Heading into week two of the NFL pre-season, the San Francisco 49ers have a lot of questions that need to be answered. With established talent all over the roster, the 49ers will be looking at some of the lesser-known contributors to step up on and stand out on Sunday night vs. the LA Chargers.
49ers vs Chargers: Who To Watch For
Ambry Thomas, Cornerback
In week one, the 49ers had two rookie defensive backs who jumped off of the screen, neither one of them was Ambry Thomas. The two who turned heads, Talanoa Hufanga and Deommodore Lenoir, were selected by the 49ers in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft. Thomas, on the other hand, was selected in the third.
The 49ers don’t need Thomas to be ready to start day one. The 49ers have Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley locked in for those roles, but the 49ers have to be a bit disappointed by Thomas’ showing last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. While fellow rookie Lenoir was locking up one half of the field, Thomas was an easy target on the other.
Having sat out 2020 due to Covid-19 concerns, the 49ers drafted Thomas because he fit the mold of a prototype cornerback for their scheme. Thomas is a long, rangy corner in the mold of a Richard Sherman. The 49ers secondary looks pretty good on paper, but when it comes to corner, neither Moseley nor Verrett are committed beyond 2022. Thomas was selected to be groomed as a future starter on this team. So keep an eye on how he matches up with Chargers receivers, as he needs a strong performance to keep him from sliding down the depth chart.
Talanoa Hufanga, Strong Safety
It’s crazy to say this, but after one pre-season game, Talanoa Hufanga looked like a star in the making. Not only was Hufanga constantly around the ball, but his ability to close in on the ball carrier and violently bring them to the ground was also the true highlight of the 49ers’ first pre-season game.
Hufanga was selected in the first round of the 2021 draft and he is already looking like a complete steal. Heading into the season, the ambitious Hufanga set a goal for himself of making the pro bowl on special teams in his rookie season. This type of hunger is evident in every snap that Hufanga plays.
Not only is Hufanga poised to make an impact, but he’s also incredibly lucky. Prior to training camp, the 49ers lost safety Tarvarius Moore in mini-camp and they have still yet to get back incumbent starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt from a turf-toe injury. Often, talent can be hidden due to a lack of experience or quality play of the performer in front of the hidden gem. Tartt is a good player, but his absence has opened the door for what may be a special player. Coincidentally, Hufanga wears Tartt’s old number of 29. So, if Hufanga steals the job from Tartt, the secondary might not look so different after all.
Arden Key, Defensive End
When the 49ers’ defense dominated the NFL in 2019, it relied heavily on waves of pass-rushers. Sure, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were the household names, but players like Ronald Blair III, Arik Armstead, and D.J. Jones were key to overwhelming offensive lines with a solid pass rush on every single down.
The 49ers are looking to recreate that pass rush platoon in 2021, and Arden Key will play a major role in keeping the pressure on. After spending three years in Oakland/Las Vegas, Key was released in the off-season. The 49ers pounced to procure his services, and through one pre-season game, it’s easy to see why. Key provided consistent pressure vs. the Chiefs in week one and looked like more like the promising prospect from LSU that the Las Vegas Raiders thought they were getting in 2018.
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s ability to develop raw talent is well documented. In 2020, journeyman Kerry Hyder Jr. turned in an eight-and-a-half-sack season behind Kocurek’s tutelage. The development of Key will play an integral part in the success of this defense in 2021. The top two 49ers pass-rushers, Bosa and Ford are coming off season-ending injuries. Being able to keep these two megastars fresh with some added firepower off the bench could produce that championship-caliber defense the 49ers brandished in 2019. Keep your eyes on Key in this one, you may be hearing a lot more of his name come September.
Jauan Jennings, Wide Receiver
If there is one position on the 49ers roster that is up for grabs, it’s the third wide receiver role. The top two are bookends, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel are some of the best young receiving duos any team has to offer. Outside of these two, there are plenty of questions about who else will make this roster.
The 49ers selected Jauan Jennings in the seventh round in 2020 and he spent his entire rookie season stashed on the practice squad. Heralded for his ability to break tackles in college, Jennings was a YAC monster who lacked the speed and pure physical tools to make the field in 2020. Jennings showed up training camp a trimmer version of himself and it has paid dividends so far. In week one, Jennings accumulated three touches for 49 yards. Exploding out of the backfield on two tunnel screens, Jennings displayed that knack for making defenders miss and picking up yards after the catch.
Sunday Night may be an audition for a role much larger than the third receiver spot. On Friday, Deebo Samuel “tweaked a glute” in practice and had to sit out the rest of the session. Samuel has had a history with injuries, so the stakes for the 49ers receivers have just gotten a little higher. Pay attention to the passing game on Sunday night, look for Kyle Shanahan to get the ball to Jennings in space. If he does, Jennings might just put on a show.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Quarterback
All eyes are on rookie quarterback Trey Lance. How can they not be? After week one, it was evident that if you’re looking to be entertained during pre-season, Lance has got you covered. With a tremendous right arm and unique scrambling ability, it is just plain fun to watch a player like Lance ply his craft.
You should be watching the other quarterback just as much. This 49ers vs Chargers matchup will be the most we’ll see of Jimmy Garoppolo this pre-season, so the results could be telling. Practice reports depict an inconsistent Garoppolo, at one point lighting up defenses, just to toss a bad interception a few plays later. This inconsistency is keeping the door open for a Trey Lance quarterback coronation come Week 1.
Right now, the heat isn’t on Garoppolo. In week one, Garoppolo threw three passes and completed three passes. He looked generally sharp but flew incredibly low under the radar. Sunday night will be a much larger sample size for the critics to pick apart if Garoppolo doesn’t perform well. Sunday night represents Garoppolo’s last impression to the mainstream media prior to the season kicking off. Quite simply, he can close the door on this quarterback competition or let it creak open some more.