June 16, 2024
Coaches treat practice repetitions like gold, but preseason finale can bring with it unwanted risk of injury before opener.

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers have one more training camp practice Wednesday, then they’ll implement a rudimentary game plan designed to get out of the preseason against the Los Angeles Chargers as healthy as possible.

As for who will take the field and who won’t at 7 p.m. Friday night at Levi’s Stadium, coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t ready Tuesday to say.

Shanahan and every other coach in the NFL face the same issue. Practice repetitions and preseason game reps (which are little more than elevated practice reps) are how players get incrementally better.

And is it really worth having a player getting just a little bit better put at risk for being available when the 49ers open the regular season on the road on Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers?

At the end of the 49ers’ 21-20 win over Denver last weekend, Shanahan said he expected the starters to get some playing time against the Chargers. When he spoke to the media on Tuesday, he said he was waiting in practice sessions to determine how to approach the Chargers game.

Center Jake Brendel said it was his understanding the starters would see some time.

“In years past, we used to have four (preseason games),” Brendel said. “Some teams do it like we’ve been doing it, where you trickle in starters in the second and third game. But it looks like we’ll be getting a decent amount of snaps Friday.”

Asked directly why a team with as many established starters as the 49ers would play them in the final preseason game, Shanahan conceded it was a tough call.

“It’s about having guys ready to play a real football game,” Shanahan said. “And there’s so much that goes into mentally being ready, physically being ready. I mean, you can’t have any hesitation. When Week 1 starts, people see that and you can lose games very fast just being a little bit off.”

It remains to be seen whether quarterback Brock Purdy will play after one drive and nine snaps against the Broncos. He is going into the season as the unquestioned starter, and in many cases NFL coaches are choosing to err on the side of caution.

There are 10 projected starters this season who have yet to take a preseason snap — Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia), Jared Goff (Detroit), Justin Herbert (L.A. Chargers), Joe Burrow (Cincinnati), Kirk Cousins (Minnesota) Dak Prescott (Dallas), Aaron Rodgers (N.Y. Jets), Lamar Jackson (Baltimore), Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee) and Matthew Stafford (L.A. Rams).

Jets coach Robert Saleh told reporters Rodgers would face the New York Giants in the final preseason game because “You can’t coach scared, you can’t play scared. You can slip out of your car and have something happen to you. Knock on wood, everyone will be fine.”

Which doesn’t change the fact that Rodgers has yet to play, and that he likely won’t play much against the Giants as long as he gets out of his car without a problem.

Brock Purdy may play a series or two Friday night, but will likely be out of uniform in the second quarter. Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

Chiefs coach Andy Reid isn’t following the crowd when it comes to preseason snaps for his quarterback. Patrick Mahomes, the current gold standard at the position, has played 26 snaps and thrown 17 passes in two games.

Mahomes is the outlier, however. The quarterbacks who take the most snaps are either prospective backups (Aiden O’Connell has 80 for the Raiders) or projected rookie starters such as C.J. Stroud of Houston (34), Bryce Young of Carolina (32) and Anthony Richardson of Indianapolis (29).

Jordan Love of Green Bay, who is replacing Rodgers this season, has taken 29 snaps.

For his part, Shanahan is old-school enough to believe that practice matters but modern enough to realize losing high-priced talent in a game that doesn’t count supersedes Week 1 precision.

“You kind of build that with experience over your career,” Shanahan said. “I’ve had guys that sat for the preseason games and then fumble on the first play that they get in and then you kick yourself in  the butt for it, like, ‘What was I doing?’ You also play guys and they get hurt and you’re like ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ There are zero absolutes in any of it.”

The 49ers’ offensive line is back in its entirety except for Colton McKivitz replacing Mike McGlinchey at right tackle. McKivitz has been on the roster and the 49ers have been healthy and together up front throughout camp.

But the Chargers run a 3-4 base defense, and the 49ers face a 4-3 in practice. Pittsburgh, the Week 1 opponent, runs a 3-4. So Brendel believes limited game action Friday night could be worthwhile.

“It’s a similar defense,” Brendel said. ‘Obviously they don’t have the same players but it’s a similar scheme. Unfortunately we go through a 4-3 against our own scheme, so seeing a 3-4 is always great.”

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The best guess for Friday night is that Purdy plays briefly, similar to what he did against Denver. Seeing tight end Trent Williams, Christian McCaffrey or George Kittle seems unlikely. Any player who has been dealing with injuries, like Elijah Mitchell, will probably sit it out. Some starters could see minimal roles before taking the rest of the night off.

It all depends on what Shanahan sees at the final camp practices, combined with what his gut tells him in terms of risk vs. reward.

“All that stuff goes into it and you really don’t know until it’s all over what the right decision was,” Shanahan said. “That’s why it’s not always fun to make those decisions. But I also know when you just sit everyone and don’t practice football, you do your guys a pretty big disservice.”