Full disclosure: I don’t really enjoy preseason football, at all. It might be the most joyless of all types of football. I’d rather watch NFL teams play pickup football against each other. Actually, that’s not a bad idea.
In all seriousness, though, it’s not football for the fans. The results don’t matter, the stats don’t matter, not even a little bit. The NFL markets the preseason like fans should care, should pay to go to games, but at full price, it’s a rip-off. Go watch your local high school play for 5 bucks, instead. What preseason football is, is football for the coaches. It exists so they can evaluate the players on their roster, and decide who gets spots on the (small) 53-man roster.
If you’re into the nitty gritty of roster details, however, then you should watch this week. In fact, even if you’re not, of all the weeks of the preseason, week 3 is the most interesting.
The days following the week 3 games mark two important dates for NFL franchises: cuts to 75 players, on Monday, and cuts to the final 53 players, on Friday. What does that mean for this week’s games? Coaches will want to see their players play. They want to see how well players they believe can contribute during the season play against top level competition in the preseason.
The 49ers are mostly set throughout the roster. Many of the players who were on the roster last season remain on the roster this season. There is very little drama left on this team. There are a few battles still ongoing, however.
1. Skill Position Shuffle
Much of the turnover on the roster from last season to this one is at the wide receiver and running back position. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter remain, as does Anthony Dixon. Dixon, however, is fighting for his spot as Gore, Hunter, and new RBs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James are all but guaranteed spots. Additionally, Bruce Miller, the 49ers’ fullback, counts as a RB, as does new special teams ace Rock Cartwright. Last season, the 49ers carried five RBs in week 1. I doubt that number will jump to seven.
Especially not when you consider the additions at wide receiver. Josh Morgan is gone. Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, and AJ Jenkins are in. Those three, plus Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn, Jr., are in. The 49ers started week 1 with 5 receivers; that number will have to jump if Kyle Williams wants a spot, or if any of the practice squad players (Joe Hastings, Brett Swain, etc.) or new guys (Chris Owusu, in particular) want spots.
With Demarcus Dobbs (a defensive tackle) seeing time at tight end, I do not think the 49ers will go with 3 tight ends. The 49ers will also probably carry slightly fewer linemen than last season, with a more settled lineup going into 2012. There is room to add more skill guys, but not much at all. These are positions to watch this week.
2. The Special Teams Guys
For new players on good teams, the easiest way to get on the roster, and on the field, is to be a special teams player. Not usually as returners or kickers, but as the other guys on special teams—gunners, up backs, personal protectors, kickoff coverage guys, and so on. If two guys are battling for a spot at cornerback, and are relatively even, the guy who helps on special teams gets the nod. Without fail. With only 53 players, it has to be this way. Backup linebackers, running backs, safeties, all these guys have to contribute on special teams.
For the 49ers, the task this week and next will be to identify the guys that help the most on special teams. The coaches likely already know what they have in terms of primary positions; replacing guys like Blake Costanzo (now with the Bears) becomes critical. While you watch preseason games, look for guys making an impact on special teams.
3. Defensive Back Depth
All of the key contributors for the 49ers at DB from last season are back. Carlos Rogers, Tarrell Brown, Donte Whitner, and Dashon Goldson all return, and are healthy. Finding the guys behind these guys is key. At CB, the 49ers have plenty of guys—Chris Culliver, a big contributor from last season, new guy Parrish Cox (battling Culliver), and Tramaine Brock. Expect those guys to make the team. Instead, watch Darcel McBath and Cory Nelms, in a pass heavy league, carrying six corners is almost required. One of those guys will make it.
At safety, the battle is even more wide open. Goldson and Whitner are secure, as is CJ Spillman (thanks to his special teams contributions). Who else will make the team? Colin Jones is a second year player, and Trenton Robinson and Michael Thomas are both rookies. One of those three will make it, and maybe two. If I had to pick one? Michael Thomas. The kid can play football. He is not the best athlete, but he has instincts and he knows the defense (he played under Harbaugh at Stanford).
If you are a 49ers fan, go turn on the TV right now and watch this game. Pick up on some of these position battles, and watch guys fight for the right to play football. It’s the only reason to watch preseason football.