Maiocco's 10 49ers observations entering regular season
Regular season around the corner
The 49ers – or some facsimile of the team -- wrapped up their exhibition season with a 40-13 victory over the Houston Texans on Thursday. With the initial cuts to the 53-player limit looming, here are 10 observations with the regular-season opener scheduled for Sept. 7 at the Dallas Cowboys.
1. Playing it safe
There was nothing left for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense to gain from the exhibition season. At least, that’s what coach Jim Harbaugh determined before the game. After all, they were only going to play one series, anyway. Harbaugh decided to play it safe so the front-line starters are ready for the regular season. Said Harbaugh, “I felt like, a short week, traveling down to Houston, (I) just decided to make a battlefield decision and treat it like a bye week going into the first game, rather than play the majority of the starters.”
2. Not so clear-cut
The 49ers might have a lot better talent behind starting wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, but there is no clear-cut No. 3 wide receiver. During practices and the exhibition season, nobody distinguished himself as the third guy. Veteran Stevie Johnson recorded three 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the past four years, but he and Colin Kaepernick have not yet clicked. Brandon Lloyd rarely got on the field. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington saw a lot of playing time, but it's not certain either of them is ready for the role.
3. 'One bad throw'
Quarterback Josh Johnson had a strong final game, for sure. But coach Jim Harbaugh continued to praise backup Blaine Gabbert. A couple of weeks ago, Harbaugh said the 49ers quarterback who did not turn the ball over would be his choice to be the backup. Gabbert did not throw an interception the past two weeks. Johnson threw three touchdowns on Thursday, but he also had an interception returned for a touchdown. In his postgame remarks, Harbaugh mentioned that "one bad throw."
4. Replacing Bowman
The fact inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite did not see any action on defense appeared to be an indication that he will open the season as the replacement for NaVorro Bowman, who will miss at least six games while on the PUP list. Rookie Chris Borland flashed his playmaking skills when he jumped a route and returned it for 34 yards and a touchdown. Borland will likely open the season as a core special-teams player.
5. Stiff competition
Veteran Chris Cook did a lot of very good things in the offseason program and training camp, but he is not going to open the season as a starter ahead of Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. There is a lot of competition at cornerback. Cook’s interception – his second of the exhibition season – demonstrated his improvement after four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. But the 49ers have tough decisions to make because they might not be able to keep Cook, Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker as backups on the 53-man roster.
6. Secondary decisions
The 49ers also have some potentially difficult decision to make at the safety position. One player who looked very good and, at least, deserves a spot on the practice squad is undrafted rookie James McCray from Catawba (North Carolina). Veterans Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone are core special-teams players. What helps McCray’s bid for a job is that he took part in 18 plays on special teams and made a tackle on Thursday.
7. Off-field baggage
Rookie running back Glenn Winston definitely took advantage of an opportunity that was nothing short of a long shot after his dismissal from Michigan State in 2009 for two assaults. Winston has a great combination of size, speed and agility. He rushed for 55 yards on 11 carries against the Texans. Due to his off-field baggage, Winston remained available until Aug. 4 when the 49ers provided him with a plane ticket to try out after Kendall Hunter's season-ending injury. Still, with as well as he looked, the 49ers are taking a risk if they plan on sneaking him through waivers to the practice squad. Some teams are interested, according to a source.
8. Filling in for Aldon
Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier are in line to replace Aldon Smith for as long as he is out of action to start the season. Lemonier showed good improvement as a run defender this preseason, but Skuta is still likely to open the season as the outside linebacker on base downs. Although rookie Aaron Lynch is expected to start the season outside the 46-man active list, he could be considered as a situational pass-rusher. He looked very impressive the last two games of the exhibition season.
9. Established backup
Jonathan Martin got off to a rough start in training camp and the exhibition season, as he often got overpowered. But he has gotten better and better every week – perhaps a result of his regaining strength from mono. Martin also appeared to knock off the rust after not playing since he left the Miami Dolphins in October. With Alex Boone still out of the picture, it’s clear Martin has established himself as the backup tackle on both sides.
10. Injured reserve
The rules for injured reserve/designated for return stipulate that it’s not an option until Tuesday. If the 49ers plan to place nose tackle Glenn Dorsey on that list, they have to retain him on the 53-man roster for three full days. Then, the 49ers can bring back a player they’ve cut to fill the 53rd roster vacancy. The 49ers expect Dorsey to be available in mid-November to early-December. In the meantime, Ian Williams is slated to play base downs at nose tackle.