Making a Preseason List and Checking It Twice

Bret Rumbeck
Aug 8, 2017 at 2:15 PM


Preseason games often have the feel of a highly controlled scrimmage with the first team giving enough effort to clean out the offseason rust. Once they leave the field, fans get to watch coaches test strategies and players battle for a roster position.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have a to-do list longer than an astronaut before a rocket launch: test these ten plays in the red zone, place this player in a bad situation to see his reaction, evaluate the first team inside the 35-yard line. We can't get into every task, but here are a few that should be toward the top of the list.

Repetitions for Reuben


Already the 49ers have built an excellent linebacker corps, and last night we learned the starters are Ahmad Brooks on the strong side, NaVorro Bowman in the middle, and rookie Reuben Foster playing the weak side, or Will linebacker.

Foster's been the golden gleam in the eyes of fans this offseason and during training camp, and we're all watching Friday's game to see his first B-gap blitz. As much as the team needs him to stay healthy, it's now paramount he accelerates his adjustment to the speed and complexity of professional football.

Before 2017's first depth chart was released, Robert Saleh stated that "He (Foster) needs reps. The game is faster. The linemen are faster, they're stronger. The scheme is different. So he just needs reps, over and over again, and he needs to get attacked... in those situations just so he understands what his weaknesses are within the scheme."

Saleh needs to ensure Foster says healthy but gets at least 100 snaps to get comfortable in game situations, call plays in the huddle, allow Foster to lead the defense and test out his surgically repaired shoulder.

Forget the Waiver Wire, Develop Your Talent


Coaches can pray to any deity in the history of humankind asking for protection from injuries, but that prayer always falls on deaf ears. Indeed, the 49ers have not made it through training camp unscarred.

Already, Shanahan, Saleh, and general manager John Lynch are facing their first obstacle on the long and winding rebuilding road: finding the right people to replace injured starters.

In past seasons, the 49ers relied heavily on an uncertain waiver wire – full of players with little to no experience and a stat line devoid of a single statistic – because they did not take the necessary time to prepare or develop roster talent to take on game day responsibility.

Last season, when the 49ers' injured reserve list resembled a Civil War field hospital, the team struggled to find players to step up in crucial roles. Notably, when linebacker Nick Bellore went on injured reserve on December 19, the team needed a linebacker to help finish the season.

Rather than elevate Marcus Rush from the practice squad, the 49ers signed Carl Bradford on December 19 and Wynton McManis on December 23. Prior to his signing, Bradford played in four games and had one assisted tackle. McManis had no NFL experience before signing with the 49ers.

It's time to take a page from the Patriots' success manual and shape a player's raw talent into a piece that fits the needs of the team. Two players I'd love to see make the 53-man roster are free safety Vinnie Sunseri and rookie defensive lineman D.J. Jones. Sunseri was a utility man for the 49ers last season, playing safety and special teams. Jones enters the NFL with a skill set ideal for a one-gap defense, and luckily is in a defensive scheme that fits his talents.

Shaping roster talent will bring greater depth to each position to prepare for an injury storm that hits during week six or seven.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation


Like cagey alchemists, Shanahan and Saleh need to find a rotation of personnel to keep star players healthy and ready to go late in games. I have no doubt NaVorro Bowman and Carlos Hyde are healed and ready for week one. However, both have a history of injuries that prohibit them from playing a full 16-game season.

Just like Saleh wants Foster to get more repetitions to expose his weaknesses, the coaching staff needs to find where reserve players succeed and develop a rotation of personnel based on situational strength and overall ability. Saleh needs to know the reserve middle linebacker can step in and allow Bowman to take a few downs to recover; a short recovery will benefit the team immediately and Bowman's body over the course of a season. However, it's a fine line to walk: coaches need to ensure if the star player is on the sidelines, the drop in talent and production does not plummet.

Battle Between Barkley and Beathard


The good people at 49ers Webzone asked a few of us to name the camp battle we were most looking forward to watching. I chose the competition between Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard. It's the most visible and probably the most critical for the team. Between injuries and poor performances, Brian Hoyer has never made it through a full 16 game schedule. The 49ers need to have a solid second string quarterback should Hoyer falter during the season.

A preseason quarterback battle is more than just tallying up how many passes Barkley or Beathard complete and selecting the second string quarterback based on a higher number. As fans, we must observe the quarterback competition through a coach's lens: What happens during the four-minute offense? Who calls the right audible against the right coverage? When the pocket gets thick and violent, who hangs in to make a difficult throw?

The last time Barkley impressed me at quarterback was during his time at USC. He's never struck me as a leader who commands respect in the huddle, has liquid nitrogen in his veins, and hot plasma in his eyes. Beathard is an unknown; you may have watched him in college or just skimmed some game film. He's coming into Friday's game with more to gain than Barkley, and that may drive him to win the second string position.

Don't let preseason football pass you by without turning on the television or streaming a game. It's an ideal time to calmly watch the 49ers and learn more about the new schemes on both sides of the ball, and see the second- and third-team players develop over a short period of games.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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