The San Francisco 49ers kick off their 2018 preseason with a home bout against the Dallas Cowboys. Let's take a look at some key things you'll want to watch for during the game.


Alas, it's finally here -- an actual San Francisco 49ers game.

The Niners host the Dallas Cowboys this Thursday for both teams' preseason opener. And while these contests are usually dominated by second- and third-string players, it's still good to watch teams actually go up against each other instead of the glorified practices we've grown used to in recent weeks.

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While head coach Kyle Shanahan likely has the vast majority of his starters and backups penciled in on the depth chart, these next four contests will be vital in determining how the back end of that depth chart rounds out. More than a handful of players are on the fringes of the roster bubble, meaning these preseason bouts carry some significant weight.

As such, there will be some things fans will want to pay attention to in Week 1 of the preseason. Just don't feel inclined to read too much into any one particular play, series, quarter or whatever.

How Long Will the Starters Play?


Earlier this week, Shanahan announced his starters would see the field against Dallas. The only question is for how long.

Typically, most starting units see a drive, perhaps two during the preseason opener. This means quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo might be out there for only one series. But a lot of that depends on how long the series goes. If it's a quick 3-and-out or results in a two- or a three-play touchdown, perhaps Garoppolo sees the field for a second drive. Getting reps, even for established starters, against other competition is important.

You might see an elongated look for other starters who might not have the biggest of holds on their jobs, however. Linebacker Malcolm Smith, who missed all of 2017 with a pectoral injury, likely spends a bit more time at either the MIKE or WILL spots during this contest. The 49ers have a pretty deep crop of linebackers entering 2018, meaning some extended looks should help formulate the depth chart once the regular season rolls around.

Cornerback Richard Sherman (hamstring), offensive guard Joshua Garnett (knee), cornerback K'Waun Williams (ankle), linebacker Brock Coyle (hip) and defensive tackle Arik Armstead (hamstring) aren't expected to play.

No. 2 Quarterback C.J. Beathard's Maturation


While Garoppolo won't see too much of the field Thursday, his backup, C.J. Beathard, will likely see at least a full quarter under center.

Beathard, whose 69.2 passer rating ranked 31st out of 32 qualifiers last season, is expected to show a lot of maturation during his second season in the league. So far, he's had some up-and-down moments. On one hand, he seems to have a much better command of Shanahan's offense. On the other, Beathard has also been responsible for a number of interceptions throughout training camp.

Just as the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles can tell you, a quality backup quarterback can be vital to success in the NFL. And if the Niners are looking at Beathard as a down-the-road trade commodity, starting off on the right foot will be crucial for Beathard's stock value.

The Running Back Battle Behind Jerick McKinnon


Jerick McKinnon is going to be the 49ers' starter at running back. There's no questioning that. But who serves as his backup is a fairly open-ended question.

Throughout camp, both runners Joe Williams and Matt Breida have been impressive. Breida is arguably the team's best "pure" running back, excelling at between-the-tackle runs and showcasing both the power and poise that helped him earn 645 all-purpose yards backing up Carlos Hyde a year ago.

Yet Williams, who redshirted his rookie campaign last season, has been equally as impressive. Williams' speed and elusiveness have seemingly upticked from 2017, which is exactly what Shanahan wanted him to do his second year at the pro level.

Keep an eye on how many reps each runner gets during this game and, specifically, who comes in the game first. That should be a pretty good early indication of which tailback Shanahan and Co. are favoring for the No. 2 spot behind McKinnon right now.

Can Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon Bounce Back?


Second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon has had a rough training camp. It's not hard to dig up tweets and/or videos of him getting burned in both one-on-one and 11-on-11 drills so far. But in case you were wondering, plays like this have been relatively common:



On a positive note, the Niners haven't exactly performed a lot of press coverage throughout camp, meaning wide receivers are typically able to hit their routes early without a lot of obstruction at the line of scrimmage. In coordinator Robert Saleh's Cover 3 defense, it's critical that defensive backs are able to jam their opponents at the snap. Witherspoon hasn't exactly had the luxury of doing this much.

Still, Witherspoon is expected to command a major role on defense this season, occupying the No. 2 boundary corner spot opposite Sherman. And while Witherspoon's trajectory is vastly different, all one needs to do is recall how many 49ers fans felt then-second-year pro Rashard Robinson was going to be the team's next great corner after a promising rookie campaign.

Let's hope Witherspoon's career winds up being the polar opposite of Robinson's.

49ers Depth Battles to Watch


  • Nos. 2 and 3 running back
  • Wide receiver depth
  • Defensive/offensive line rotations
  • Linebacker pairing
  • First-year cornerbacks

Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor have cemented their roles on the wide receiver depth chart. But keep an eye on how camp standout, rookie Dante Pettis, does this game. Particularly against press coverage, which is one of his question marks coming out of college. Fellow rookie Richie James is another player to watch too, as is second-year pro Kendrick Bourne.

Like the top of the receiving depth chart, we have a pretty good grasp on how the starting defensive line will look. As far as rotational depth, though, it's anyone's guess. Expect a lot of reps from defensive tackle Jullian Taylor, who received some added looks with Armstead sidelined. Same goes for the offensive line too, particularly for depth linemen like Erik Magnuson, Mike Person and Garry Gilliam. All three have versatility -- a must-have for backup linemen. So it will be interesting to watch how those players fit into the reps given.

With Williams out, rookie defensive back D.J. Reed has been seeing time with the first-team unit at nickel cornerback. He's looked impressive too. But he's not the only first-year player to keep an eye on. Tarvarius Moore and Tarvarus McFadden are also gunning to climb the secondary's depth chart. Expect all three first-year players to get a lot of time on Thursday.

The Niners and Cowboys kick off from Levi's Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 10 p.m. ET.

Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to @PeterPanacy on Twitter.