Well, it's almost finally here. The return of football. You can say it's not "real" football because the wins and losses don't matter, it's not the starters the whole game, etc, but it is football. Men will play at full speed and try to beat the guy in front of them. NFL men. We've not seen this from the 49ers in over half a year.
I'm always most excited to see how the untested players perform under the bright lights. Rookies, second year guys, those who were injured last year, etc. There are holes to fill, be it starters or backup spots, and I want to get a feel for who seems ready and who has a ways to go.
With that, here are the guys I'm paying attention to, and why:
Carlos Hyde - Frank Gore won't play much, if at all, this preseason. Nor should he. With LaMichael James hurt, Kendall Hunter on IR, and the only other RBs being guys who were either on the couch or a practice squad...Hyde will need to show that he can, at the very least, be a capable backup to Gore. Mostly, he needs to catch the football and pick up pass-rushers.
Daniel Kilgore - The only two players who touch the ball on every offensive play are the center and the QB (we'll ignore the Wildcat formation). Kilgore is playing center for virtually the first time in his career. He played tackle and guard prior to this, and was only used as an extra OL in heavy sets last season. He got some garbage time in place of Jonathan Goodwin last season, but that was limited. How are his shotgun snaps? Is he identifying the defensive front, stunts, shifts, etc. properly? We'll see how that plays out on passing downs in particular. Then there's the get-off and power he has in the run game, which is equally important.
Joe Looney - Looney is filling in for Alex Boone, as the latter holds out of training camp in hopes of obtaining a contract extension. The 49ers say they're very encouraged by Looney's play, and if that's true, the team could really let Boone sit and stew for the entire preseason, and even consider starting Looney in a few regular season games. It certainly wouldn't help Alex's position to go get a big FA contract if he's not playing.
Jonathan Martin - With Anthony Davis rehabbing an offseason shoulder injury, Martin is running with the ones at RT. Reports from camp have thus-far been uninspiring, with inexperienced pass rushers like Lawrence Okoye planting J.Mart on his back at times. The 49ers don't have a true swing tackle, besides Boone, so if Martin can't hold down the job it would be Adam Snyder (who works in at G as well) or Carter Bykowski, who'll play some with the reserves at LT, as well.
The third-through-sixth WRs - I lump them all together because it's a logjam at WR3 and beyond. Stevie Johnson has years left on his deal, and was obtained for a mid-round draft pick, so there's obvious pressure to take that third spot on the depth chart, but he's had only an OK camp so far. Quinton Patton sounds like he's having himself a heckuva good camp after finally remaining healthy the entire offseason and getting comfortable in the offense, not to mention the chemistry he's built with Kap both on and off the field. Then there is rookie Bruce Ellington and vet Brandon Lloyd. The former will almost certainly make the team, but where does Lloyd, who doesn't play special teams, fit in? Brandon Lloyd and Michael Crabtree are not expected to play on Thursday, so that opens the door for the younger players.
Vance McDonald - Reports are that while Vance looks much more confident, he's still dropping passes. Colin Kaepernick needs all of the receiving options he can get at this point, so we'll need to see Vance step up his game.
All the ILBs competing to fill-in for NaVorro Bowman - Rookie Chris Borland has looked good according to reports, but has obvious limitations in pass coverage, and athletically in general. Can he upset veteran Michael Wilhoite and start opposite Patrick Willis? Or will second year player Nick Moody assert himself into the conversation? Rookie Shayne Skov seems to face uphill odds of making the roster.
The nose tackles - Second year pro Quinton Dial has looked "country strong" and could be the front-runner to take over for injured Glenn Dorsey. However, he'll have to hold off Mike Purcell and possibly Tony Jerod-Eddie, though I think TJE is best suited for 5-tech. This is all until Ian Williams comes back, potentially in a week or two, and makes the competition that much more fierce.
Tank Carradine - Once thought of as one of the best defensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft, Carradine's knee injury sidelined him for his entire rookie season. Vic Fangio said that Tank is physically a good player, but he's making too many mental mistakes. This is typical preseason Fangio, motivating his guys and making sure they don't get complacent. Let's hope we at least see some flashes of "the old Tank".
The brand-new secondary - Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid are the only returning starters from 2013, and Brock didn't even start the whole season. Chris Culliver looks poised to take the other starting CB spot, while Jimmie Ward is in a battle for the nickel spot with Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris. Morris has had an impressive camp, showing physicality to match his great speed. Meanwhile newcomer Antoine Bethea will look to be a consistent force alongside Reid, filling the role vacated by the departed Donte Whitner. And of course, we'll look to see if Chris Cook can show improved play tracking the ball down the field.