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Three things to watch for in the 49ers’ preseason opener against the Cowboys

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As the 49ers play their first preseason game, here are three things to watch for on Saturday against Dallas.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Training Camp Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers begin their 2019 campaign at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, both with very different expectations on their shoulders.

The Cowboys are coming off of an NFC East title and an NFC Divisional Round loss, looking to take the next step towards a sixth Super Bowl. Dallas will be returning their main core, spearheaded by quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliot and wideout Amari Cooper.

Despite the excitement among most Cowboys’ fans for the upcoming season, most of it has been tapered with the ongoing holdout by Elliot in his battle for a contract extension with Dallas. The NFC East Champions will look to redeem themselves starting on Saturday night, but it will have to be without their star running back.

In the opposing locker room, the 49ers will look to finally start stringing together wins for the first time in the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch era since Garoppolo closed out the 2017 season with five straight victories. All the talk about building culture and constructing the roster is now in the past; it’s time to start winning on Sundays — or in this case, Saturdays.

However, San Francisco has been bitten by the injury bug, losing rookie pass rusher Nick Bosa, defensive backs Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams and running back Jerick McKinnon for the foreseeable future.

With such vastly different, but equally substantial expectations for both sides, let’s take a look at three things to watch for in Saturday’s preseason opener in Santa Clara, CA.

1. Which young defensive back is going to step up on Saturday?

After a week of training camp, it seemed like corners Richard Sherman, and Jason Verrett were in prime position to be the starting outside corners, with safeties Tarvarius Moore and Jaquiski Tartt starting alongside them.

Sherman seems to be returning to the Seattle version of himself — which is more likely to happen in the second year coming off of an Achilles’ injury. Verrett was a high-upside signing in the offseason but is going to miss the rest of preseason with a high-ankle sprain.

With Verrett down for the next four weeks, it opens up a window of opportunity for Ahkello Witherspoon, who’s due for a bounce-back season. After high expectations last season, the former Colorado corner heard all of the noise and didn’t perform up to the mark. With another offseason under his belt, hopefully, Witherspoon can slot into the starting lineup again.

Similarly, Adrian Colbert was slotted to be the starting free safety, but second-year defender Tarvarius Moore seems to be earning all the praise for his play in the center-field position. All eyes will be on Moore, as he takes his first NFL reps at free safety.

Nickel corner K’Waun Williams is not due back soon with a knee injury, paving the way for D.J. Reed to make his mark on the 49ers’ defense. It will be pivotal to watch which young defensive back can separate themselves from the rest of the pack and control one of the open starting positions.

2. Can running backs Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida pick up the slack with Jerick McKinnon out?

After the San Francisco 49ers’ front office handed out a 4-year, $30M contract to the former Vikings’ running back, Jerick McKinnon during the 2018 offseason, he has yet to suit up for the 49ers in a regular-season game.

McKinnon began training camp on the PUP list, but returned Thursday and eventually left with knee soreness. Shanahan didn’t look too pleased, as it sounded like McKinnon won’t be returning to the 49ers any time soon.

While many scoffed at the Tevin Coleman signing back in April, it’s starting to look pretty brilliant now, as the 49ers have an injury-prone backfield between Matt Breida and McKinnon. But with the $30M man sidelined, can the other two step up in his absence?

Shanahan’s always featured a backfield that had multiple, capable runners that could step in seamlessly. That seems to be the case again here, with Breida and Coleman being extremely versatile out of the backfield. With a banged-up offensive line, it’ll be interesting to watch how Coleman and Breida will respond against the Cowboys’ stout defense on Saturday.

3. Will quarterback Nick Mullens beat out C.J. Beathard for the prestigious role of Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup?

In the past few years, being the 49ers’ backup quarterback has actually led to a significant amount of playing time. In Shanahan’s first year, the shoddy quarterback play, allowed Beathard his first opportunity, while Garoppolo’s injury gave way for Mullens’ first NFL chance this past season.

With two young quarterbacks on the roster behind Garoppolo, which one is going to step up and earn the spot on the 53-man roster? When the 49ers released their initial depth chart — which is usually nothing more than a public relations release — C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens were both listed as second-string players.

Logical thinking would lead you to believe that Mullens would have the upper hand over Beathard given his competitive spirit and winning mentality down the stretch last year, but Shanahan may not give up so easily on his former third-round selection.

Saturday will be the start of a four-week battle between the two for the backup quarterback position, and it’ll be one of the best position battles on the roster.