July 23, 2024
Once the regular season comes around, the 49ers will need to have answers to a few key questions.

SANTA CLARA — All we needed to know about the 49ers’ second preseason game Saturday night against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium came when coach Kyle Shanahan referred to it as the team’s “fourth practice” of the week.

Will starting quarterback Brock Purdy play along with the first-team offense? Shanahan, in a weekly appearance on the 49ers’ flagship on KNBR Thursday, was non-committal.

Otherwise, it’s Sam Darnold getting the bulk of the work ahead of Trey Lance, which was the plan all along. Brandon Allen will probably mop up.

Darnold is coming off a shaky practice Thursday, if you’re inclined to attach significance to those sorts of things. Lance is probably recoiling at the heightened scrutiny of his status when all he’s really trying to do is get the kind of on-field experience he’s been denied due to circumstances beyond his control.

Meanwhile, Shanahan and his staff are doing their best to see that mainstays on the 53-man roster make it to Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh ready to go. Which means those players will play sparingly, if at all, over the next two preseason games against the Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.

Some things to watch against the Broncos Saturday night:

How is Levi’s looking?

The 49ers’ home venue has been home to a Taylor Swift mega-event. Beyonce will be there Aug. 30 five days after the 49ers close out their preseason at home against the Chargers.

How will field conditions be? The 49ers grounds crew has pretty good at that after patches of grass came up in early years at the facility.

If there is any problem at all, Shanahan isn’t about to put important players on the field in less-than-ideal circumstances. Following the Beyonce concert, the good news is the 49ers don’t play at home until Week 3 on Sept. 21 against the New York Giants.

What’s going on with the running backs?

Elijah Mitchell (groin) has looked pretty healthy working off to the side in recent days. No way he’ll face Denver, though, and probably not the Chargers either.

As much as it drives the 49ers crazy that Mitchell can’t stay healthy, he’s proven beyond any doubt he’s a productive back when on the field. When do the 49ers adhere to the “can’t make the club in the tub” cliche and move on?

Ty Davis-Price has drawn raves and had 29 yards on nine carries against the Raiders. Jordan Mason also runs with heavy legs and is a factor. Other backs will carry the ball, but the preseason rule of thumb is that the runners who carry the ball the most are also the most likely to be on the outside looking in at the 53-man roster cutdown.

Jauan Jennings (15) is entrenched as the third wide receiver behind Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, but after that, the roster spots are up for grabs. Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group

Who are the wide receivers after the Big Three?

Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings are locks and have no reason to see the field over the last two games. All three have had excellent camps.

After that, the 49ers will have two and possibly three wide receivers on the roster. They love Danny Gray’s speed and he has appeared to make strides catching the ball. Chris Conley has made some nice snags, and Ronnie Bell, a seventh-round draft pick, could stick initially at least because Ray-Ray McCloud may or may not be on the 53-man roster after fracturing his wrist.

One of the most consistent receivers has been Willie Snead IV. He understands the offense, gets open, and the 49ers would probably most like him to be a member of the 16-man practice squad as an option weekly if needed.

Offensive line depth

Not exactly the sexiest area, to be sure. It’s mentioned because the 49ers’ backups got their rear ends handed to them against the Raiders.

Ever heard of Corey Luciano, Ilm Manning and Joey Fisher? They’re all on the 53-man fringe and struggled against the Raiders.

“There were some mental errors, there were some physical breakdowns,’ running game coordinator/offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. “Of the three guys, Ilm’s played very well this camp. And in the preseason game.”

So there you go. Manning, at 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, is not your typical tackle, but could be worthwhile to keep around even if it’s the practice squad.

While it doesn’t seem like a big deal, keep in mind the 49ers have done mix-and-match with their offensive line over the last several years.

The secondary shuffle

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The surprising news last week was Isaiah Oliver, signed to replace Jimmie Ward as the nickel back, was suddenly in a competitive situation. The 49ers have experimented with Deommodore Lenoir and undrafted free agent D’Shawn Jamison inside with Ambry Thomas as a potential starting outside corner.

Oliver jumped a route Wednesday and nearly intercepted a Purdy pass. He was expected to be completely recovered from an ACL surgery, from which he said he didn’t feel normal until midway through last season.

The 49ers will give every chance to be the nickel corner with Charvarius Ward and Lenoir on the outside and Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson at safeties while also finding playing time for Ji’Ayir Brown and Thomas.