49ers: Top Four Takeaways From Preseason Week 1

August 16, 2022
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49ers fans were finally able to say three of their favorite words on Friday: Football is back!

The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 28-21 to kick off the 2022 preseason on Friday night. A handful of players were held out of the team’s first exhibition game, but the majority of the roster was in uniform and on the field for the Niners’ home crowd.

During the 49ers’ first actual in-game action of the year, fans were finally able to take their first look at the team’s revamped 2022 squad, which includes a number of rookies and free agents, as well as new starting quarterback Trey Lance. In a game with more than a few highlights and standout performances, it’s important to remember that one preseason game is merely a sample-sized look at what the 49ers are capable of doing this season.

Although the sample was small, it provided a significant and exciting taste of what to expect from the team in 2022. Let’s dive into the top four takeaways from the 49ers’ first preseason victory.

The Deep Ball

Where our list begins should come as no surprise; Lance’s fifth and final pass attempt of the game was a 76-yard touchdown toss to rookie wide receiver Danny Gray, in stride down the left sideline. Lance looked comfortable in the pocket and delivered the ball with excellent touch. The play was a bit reminiscent of Lance’s second attempt of the preseason last year — a long 80-yard touchdown pass to WR Trent Sherfield against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The 49ers’ deep ball struck again on the first play of the second quarter when backup QB Nate Sudfeld connected with Ray-Ray McCloud III for another score. The wide receiver’s well-executed corner-post route left him wide open — and a defender on the ground — as Sudfield effortlessly tossed a pass from the 49ers’ midfield logo to the end zone, and into McCloud’s hands for a 39-yard touchdown:

Throughout training camp, clips of Lance connecting with wideout Brandon Aiyuk deep down the practice field spread across social media. Those long completions combined with the deep passes during Friday’s contest with Green Bay indicate the Niners’ offense will look drastically different this season. Look for Shanahan to utilize Lance’s big arm on long throws in a more-vertical passing attack compared to past seasons with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback:

NFL analyst Warren Sharp noted a glaring discrepancy between the two quarterbacks’ propensity to complete long throws during Lance’s NFL tenure — preseason included. Despite attempting roughly a quarter of the number of passes as his predecessor, Lance amassed three-times the number of completions comprised of at least 30 air yards:

By stretching out the field via the deep passing game, the 49ers should have more opportunities to score — and score quickly. With dangerous receiving threats in wideout Brandon Aiyuk, multi-faceted receiver Deebo Samuel, and tight end George Kittle, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2022 offense may be the most high-powered offense we’ve seen during the Shanahan era.

49ers Rookies Steal the Show

The 49ers have built an impressive core of players via the draft, but outside of the first round. Deebo, Kittle, and linebacker Fred Warner are all examples of All-Pro players the 49ers selected after Day 1 of the draft. The team’s success in the latter rounds is worth noting, considering the Niners traded their 2022 first-round pick as part of last year’s trade to acquire Trey Lance. On Friday, the 49ers’ rookie class did their best to extend that trend.

Former SMU wideout Danny Gray finished his first preseason game with two receptions for 99 yards and the one touchdown catch from the aforementioned 76-yard connection with Lance. One thing that remains clear about Gray is the 23-year-old’s incredible speed. Gray recorded a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and the 49ers Faithful witnessed that speed on full display against Green Bay:

Rookie defensive back Samuel Womack was arguably the player of the game. Womack finished the contest with two interceptions in the first half, and the 92.6 defensive grade he was given by Pro Football Focus led the team. The former Toledo defender has his eyes set on the starting nickel cornerback spot on the Niners’ depth chart, and Friday’s performance only strengthened his case.

Other rookies worth noting are former USC defensive end Drake Jackson and right guard Spencer Burford, a converted college tackle. Jackson showed his athleticism on multiple plays, including running down Packers backup QB Jordan Love on a scramble and showing good change-of-direction and body control on a pass deflection.

The defensive line is deep on San Francisco’s roster, but the second-round pick will have ample opportunity to play, and his development will be fun to watch. The Niners may have drafted a few gems among this year’s rookie class:

Spencer Burford appears to be locked into the starting role at right guard, and wasted no time making his presence known during the first offensive possession of the game. On an early rushing attempt, Burford manhandled Packers defensive lineman Chris Slayton by shoving him to the ground before pulling the 2021 49ers practice-squad member up and throwing him down on his back. Unfortunately, a missed block by right tackle Mike McGlinchey caused the Packers to stop the play in the backfield, but Burford did his job while looking like a bully of a guard in the process:

Keep an eye on No. 74 on the offensive line.

The 49ers’ offensive line has been one of the few personnel groups with major questions yet to be answered entering this season. The Niners will be forced to replace at least two starters, given the departure of Pro Bowl left guard Laken Tomlinson, who signed with the New York Jets, and the retirement of starting center Alex Mack. If Burford continues to play at this level during the regular season, the entire line will benefit; particularly McGlinchey, who struggled on Friday in his first game action after tearing a quadricep muscle last season.

The 49ers’ opening preseason game gave us a small sample of rookie game film to analyze, but so far, the sample is looking good.

49ers Injuries To Monitor

An unfortunate byproduct of the violent game of football is injuries, and Shanahan’s 49ers have been highly allergic to the injury bug in recent seasons. Multiple players sustained injuries during Friday’s game, but luckily, most of them appear to be relatively minor. The Niners’ injury situation is always something to monitor heading into the regular season:

A couple concerning injuries from Friday’s victory were suffered by two potential starting offensive linemen, Mike McGlinchey and Daniel Brunskill.

McGlinchey is dealing with “slight irritation in his knee,” according to Shanahan, and will not practice this week. One concern is the former first-rounder only managed to play eight snaps against Green Bay. How confident are the 49ers that their expensive starting right tackle’s body will hold up throughout a 17-game regular season? Suffering a lower-body injury while recovering from another is especially worrisome for a player responsible for protecting the team’s 22-year-old franchise quarterback.

Daniel Brunskill will be sidelined for a few weeks with a hamstring strain. While Brunskill is far from an elite offensive lineman, he does offer the 49ers valuable versatility via his ability to play every position on the offensive line. When healthy, he could fill in for McGlinchey if needed, but he won’t be an option over the coming weeks. If there is a silver lining, the injuries will translate into increased game time for player evaluation as well as additional experience for other reserve linemen, including third-year tackle Colton McKivitz and recently-signed veteran tackle Jordan Mills.

Brunskill’s injury also means practice-squad journeyman lineman Jake Brendel will likely win the starting center battle by default, as the two players’ lengthy competition for the role has come to an early end.

It’s Still Early

The recent victory against Green Bay — like all wins over the Packers — was very enjoyable for the 49ers Faithful to watch, especially for a preseason game. While there were incredible highlights, it’s important to remember how early the 49ers are in the evaluation process.

It was encouraging to see some of San Francisco’s rookies play like veterans on Friday night. However, every player who has made it this far in his football career is capable of having a good game. Consistency over the remainder of the preseason will be key.

There are still numerous roster questions yet to be answered. Who will be the second running back on the depth chart behind Elijah Mitchell? Who will start at the nickel corner position? And aside from left tackle, nothing is set in stone on the Niners’ offensive line.

With just a couple more weeks of preseason football remaining, and cut-down days quickly approaching, these questions will soon be answered — and additional issues will arise. Regardless, with one preseason game in the books, it’s, “So far, so good,” for the San Francisco 49ers.