Although most of us are counting down the days to the Chargers Week 1 regular season game (12 days left? GGUUUHHH), there is actual Chargers football tomorrow and for a dozen or so players that are trying to make the 53 man roster this game is a big deal.
As we do every week, I sent a few questions over to David Fucillo from Niners Nation to find things to pay attention to during Thursday's game so that you don't fall asleep. You can read my answers to his questions, he got my opinion on the Chargers running game and the fans' opinion of Norv Turner, by clicking these pretty blue words.
1. What is the most important position battle that can/will be determined in Thursday's game?
Thursday's game is probably more about the backups than the starters at this point. On offense, OT Alex Boone is battling primarily with OG/C Tony Wragge and also OT Barry Sims a bit for a backup offensive line position. WR Jason Hill has seen his stock plummet and so he's looking for one big game to avoid being cut, or attract the attention of another team if he does get cut. The final offensive battle is between the likes of TE Nate Byham, FB Brit Miller, and FB Jehuu Caulcrick. They're potentially battling for the 52nd or 53rd roster spot. Byham was drafted as a blocking tight end but is getting enough reps at fullback that he likely will win that one.
On defense, defensive linemen like Demetric Evans, Khalif Mitchell, and Will Tukuafu are likely battling for a roster spot or two as backup defense ends. Mitchell has been getting some time at nose tackle, so he likely has a bit of an edge. OLBs Travis LaBoy and Diyral Briggs seem to be on the right side of the bubble, but will be looking to show their pass rushing skills one more time before the cuts.
For the first time in a long time, the 49ers starting lineup is more or less locked in at this point. There are some guys who could bounce around, but the team is getting some cohesion and stability for the first time in a long time, which is nice for us as fans.
2. Explain the "Nobody wants to play for Mike Singletary" theory I've heard about. Where did it come from? Is there truth to it? Is this locker-room struggling entering the season?
I'm not really sure what this theory is that you're talking about. Are you talking about Kentwan Balmer bitching his way out of town and Glen Coffee retiring to pursue a religious purpose? Because as far as I can tell, aside from those two, Mike Singletary's passion in the locker room is actually a major plus for this team. The only people I've hard claiming anything like this are national media or non-Bay Area media that don't generally follow the 49ers that closely.
I'd argue that in fact it's the exact opposite in that the team would appear to love playing for the guy. He spent time as a motivational speaker after retiring but before starting his coaching career and if you combine his powerful speaking tone with the fact that he's got the credibility of being one of the greatest linebackers of all time and people will play for this guy. In fact, Brian Westbrook specifically cited that as one of the primary reasons he decided to sign with the 49ers.
I think whatever the media was saying was just people talking about something without actually bothering to actually look into it even a little bit more. I mean Vernon Davis recently said Mike Singletary turned his career around when he threw him off the field two seasons ago and will defend him to the end.
3. Are you satisfied with Alex Smith as your 2010 QB? Why or why not?
Yes I'm satisfied because for the first time in a long time he's completely healthy, has an improved offensive line, has a full complement of weapons around him, and finds himself with the same offense for the second straight season. That last one is important because for the first five years of his career Smith was busy learning a new offense each offseason, which meant training camp was about implementing the offense instead of perfecting it. This year the team could spend the whole offseason perfecting the routes, running and blocking instead of learning things as simple as lining up in the huddle.
Smith has gotten a lot of crap from fans during his time, some of it deserved and a lot of it undeserved. He's been banged up enough times that while this is technically his sixth season in the NFL, it's really more like his 4th because of missed time. Smith restructured his contract prior to last season and is a free agent after this season. The good thing about that is given all the positives mentioned above, I really think we'll finally get an answer as to what kind of NFL QB he really is. And while I don't think he's the second coming of Joe Montana or Steve Young, I do believe he can be a very solid QB in this league.
4. Would you be satisfied with anything less than a division title this season?
No. The 49ers have been building this thing back up slowly but surely. Last season finished as a bit of a disappointment after a strong start. This year, with the influx of talent and the major question marks throughout the division, anything short of a division title would be a disappointment. Well, let me correct that. Anything short of a playoff spot. If the NFC West ends up strong enough to send two teams to the playoffs, then I could accept a wildcard spot. However, this team has all the talent it needs to win the West.
5. Who are the key 49ers rookies and backups should we look out for on Thursday?
The biggest rookies are on the offensive line. Rookie OT Anthony Davis and OG Mike Iupati were the team's two 1st round picks this year and they were inserted into the starting lineup since the first week of training camp. The 49ers will go to the backups early in the game, but keep an eye on those two early on.
Second year OT Alex Boone was signed as an undrafted free agent last year and spent the season on the practice squad. He's reportedly shown a ton of improvement this offseason, and has looked solid in preseason games. He might fall victim to a numbers game so he's going to need a strong game on Thursday if he wants to make the 53-man roster.
The 49ers finally signed franchise nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin this past Saturday and he's likely to get a few snaps on Thursday. However, his backup is second year defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois. Franklin sat out all of training camp prior to this week in order to avoid injury. Due to this absence, RJF received all the first and second team snaps at nose tackle and had one heck of an offseason. Through minicamps, OTAs, training camp, and preseason games, RJF has shown that he might be a long-term answer at nose tackle, which could allow the 49ers to let Franklin walk next offseason.
One other guy to look out for is rookie CB Phillip Adams. Aside from his playing time at cornerback, the seventh round pick received some time as the punt returner last week against the Raiders and ran one back for a touchdown. He'll get some more touches this week against your Chargers.