With the 2014 NFL season quickly approaching, fans and experts alike will be paying close attention to how their teams will look like come week one.
While it has been often debated that there are too many exhibition games, due to the chances of injuries and that several starters may only play a series or two (if any at all), the games do prove significant to rookies and positions where there's questions abound.
So instead of using the usual excuses to miss the exhibition season, here are a few reasons to pay attention over the next four warm up games.
Boone's absence: Right guard Alex Boone continues to hold out this offseason despite the two remaining years left on his current deal. Joe Looney looks to see several minutes in Boone's place and has reportedly looked solid in practice. Veteran swing-man of the offensive line, Adam Snyder, will get looks and push Looney. However Snyder's true value is his versatility, filling in across the line from time to time but has performed inconsistently as a starter. Daniel Kilgore has experience at guard but looks to be the favorite to grab the starting center position. This is Looney's job to lose if Boone's holdout continues.
Gore's backup: Much like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore will most likely not see the field until week one. There's nothing really to gain for Gore to see the field as a ten-year vet and unquestioned starter. With Kendall Hunter's season ending ACL injury and LaMichael James out with a dislocated elbow for at least three of the four exhibition games, this is Carlos Hyde's time to shine. The powerhouse rookie out of OSU has the running style fit for the Niners unlike James who has struggled to stick out in the running game. But attention to detail will be key for Hyde, specifically in pass protection. No word yet on when second year player Marcus Lattimore will see time, but Head Coach Jim Harbaugh is optimistic to see the talented back in action before the end of the exhibition season. Jewel Hampton saw the most action over the course of the four games last year but never played during the season. He'll have a chance to see a lot of action after Hyde, with Hampton's big break possibly awaiting him if Hyde struggles. Alfonso Smith and Glen Winston provide depth to get through the offseason and should see time with the special teams.
Filling in for an All-Pro Linebacker: Simply put, the Niners will not duplicate NaVarro Bowman's production. Yet, the 49ers have shown us time and time again that they are not just a team made up of stars, but a team with depth, who has the ability to develop players on the defensive side. Linebackers Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland have drawn early praise and look to make a significant mark at the position. With neither player giving an inch, a committee could be the way to go, however with Wilhoite entering his third year in the league, he may have the inside track to start and take a 60-40 split out the gate. Dan Skuta looks to compete and take a few snaps as well.
Chris Culliver: The fourth-year pro out of South Carolina returns to action after missing all of the 2013 season due to a torn ACL. Culliver is expected to start opposite of Tramaine Brock after the departures of Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers. Culliver has shown off his talent in bunches two seasons ago but has little experience as a starter. Before missing all of last year, Culliver had played 32 regular season games, but only started six of them over a span of two seasons. It will be interesting to see how well Culliver has recovered from his injury as well as play alongside a brand new secondary to him. The last game Culliver appeared in was Super Bowl XLVII and at the time, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson were the two safeties but will enter this season alongside Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea.
Taking one on the nose: After defensive lineman Glen Dorsey suffered a torn bicep, the Niners took a severe blow at the nose tackle position. Dorsey was significant part in helping the Niners defend against the run, especially up the middle. Dorsey reinvented himself after not living up to expectations in Kansas City. Dorsey jumped into the starting role after Ian Williams broke his fibula in week two. Williams has yet to practice and some are getting nervous about how early he will return. Quinton Dial and Mike Purcell will get the first crack at filling in. This position could be a major one that flies under the radar as the Niners revamp the secondary, await the commissioners decision on Aldon Smith and will try to patch up the whole left by Bowman's injury. Dorsey was originally expected to receive season ending surgery, but has held off so far and could return at some point in November.
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Tags: Carlos Hyde, Chris Borland, Chris Culliver, Football, Frank Gore, Glen Dorsey, Ian Williams, NFL, Quinton Dial, San Francisco, San Francisco 49ers, Tramaine Brock