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.
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.”