Ten players to watch in 49ers' preseason opener vs Texans
Top 10 to watch
The 49ers open the exhibition season against the Houston Texans at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday at 4 p.m. The teams have some level of familiarity after participating in a fully padded joint practice on Friday. Here are 10 players to watch for the 49ers.
10. QB Colin Kaepernick
He did not practice Thursday or Friday as he rests a sore throwing shoulder. Although Kaepernick said he expects to be available to play, coach Chip Kelly and the 49ers’ medical staff could opt to give him a couple more days of rest before the 49ers depart for practices next week with the Denver Broncos. Kaepernick may have already lost a little ground to Blaine Gabbert, who played well in Friday’s practice.
9. LB Gerald Hodges
Hodges is in the midst of a three-way competition for the job to line up next to NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker in the 49ers’ 3-4 defense. Michael Wilhoite and Ray-Ray Armstrong are also in the battle. Hodges is a high-energy player who made his mark in the joint practice with some standout plays, including a big hit on running back Tyler Ervin on a swing pass.
8. CB Rashard Robinson
It will be Robinson’s first game since he played at LSU during the 2014 season. He is long, aggressive and plays with attitude. Robinson has fared well during training camp, and it looks as if he is in good shape to earn a spot on the roster. But in a wide-open competition among the corners, he also has a chance to work his way into a significant role in the team’s defense.
7. QB Jeff Driskel
The rookie quarterback has a lot to learn, and he is still struggling with many aspects of the offense. But there is no denying his athletic ability and strong throwing arm. Driskel will be tested with his ability to maintain his composure in the pocket. As an added bonus, Driskel has seen a lot of action on the punt team as Bradley Pinion’s personal protector. If put in that role on Sunday, expect him to be among the first players down the field.
6.OLB Tank Carradine
He is finally playing the positon that appears to suit him. Carradine had a good showing in practice on Friday, and he will look to carry over that momentum into Sunday’s game. Aaron Lynch is out for the first four games of the regular season. If Carradine can demonstrate pass-rush skills, he can work his way into a significant role in the 49ers’ nickel defense with a strong exhibition season.
5. RB Kelvin Taylor
The door is open for the rookie to win a significant role behind starter Carlos Hyde. Veteran Shaun Draughn has a lot of value as a backup due to his ability catch the ball out of the backfield and his play on special teams. Taylor appears to be a capable all-around running back, but he will not be able to get onto the field unless he proves himself in pass protection. That’s a must for any running back under coach Tom Rathman’s tutelage.
4. LB NaVorro Bowman
Last summer, the 49ers were cautious with Bowman, who was returning to action after missing the 2014 season with a knee injury he sustained in the NFC Championship game from the previous season. The 49ers figure to limit Bowman’s playing time during the exhibition season, but it will be worth watching to see how he performs in pass coverage and works alongside Hodges, Wilhoite and Armstrong.
3. WR Bruce Ellington
The third-year receiver, coming off a disappointing season, has a chance to thrive in Chip Kelly’s offense as the slot receiver. He has been the most consistent pass-catcher of the 49ers’ receivers. With quarterback Blaine Gabbert preferring the high-percentage, underneath throws, Ellington could be on the receiving end of a lot of those pass attempts. The Texans had a difficult time covering him in short spaces during practice on Friday.
2. CB Jimmie Ward
After playing nickel back and working as a backup safety in his first two seasons with the 49ers, Ward is now in line to be the team’s starting right cornerback. He had some interesting one-on-one matchups against speedster Will Fuller, who ran 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Fuller was twice called for offensive pass interferences on deep routes before beating Ward deep. Look for a spirited rematch on Sunday night.
1. QB Blaine Gabbert
He took part in the entire offseason program and has done nothing to surrender his apparent lead since training camp opened. Gabbert needs to identify pressures and get the ball out quickly and accurately to avoid hits from a Texans pass rush that will be without J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Gabbert’s decision-making will be key, as he will need to take shots down the field when coverage dictates taking some chances.