rmer 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer breaks down this final preseason game against the San Diego Chargers. Get some pointers in this latest column...**
The preseason for the 49ers comes to a finish down in San Diego against the Chargers where the team will face their former offensive coordinator Norv Turner. In the regular season, we could talk here about how that would or would not impact things since this team knows Turner's playbook and he knows our personnel but for a preseason game, it doesn't mean anything. Especially in this last preseason game, most teams keep everything tight to the vest and they are not going to show anything that would give away anything. In the preseason opener, the Chargers play Chicago, so they aren't going to show anything that would help Chicago and the 49ers certainly aren't going to show anything that is going to help Arizona. It will be very vanilla in terms of game planning.
The thing that's going to have an impact on this game is there are a lot of 49er players who are disappointed in themselves after that Chicago outing. You don't want to go into the regular season without feeling good about yourselves, without being on a high note, so you are going to see 49er players, especially that first team, come out and let it be known that they are ready to play.
A number of things will happen because of the Bears game. Those tapes will be looked at by Arizona. Guys who didn't play well, it gives the Cardinals an edge because that might say to themselves, "Ok we are going to be able to do this to that guy."
No one on this 49ers roster wants to be perceived as a weakness, especially on tape, because their opponents will try to exploit that. That is going to be the motivator for players in this game.
The starters won't be in there for long. There is a temptation, because of not playing well last week, to play guys longer and in fact Coach Nolan said he considered not playing them at all until that Bears game. Still, there is a delicate balance where you want to play guys long enough so that they feel good about themselves going into the season, but to where you don't expose them to potential injury because you want guys getting healthy before that opener. I've said it before and I'll say it again, but maybe the best thing to happen to Frank Gore is that he got hurt and won't be in any preseason games. You just have to look across the field at the other no. 21 LaDainian Tomlinson. He sees no preseason reps and doesn't even suit up for the games and it hasn't hurt him one bit.
Now on to some of the other aspects of this game in terms of deciding on starters, playing time and roster spots.
Coach Nolan named Joe Staley the starter at right tackle late on Tuesday. I said last week on-air that I felt he would be the starter. It's interesting because if you look across the field for the Chargers at their left tackle Marcus McNeill, it's very similar. He is now in his second year after being inserted at the most critical position on the offensive line at left tackle as a rookie. Not only did he survive, he thrived and became an all-pro. It's kind of ironic that that's who the 49ers are going against this week, because it reinforces the decision to go with Staley. The sky was the limit for Marcus McNeill, I kind of feel the same way for Joe Staley. He has been phenomenal in his pass blocking, which is one of those things you can try to teach, but it's difficult. It is kind of like speed. Sure you can enhance it, but you better be gifted with it to start. Run blocking you can teach. Everybody talked about how Joe Staley was a better pass blocker and Kwame Harris is a better run blocker. The run blocking will come for Joe. To see his pass sets, it seems like you are looking at a veteran. Kwame had a great camp and definitely became a better player, but I like this decision to go with Staley.
The third wide receiver battle is happening as well. The guy who has really stepped up the last two weeks has been Ashley Lelie. I would like to see him get more opportunities with the first unit. That is not going to happen this week, but I see him being the third guy for this season. He really has stepped up, and did it when it had to happen in those second and third preseason games. What he does in practice will factor in heavily too, but I really see him taking over that third wide receiver spot.
There are so many things that go into who is going to be kept and who isn't. I could give a list of 15 guys who are on the bubble, all of which could change with one injury.
In determining a roster, you start by looking at the numbers of each position. Sometimes you might keep an extra linemen or an extra linebacker, but again an injury at one position could require you to hold on to an extra body at a different position.
Looking at linebacker, if the team keeps nine guys I think it will come down to Colby Bockwoldt, Hannibal Navies, or Mark Washington and that will come down to what each guy brings to special teams as well.
It will also be interesting to see how many defensive backs the team keeps. Mark Roman, Michael Lewis, Shawntae Spencer, Walt Harris, and Nate Clements will all make this team. You've got Keith Lewis who started last year and some talented rookies in Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson, plus two draft choices from last year in Marcus Hudson and Vickiel Vaughn, plus Darnell Bing, Jake Patten, Markus Curry, and Donald Strickland all competing for spots.
On the offensive line the first and second unit are probably the most solidified of any position on the team, and you already have ten in that bunch. Most teams won't keep anymore than that on the active roster, so it will be tough for any of the younger guys like Sean Estrada, Damane Duckett or Tavares Washington to make this active roster.
For the wide receivers, the picture is already a little clearer after putting C.J. Brewer on IR, and cutting Marcus Maxwell and Dominique Zeigler. Still, it comes down to whether you keep five or six guys. As I mentioned Ashley Lelie has really stepped up and Taylor Jacobs looked like a lock for that third position, so there is your first four right there in Darrell Jackson, Arnaz Battle, Jacobs, and Lelie. So it's going to come down to Bryan Gilmore, Brandon Williams, and Jason Hill for the fifth and possibly sixth position.
For the tight end position, Vernon Davis, Billy Bajema, and Delaine Walker are all locks. The question is if they are going to keep an extra guy, and my guess would be Zack Hilton if they do.
Running back is also pretty much a lock with Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks, and Moran Norris. It will be interesting to see if Zak Keasey can make the active squad. I know coaches like his work ethic.
For the most part, the battles have already been settled, but this game can really separate guys who are on the bubble and could help guys earn spots on the team's practice squad or even on another NFL team's roster.