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Kyle Shanahan discusses some of the factors that help players earn a roster spot

The 49ers have a lot of decisions to make in the next ten days.

The San Francisco 49ers have a little over a week remaining before they make their initial cut down to the 53-man roster. I say initial because we’ll see plenty of signings and cuts after waivers process runs in two weekends.

The 49ers have plenty of decisions to make at this early stage in their rebuild, and on Wednesday, head coach Kyle Shanahan offered some insight into the process. John Lynch has control of the 90-man roster, but the final 53-man roster decisions come down to Kyle Shanahan. There will be plenty of discussion and input, but what he says about the process is worth noting.

He talked about the need to show on special teams if you are not a clear starter. He was also asked if age impacts things where a younger player might get the nod if there is a close competition with an older player. Here are his comments on roster decisions.

Circling back to something you said about the running backs. With all the different things that go into play, when you have a guy maybe on offense or defense who is performing well in preseason games or in practices in those areas, but maybe hasn’t shown as much on special teams, do you go out of your way to try to give them more reps or get them more opportunities in there to get a better evaluation, knowing that that’s maybe their way on the roster?

“Yeah. Most of the things we do in a preseason game is because we’re just trying to figure things out. There’s certain guys that we have a good feel of, and there’s certain guys that we don’t. There’s certain areas that we’re not sure because we can’t replicate it the exact right way in practice so we have to do it in the game. There’s some things that we can replicate in practice, so we don’t even worry about it in the game. So, we put other guys in those situations. I think, special teams is one of the toughest things to replicate in practice because yeah you can be physical, especially through training camp when we have pads on and everything, but we’re not tackling. We’re not taking people to the ground. Especially when you get offensive guys who are playing special teams. Most defensive guys do know how to tackle, especially at this level. Offensive guys aren’t always that way. They’re not going to show you that they’re good tacklers in practice because we’re not going to risk getting one of our guys hurt. So, those are the guys that you’ve really got to get opportunities in the game on special teams.”

So a guy like WR Kendrick Bourne who goes out and plays well on offense, do you say, “OK we want to see you as a gunner more than what you were doing before,” just because realistically, numbers-wise that might be his only way to make the team?

“Well yeah, totally. On average, you usually keep about six receivers. I’ve been places where you go five, I’ve been places where you go seven. Same with running backs. I’ve been places where we’ve kept two. The norm I would guess is three. I’ve been places where we’ve kept four. So, you never know how it’s going to pan out. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘This guy’s our best receiver, this guy’s our second, this guy’s our fourth or fifth.’ But, who’s going to be up on game day. Just because he might be your fifth best receiver, just speaking hypothetically, is he going to be up on game day? Does he help special teams? We don’t go five wide very much. Ever. We could. But, you don’t think of it that way. If you aren’t one of those top guys, if you aren’t number one, number two, if you’re not a true starter and you can’t help on special teams, it’s very hard to make the team. It’s a trickle-down effect. It’s a risk sometimes you take because some of those guys can be very good and they’re only one play away from being a starter. The problem is they weren’t activated that day because they couldn’t help on special teams. So, you’ve got to wait until next week to do it. Special teams is a big part of it. If everyone stays healthy, then you want to think all about special teams. Because the backups will contribute on that. But, once you get one injury, that’s where you’re like, ‘Man I wish I got this guy up,’ because now we need him. But, you didn’t know that until the game started.”

Given where this team is, is it fair to say when you look at some position battles the tie would go to the younger player? I’m thinking like a backup quarterback, LB Ahmad Brooks and LB Eli Harold. Does that make sense for where this team is or as a coach do you have to say we’re going to try to win as many games as you can?

“I think you take everything into account. I think everything starts with who gives you the best chance to win. Who gives you the best chance to win in Week 1. Who gives you the best chance to win throughout a 16-game season. If guys are tied, or there’s one guy who’s a little bit ahead, that’s probably the guy we want to start. But, if we feel maybe there’s a younger guy that if he just gets a few reps he’ll pass that guy up pretty fast, then I would lean toward the other way. I understand the question, especially in our first year. But, you’re always thinking about winning now without ever jeopardizing your future. So, you’ve got to balance both of those two things. Like I said to our team today, the first thing we look for is who gives us the best chance to win. After that it’s going to come down to who we believe likes football more. Who’s out here because they truly enjoy it. We can see. Not because they tell us. Because we watch how they play. How they work. Guys who really play like their hair’s on fire and they enjoy playing football. If you’re like that, I think it’s contagious and it helps your team win. Those are the guys I’m going to always side with when it’s close.”