It's important to not get too caught up in what happens Thursday night vs. the Los Angeles Chargers. Yes, Kyle Shanahan has said that there are still roster spots up for grabs, but we have no idea which spots those are.
We can make inferences, though, and I'll attempt to do just that in this week's mailbag. Most of the San Francisco 49ers starters will not play in the preseason finale. That puts the focus squarely on players who need the extra reps and those still vying for a spot on the final 53-man roster.
That list of names will have to be finalized by 1:00 p.m. PT on Saturday. On to the mailbag…
There are lots of questions about the running back situation this week, and so I grouped them all together. I think it's realistic that the 49ers keep four running backs. Pierre Garçon is a lock. Matt Breida and Joe Williams I'd also guess have a strong chance at making the team. Then it comes down to Raheem Mostert and Tim Hightower.
My answer to this question likely would have been different a week ago before Mostert put up 130 total yards and two touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings. It feels like he's done enough to secure a spot. His chances are improved even more if the coaching staff feels Mostert is the team's No. 1 option at kick returner. Still, it's hard to discredit Hightower and his experience with Shanahan. I expect to see Hightower featured more prominently against the Chargers after not playing in Minnesota.
To finish up on the second question, it doesn't have to be an either/or situation in regards to Williams and Breida. I do think that it behooves Williams (and Hightower for that matter) to show well against the Chargers, though. He flashed in the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs with seven carries for 60 yards but has been quiet since.
Finally, there's no telling who is the team's No. 2 running back. Breida held that role on Sunday against the Vikings, but the team has plenty of time to figure out the depth chart before Week 1.
The fact is that San Francisco's front office will scour the waiver wire at every position. Nearly 900 players will be looking for work by the weekend. John Lynch and Co. are sure to go through the entire list and see if anyone is an upgrade over a player currently on the roster.
The 49ers have clearly prioritized finding an offensive lineman as evidenced by Thursday's trade for Laken Tomlinson. The former first-round pick has appeared in all 32 games (24 starts) for the Detroit Lions since joining the NFL in 2015. Don't be surprised if more moves are ahead. It could be a busy weekend for the 49ers.
Trent Taylor and Jeremy Kerley are both viable options at punt returner. Kerley has only returned one punt for one yard and has two fair catches in the preseason. Taylor has seen the lion's share of reps with five returns for 58 yards and two fair catches. The rookie had a 33-yard run back in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's worth noting that most of the 49ers primary special teams jobs are unknown at this juncture (aside from Robbie Gould and Bradley Pinion, obviously). Both return spots as well as the two gunners on punt coverage are still yet to be determined.
As for George Kittle, I'd doubt he's an every down player from the jump. He will have a role as potentially the best receiving tight end on the 49ers roster.
Which starters are in jeopardy of not playing week 1 due to injury? — Hugo ☠️ (@boss435) August 30, 2017
Garnett is the primary concern. Shanahan said at the time of the guard's knee injury that it would be a long shot to get Garnett back by Week 1. There haven't been any updates since on Garnett's progress.
Jimmie Ward is the other name to watch. If he doesn't play against the Chargers, it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff feels comfortable enough starting him against the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers could very well ease Ward back into things. The strong play of Jaquiski Tartt, who started at free safety against the Vikings, gives the 49ers that luxury. Hamstrings are fickle, and it's impossible to predict how Ward's will respond while preparing for Week 1.
Taylor is a lock to be on the roster. Aldrick Robinson also has a strong chance of being on the roster. Then it comes down to how many wide receivers the 49ers opt to keep. Again, special teams contributions is a major factor in that equation. Aaron Burbridge is one of the better special teams players that the 49ers have. He's also not healthy and is dealing with a hamstring injury.
If San Francisco keeps six wideouts, they may keep Burbridge due to his ability in the third phase. They may also decide that Victor Bolden Jr. is the best kick returner on the team, or that Kendrick Bourne wouldn't pass through waivers and make it to the practice squad. These are all questions that remain ahead of Thursday night.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Beathard get the start. If I had to guess, I'd say that Beathard will play more than Kittle. The 49ers can't afford to have the tight end get banged up prior to Week 1.