Five 49ers to watch in Week 8: Emmanuel Sanders could be heavily featured

Five 49ers to watch in Week 8: Emmanuel Sanders could be heavily featured

Could this be a playoff preview?

OK, it’s way too early to start thinking along those lines, but when the 49ers face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, it’s a matchup that features teams with definite postseason aspirations and expectations.

In the case of the 49ers (6-0), they made a move this week with the postseason in mind when they acquired a productive, veteran wide receiver in Emmanuel Sanders, who is signed only through the end of the season.

The Panthers (4-2) are coming off the bye week, so they’ve had an extra week to prepare for the 49ers. Ron Rivera’s team looks to win its fifth consecutive game with Kyle Allen at quarterback.

Here are five 49ers players to watch:

5. TE George Kittle

George Kittle is the driving force behind National Tight Ends Day, so he must have a spot in the Five to Watch segment. Kittle will also be featured on a bobblehead that will be handed out to the first 30,000 fans at Levi’s Stadium.

Perhaps you’ve heard, but the 49ers added a wide receiver this week. So Kittle might benefit from defenses diverting some of the attention usually devoted entirely to him. Kittle leads the 49ers with 34 receptions for 376 yards and one touchdown.

Kittle does it all for the 49ers offense, whether it’s making big plays in the passing game, moving the chains on third downs or fulfilling his responsibilities as a run blocker.

National Tight Ends Day could be a good opportunity for him to put up the kind of big numbers that became expected of him last season en route to setting the all-time single-season record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards.

4. SS Jaquiski Tartt

Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt has been one of the keys to the 49ers vast improvement on defense with his play against the run and in the passing game.

He will have some big responsibilities on Sunday against Carolina, a team that features one of the game’s best running backs as well as a consistent, proven tight end. Tartt will be tested throughout the game whether he comes face-to-face with running back Christian McCaffrey or tight end Greg Olsen.

Tartt ranks fourth on the team with 24 tackles. He has the versatility to play close to the line of scrimmage or play deep. He should see plenty of action in both spots on Sunday as the 49ers game plan to face Kyle Allen, who has thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his four starts in place of Cam Newton.

3. LT Justin Skule/RT Daniel Brunskill

Veteran left tackle Joe Staley, who sustained a fractured fibula on Sept. 15, is not ready to return to the lineup on Sunday, so Justin Skule will get his fifth consecutive start protecting the blind side of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is still several weeks away from returning after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure to repair cartilage in his right knee. Daniel Brunskill will make his third consecutive start.

Skule and Brunskill have already faced some stiff challenges, and Sunday might be the most difficult.

The Panthers lead the NFL with 27 sacks in six games. Edge rushers Mario Addison, a nine-year NFL veteran, and rookie Brian Burns lead the way with 6.5 and 4.5 sacks. Skule and Brunskill must hold up in order to give Garoppolo time to deliver the ball to the 49ers’ new wide receiver.

2. LB Kwon Alexander

Linebacker Kwon Alexander has brought speed and tenacity to the middle of the 49ers’ defense. Alexander and Fred Warner are the team’s top two tacklers, and they will be tested throughout Sunday’s game against McCaffrey.

“We’ve always said that the running back has outpaced the evolution of the linebacker,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “To us, ever since 2011, we felt like we’ve gotten ahead of the chains in terms of finding linebackers that can keep up with the backs that are being used as receivers.”

Alexander and Warner are the latest in a line of athletic linebackers Saleh has valued in his defenses, along with such players as Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Deion Jones.

McCaffrey is the central focus of the Panthers’ offense, averaging 29 touches a game as a runner and receiver. McCaffrey has 618 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground with a 4.9-yard average. He has 35 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns. Alexander's speed gives him a chance to prevent McCaffrey from running wild.

[RELATED: Why Richard Sherman's locker provides fond memories for Emmanuel Sanders]

1. WR Emmanuel Sanders

The 49ers went after trades to acquire either Mohamed Sanu or Emmanuel Sanders on Tuesday. Sanu, a wide receiver who is signed through 2020, went to the New England Patriots for a second-round pick. The 49ers did not have a second-round selection, but they made offers to beat two other teams to acquire Sanders and a fifth-rounder from the Denver Broncos for third- and fourth-round picks.

