KANSAS CITY – Eleven practices into training camp and the 49ers now can show off their new coach, new players and, to a modest extent, new systems when they open the exhibition season Friday night against the host Kansas City Chiefs.
Here are five things to watch:
1. A Shanahan sideline: How rowdy, calm, intense or controlled will Kyle Shanahan look in his debut as a first-time head coach? He will toggle between calling plays as his own offensive coordinator and overseeing all matters. He’s out of upstairs booth and instead on the field, which also is where defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be. And in one of the oddities that come with being 49ers coach, what will be Shanahan’s attire (see: hoodie, suit, jewelry, visor)?
2. Newcomers galore: After four exhibitions, the 49ers must cut their roster from the 90-man limit to 53. Get a load of this: 53 current players weren’t even on last season’s 2-14 team. First-round draft picks Solomon Thomas (defensive tackle, No. 94) and Reuben Foster (linebacker, No. 56) have looked great in camp and should debut, although Foster’s tweaked left ankle could factor into that. Beside the 10-man draft class, some rookie free agents are worth checking out, such as running back Matt Breida (No. 49) and safeties Lorenzo Jerome (No. 46) and Chanceller James (No. 43).
3. QB competition: Gone are last year’s trio of Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. Brian Hoyer is now the uncontested starter, and his counterpart at Arrowhead Stadium will be former 49ers Alex Smith. Hoyer has impressed while receiving twice as many practice reps as his backups to lead the offense in Shanahan’s system. Matt Barkley, on his third team since USC, will be first off the bench. Third-round draft pick C.J. Beathard can use the exhibitions to unseat Barkley. Undrafted rookie Nick Mullens would be the last in the rotation, if needed.
4. Tight end race: Two weeks into camp and there’s still no clear separation between the holdovers – Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Blake Bell – and the newcomers – Logan Paulsen, George Kittle, Cole Hikutini. McDonald might be having the best camp but, as usual, needs to show more consistency as a receiver. Paulsen is a lock with his blocking expertise, so where does that leave Celek & Co.? No, there is no Rob Gronkowski in this corps, but Kyle Juszczyk got signed for big money as a versatile weapon to split time as a fullback and tight end.5. Who’s in, who’s out: Entrenched starters likely won’t see more than a couple series, and it’s unclear if Shanahan simply will stash invaluable veterans on the sideline in exhibitions. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman make his return to game action since October’s Achilles tear. Running back Carlos Hyde figures to start, and his understudy is a battle between Tim Hightower, Joe Williams and perhaps Breida. Not expected to play are linebacker Donavin Newsom (concussion), guard Joshua Garnett (knee), cornerback Dontae Johnson (concussion), tight end George Kittle (hamstring) and possibly safety Jaquiski Tartt (rib) and linebacker Brock Coyle (rib).
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