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49ers-Chiefs: Three things to watch for in the preseason opener

It’s Trey Lance’s NFL debut. But what else should we expect from the 49ers’ 2021 debut?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers Rookie Minicamp D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tumultuous road since the 49ers finished off the regular season in Arizona and bid farewell to the 2020 season. San Francisco made the splashy offseason move to slide up the NFL Draft to select their future franchise quarterback in Trey Lance while re-piecing a heavily talented roster in Free Agency.

Their much-awaited 2021 campaign begins on Saturday night vs. Kansas City Chiefs. But, of course, the obvious part that will have every fan’s eyeballs glued to the TV is No. 5 taking live repetitions under center against a real pass rush and defense.

Beyond that, here are three things that 49ers’ fans should be monitoring as the game goes on:

1. How does running back Trey Sermon fare as a three-down running back?

With Raheem Mostert sidelined for Saturday, rookie Trey Sermon should be inserted into the starting offense as the tailback behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The ex-Ohio State runner has seen a lot of first-team snaps during training camp, with Mostert being eased into play.

Given that Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are both in the final year of their respective contracts, the 49ers went into the offseason looking to get younger at the running back position. Instead, they added Sermon in the third round and then proceeded to follow that up by adding Elijah Mitchell — a draft crush of mine — in the sixth round.

Given his abilities as a runner and pass-catcher, Sermon should slot in as a three-down running back, but his biggest question will be how he protects the quarterback in passing downs. That’ll be the most important thing to watch come Saturday, and that’ll determine how much playing time Sermon earns this season.

2. Can wide receiver Trent Sherfield earn his roster spot on Saturday?

Wide receiver Trent Sherfield was initially brought to the 49ers to contribute on special teams at the request of coordinator Richard Hightower. But Sherfield has impressed the coaching staff throughout training camp with his play with either Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance.

Sherfield has shined given the injuries to Jalen Hurd and the poor play of Richie James. However, he has a chance to cement his roster status on Saturday if he can prove that his success on the practice field translates to a live game. Add in the fact that Sherfield brings value to special teams and it could be a wrap come Saturday night.

3. Can rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga earn the backup safety role?

Ever since his post-draft interview where Talanoa Hufanga was displayed true gratitude for being drafted to the 49ers, he’s slowly inched his way to making this 53-man roster.

Coming into training camp, safety depth didn’t seem to be a concern. The 49ers added the rookie Hufanga and veterans Tavon Wilson and Tony Jefferson as depth behind Jaquiski Tartt.

Tartt is still dealing with the turf toe injury that sidelined him in 2020 and is expected to miss some time at the start of the season. Many assumed Wilson or Jefferson would slot right into the starting role given their experience, but neither has taken a stranglehold of the position.

To add insult to injury, Tony Jefferson was placed on injured reserve, and the 49ers added Ha-Ha Clinton Dix — who hasn’t played a down since 2019.

What does that mean? The door is creaking open for Hufanga, and he can start to make the debate more interesting for DeMeco Ryans and his staff with a solid outing on Saturday.