It's time for our "Four Downs" preview of the San Francisco 49ers preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys. Here are all of the players and storylines that you need to keep an eye on Thursday night.
First Down: Who will score the 49ers first touchdown?
Joe Fann: George Kittle
It's not a guarantee that the first-team offense will score a touchdown on Thursday night, but it's way more fun to assume that it will. So to cap off an efficient drive down the field, Jimmy Garoppolo is going to find Kittle in the end zone. The score will simultaneously send 49ers fans as well as the entire fantasy football world into a tizzy.
Keiana Martin: Matt Breida
Much of the talk surrounding the 49ers this offseason was the addition of free agent running back Jerick McKinnon. But don’t forget about Breida. The second-year running back is expected to play a large role in the 49ers offense. Given his ability as both a runner and a pass catcher, I foresee the 49ers using Breida early in the opener and punching it into the end zone.
Second Down: Who is the rookie you're most excited to see?
Joe Fann: D.J. Reed
It's super early, but Reed looks to be John Lynch's next great find in the fifth round or later. Reed has been impressive during training camp while learning two new positions on defense. The former outside corner at Kansas State has quickly picked up nickel and free safety in Robert Saleh's scheme. He currently appears to be the second-stringer at both spots but will likely start at nickel on Thursday with K'Waun Williams (ankle) out. I'm looking forward to seeing him get reps at both spots.
Keiana Martin: Mike McGlinchey
What’s more exciting to watch than a first-round draft pick make his preseason debut? The 49ers saw McGlinchey as a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s blocking scheme, and he already received a ringing endorsement from Joe Staley. Now we’ll get to see how McGlinchey holds up at full speed against the Dallas Cowboys D-line for a few series.
Third Down: Who needs to perform well?
Joe Fann: Aldrick Robinson
Robinson has a long-standing relationship with Kyle Shanahan, and he made some big plays for the 49ers in 2017. However, the veteran wideout will have to remind the coaching staff that he's still worth keeping on the roster over the younger talent in the locker room. Robinson had a monster practice on Tuesday and needs to carry that performance into Thursday's game. The battle for the final one or two roster spots at wide receiver is as intriguing as they come for the 49ers.
Keiana Martin: Joe Williams
Williams has an uphill battle if he wants to land a spot on San Francisco’s 53-man roster. Behind frontrunners McKinnon and Breida, Williams will be battling it out with Raheem Mostert, a special teams standout, for the third roster spot at running back. He missed all last season with an ankle injury and will need to show some urgency in the preseason if he has any hopes of winning the position battle.
Fourth Down: Which position group will you be watching closest?
Joe Fann: Defensive Backs and Wide Receiver
I touched on the receivers above. Kendrick Bourne, Richie James, Aaron Burbridge, Robinson and a host of others are battling for just two roster spots (maybe three at most). Things are just as competitive in the 49ers secondary. Health permitting, Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, Tarvarius Moore, Reed and Williams should all be locks to make the roster. That leaves two or three spots for names like Greg Mabin, Tyvis Powell, Chanceller James, Antone Exum, Tarvarus McFadden, Terrell Williams, Marcel Harris and Emmanuel Moseley.
Keiana Martin: Defensive Line
The 49ers bet on themselves this offseason not selecting an edge rusher in the draft. Instead, the 49ers signed free agent Jeremiah Attaochu and re-signed Cassius Marsh. San Francisco also brought in Chris Kiffin to help bolster San Francisco’s 26th-ranked pass rush. The group appears to be much improved through the first two weeks of camp. Thursday could be an early indicator of the development of the young D-line.