight.

3. Frank Gore

One of my biggest fears about this season is Gore’s ability to finish the year. Hip injuries are never good, especially not for running backs with over 1,300 career carries. In what should be very few touches tonight, will Gore have the same burst through the line?

4. The Safeties

The 49ers have about 30 of them. The competition for the last couple spots in this group should be one of the stories of camp, as well as if we see improvement from the position after a pretty bad showing from the Niners’ safeties last year. Also, we’ll probably see a lot of Taylor Mays tonight if the 49ers are truly showcasing him for a potential trade.

5. Braylon Edwards

Just because this will be the first time I’ve watched Edwards in a game since 2008 where I didn’t hate him. Wonder if he’ll be wearing his “war cologne” tonight. He wears it when he’s “trying to show confidence or be dominant,” you know!

6. Isaac Sopoaga/Aubrayo Franklin

A bad outcome tonight for the 49ers would be if Aubrayo Franklin wreaks havoc while Sopoaga gets pushed aside during a multitude of long rushes by Pierre Thomas and/or Darren Sproles. Sure, it’s preseason, but Franklin seemed like the one guy the Niners wanted to keep but couldn’t.

7. Kendall Hunter

I liked Anthony Dixon, that was until he couldn’t stay upright (longer cleats might help). Hunter’s an explosive little tailback, but I was talking from David Fucillo from Niners Nation who told me he’s had some trouble in pass protection. We’ve seen impressive performances from forgettable running backs before (cough … Thomas Clayton), but with Dixon’s propensity to slip and fall in space, Hunter has an opportunity to jump in and become the No. 2 guy behind Gore — but not if he can’t block.

8. Ronald Johnson

Prediction: the 5th round draft pick from USC will be ahead of Josh Morgan on the depth chart by midseason.

9. Alex Smith

We’ve seen this guy before, but how he looks on the Niners’ first drive or two will be telling. He knows everyone’s watching for some kind of improvement, some kind of anything to latch onto. If he carves up the Saints’ defense it won’t really mean anything, but if he has a few 3-and-outs or (even worse) turns the ball over a couple times, people are going to freak out.

10. Jim Harbaugh

We kind of know how Harbaugh will look on the sidelines from his time at Stanford, but in a game like this that doesn’t matter, the cameras will be trained on Harbaugh the entire time. How will he react when the 49ers screw up (and since the lockout just ended, there will be mistakes)? What kind of plays will he call? Will his interactions with players be different than the embarrassing way Mike Singletary would often spend so much time yelling at his offensive linemen while the game was going on behind him? Like everything else in this meaningless game, Harbaugh’s attitude and mannerisms will be ripe for over-analysis. But it will be fun to watch, just the same.

So there you have it. 10 things to watch, and I didn’t even include two of the team’s biggest problem areas from last year, the cornerbacks and offensive line. For week one of the preseason, this is going to be extremely watchable.


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