Sanders, 32, immediately steps into the 49ers’ offense as their No. 1 wide receiver. His versatility gives coach Kyle Shanahan a lot of options. Sanders can play outside the numbers or run pass routes from the slot.

Because Sanders is already familiar with a large portion of the 49ers’ offense, it would not be a surprise if he is able to make his presence felt immediately on Sunday. He arrived in Santa Clara late Tuesday, began studying the playbook and took part in his first practice in Santa Clara on Wednesday. Sanders’ offensive coordinator in Denver this season was Rich Scangarello, who served as 49ers quarterbacks coach the past two seasons under Shanahan.

Shanahan said he pushed hard for the Cleveland Browns to sign Sanders as a free agent when he was the offensive coordinator for the Browns in 2014. Sanders signed with the Broncos. Now, he finally has Sanders on his team.

“I think he’s always been very good at separating,” Shanahan said. “He’s wired in a certain way where he can get downfield, he also can break you off inside. Not the biggest guy, but he plays big. . . . He can go over the middle and not flinch. He catches the ball and gets up the field hard.”

NFL Draft 2020: Justin Jefferson, Jalen Reagor meet 49ers at combine


NFL Draft 2020: Justin Jefferson, Jalen Reagor meet 49ers at combine

Despite only possessing one pick before the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the 49ers still are doing their due diligence at the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis.

San Francisco has met with a pair of wide receivers this week in LSU product Justin Jefferson and former TCU speedster Jalen Reagor.

Jefferson, who was part of LSU’s national championship-winning squad in 2019, said his meeting with the 49ers was informal, while Reagor mentioned that the team highlighted his versatility when discussing his potential fit within the offense.

Coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, the Niners aren’t faced with a lot of glaring needs along the roster, but wide receiver certainly ranks high among the few holes general manager John Lynch must address this offseason.

The 49ers didn’t have a wide receiver eclipse the 1,000-yard mark last season, with All-Pro tight end George Kittle barely surpassing it (1,053).

Jefferson caught an NCAA Division I-best 111 passes for the Tigers in 2019 and closed out his final collegiate season with 1,540 yards. In the latest NBC Sports Bay Area mock draft, Jefferson wasn't available when the Niners were on the clock at No. 31.

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

Reagor’s broad skillset likely would mesh well with the 49ers’ motion-heavy offense, as Reagor made big plays for the Horned Frogs in the running, receiving, and return game during his three seasons in Fort Worth.

This will be Lynch and Shanahan’s first opportunity to draft outside of the top five in the first round, as they hope to build on a breakout 2019 season.

49ers hoping receiver Jalen Hurd will be cleared for offseason program

49ers hoping receiver Jalen Hurd will be cleared for offseason program

INDIANAPOLIS -- Even before the 49ers have the opportunity to select a wide receiver in the draft, the club expects to add the services of a young pass-catcher.

Jalen Hurd, a third-round draft pick from a year ago, appears to be on schedule to receive clearance to rejoin the 49ers when the offseason program begins in April. Hurd spent his rookie season on injured reserve due to a stress fracture in his lower back.

“For it to completely heal, it happens on different timelines,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “We found that his has been stubborn. We think he’s been nearing towards a much better place where he’ll be cleared for all activities.

“(We) don’t want to officially give that word, but there have been some recent scans and things that give us a lot of hope that that’ll be the case, come April 1, he’ll be a full-go.”

Hurd was not around the team too much during his rookie season. He did not travel to Miami for Super Bowl LIV due to concerns about aggravating his back condition.

“I think there’s a little anxiety on his part that the long plane rides had set him off before and he worked so hard to try to get right, and kind of didn’t want that to enter the equation,” Lynch said.

[RELATED49ers roster analysis: More receiver depth needed around Deebo Samuel]

In order for Hurd's back to heal, the 49ers and Hurd felt it was best to keep him off his feet.  

“With his back stuff, he didn’t want to travel, didn’t want to be in the meetings and everything," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "There wasn’t much to do. He had a stress fracture and it’s taking a long time to heal, so we wanted him to be as immobile as possible.”

Hurd (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) caught 69 passes for 946 yards and four touchdowns in his senior season at Baylor in 2018. He played his first three college seasons at Tennessee, where he rushed for 2,635 yards and 20 touchdowns as a running back.

Hurd appeared in the 49ers’ preseason opener last summer and caught two touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys before experiencing the back condition that sidelined him for the rest of the season.