HOUSTON – When the 49ers face the Houston Texans on Saturday night in the second preseason game for both teams, it will represent the final setting of three important days of work in the Lone Star State.
The starters for both teams will play as much as a quarter. It's another opportunity to make favorable impressions after two fruitful joint practices on Wednesday and Thursday.
“We just ran about 150 plays in two days (of practices) in 100-degree heat,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Most of those guys got probably 50 reps in two days. So that’s just really good work.”
Still, the game under the lights will serve as an important evaluation for both teams. Here are four 49ers to watch...
RB Jeremy McNichols
The 49ers expect to be without their top two running backs until Week 1 of the regular season. Jerick McKinnon is out with a calf strain, while Matt Breida sustained a separated shoulder. That will provide a big opportunity for the other running backs in camp.
McNichols tops the list. He was a fifth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Boise State last year. He opted to turn down the Buccaneers' offer of the practice squad to join the 49ers' practice squad. McNichols will get a lot of playing time on Saturday after gaining 15 yards on three carries against the Dallas Cowboys last week. He ran with the starters this week in practice.
McNichols is competing for a roster spot, along with Joe Williams, Raheem Mostert and veteran free-agent pickup Alfred Morris. Although Mostert appears to have an advantage to make the team, based on his play on special teams, the door is open for one of the others to make his mark. McNichols has put himself into position -- based on his running and receiving skills -- to get an extended opportunity to show what he can do.
CB Jimmie Ward
Ward had a short day of practice on Wednesday when he and Texans All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins got into a fight and were ejected. Ward should get plenty of playing time as he makes the transition from free safety, where he opened last season as the starter.
Ward will again start at left cornerback in place of Richard Sherman, whom the 49ers are bringing along slowly after a hamstring strain. Ward struggled, giving up a touchdown, against the Cowboys last week. He figures to be be tested against Hopkins.
RG Joshua Garnett
Garnett returned to practice this week and appears to be moving well after sitting out two weeks of practices after banging his surgically repaired right knee against a teammate early in training camp.
The onus is on Garnett to prove he has what it takes to earn a starting job. Currently, the 49ers believe they can trust veteran offensive lineman Mike Person. Garnett needs to earn his way into the good graces of the coaching staff. Veteran Jonathan Cooper has also been slow to work his way into the competition, as he is coming back slowly from a knee injury of his own.
LB Fred Warner
The door is open for Warner to open the regular season as the starter with Reuben Foster set to serve a two-game suspension. Warner, a third-round draft pick, has played with a great deal of physicality. He also has the skillset to be a standout in coverage.
Warner did not play in the exhibition opener due to a chest injury. He practiced fully against the Texans this week and should be able to gain the kind of experience in this game that will help him in his quest to be Foster’s fill-in.