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5 players with the most to gain and lose in 49ers-Colts matchup

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Who should you focus on during Saturday’s game against the Colts?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers are all set for their grand dress rehearsal in Indianapolis on Saturday. Defenders Arik Armstead, Malcolm Smith and Richard Sherman are some of the names that will return to an injury-plagued defense that’s looking to find some rhythm. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense will look to pick up where they left off in Houston on Saturday.

The third preseason game is the most representative of the regular season, as starters typically play a full half of football. It gives an opportunity for certain players to shine under the bright lights — or melt under the pressure. With roster battles all over the field for the 49ers, which players have the most to gain and lose in Saturday’s matchup with the Colts?

Most to Gain

RB Alfred Morris

The 49ers’ rushing attack has been putrid through the first two preseason games, primarily due to poor offensive line play, but partially because of injuries in the backfield. Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida were sidelined in the preseason opener and the remaining snaps were divided between Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols, Joe Williams and Jeff Wilson.

With a lack of experience in the running back room, the 49ers’ brain trust signed veteran running back Alfred Morris to a contract last week. With the third tailback spot still up in the air, Morris has a chance to put himself on Shanahan’s good side with a solid performance on Saturday.

The ex-Cowboys’ tailback is familiar with Shanahan’s offense as the two were linked together during their days together in Washington. Morris had his best years under Shanahan’s tutelage and has a chance to earn a roster spot in San Francisco. It’s going to need to start on Saturday with a breakout performance.

LB Mark Nzeocha

The 49ers traded away linebacker Eli Harold in a surprising move earlier this week, freeing up the starting SAM LB spot. On Friday, Shanahan announced on KNBR that Mark Nzeocha (pronounced en-ZAH-cha, because I know you were thinking it), will be the starting strong-side linebacker against the Colts.

In three seasons in the NFL, Nzeocha has spent time with the Cowboys and now is in San Francisco. He’s primarily been a backup to Harold and a core special teamer, but will get a chance to elevate his status on Saturday. The ex-Cowboy is competing with second-year Pita Taumoepenu, Cassius Marsh and Dekoda Watson for the starting spot.

Shanahan’s trust in Nzeocha to start him in the third preseason game can be rewarded with a strong performance.

CB Richard Sherman

It’s finally going to sink in that corner Richard Sherman is a 49er once he steps on that field donning the red and gold (yes, I know they are wearing road whites!). The ex-Seahawk finished 2017 on the injured reserve and spent a majority of training camp sidelined as well.

Saturday is going to be the first time that 49ers’ fans will get to see Sherman play. With a solid, healthy performance, Sherman can earn the confidence of his teammates, coaches and fans.

Numerous people in the media have been questioning the signing, given his age, health issues and decline in play, but Sherman can put a stop to all that nonsense with some positive plays against the Colts’ receivers.

Most to Lose

CB Jimmie Ward

With every passing week, it seem’s like corner Jimmie Ward’s leash is running out with the 49ers’ front office. His most important play so far this season might have been a practice fight with Texans’ wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, causing commotion between the two sidelines.

Outside of that, Ward has been routinely beaten by receivers on the field, including giving up an ugly touchdown to Cowboys’ receiver Michael Gallup in the preseason opener. According to Pro Football Focus, Ward is the worst-rated player on the 49ers’ roster, with a 31.1 grade, after playing in 52 snaps.

Ward is losing time in the battle for a roster spot. While his $8.5M salary may be the only thing keeping him in Santa Clara, his last chance to impress the defensive coaching staff may be on Saturday.

DL Arik Armstead

It seems like every year, we constantly have the same question for lineman Arik Armstead: “Will this be the season that Armstead finally figures it out?” Over the last two years, he’s missed a total of 18 regular season games, so instead Armstead is missing preseason games this year.

A nagging hamstring injury has plagued the ex-Oregon defender again this year, causing him to miss out on the first two weeks. The interior defensive lineman is set to return on Saturday against the Colts. While his roster spot for 2018 is likely secure, his long-term future with the team is in flux. Armstead has a lot on the line heading into Saturday, as his pitch for a new, long-term deal begins in Indianapolis.