Sunday night’s exhibition should offer the best view yet whether the 49ers indeed are ready for the regular season, and perhaps a bounce-back one at that.
Here are five signs to study as they visit the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, site of this season’s Super Bowl:
1. Starting offense hiccups. Turnovers, penalties and an overall lack of production are not desired trends under new coach Kyle Shanahan. Through six series, quarterback Brian Hoyer and the first-string unit have delivered: two punts on three-and-out series, two fumbles, an interception and a field goal. Beware of: pre-snap penalties, missed blocks, missed running lanes and footballs slipping from anyone’s hands.
2. Linebackers vs. Cook. Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ slippery rookie tailback, should make for a nice case study in whether the 49ers new inside-linebacker duo of NaVorro Bowman and Reuben Foster are ready to face another rookie in Week 1, Stanford product Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers. Bowman said covering running backs out of the backfield will be a job he and Foster share. Cook, from Florida State, has five receptions (40 yards) and 12 carries (53 yards) in exhibition action.
3. Carlos Hyde’s rhythm. Averaging only 2.6 yards per carry, Hyde needs to get in sync with this outside-zone scheme, seeing how he wants to lead the league in rushing yards as a contract-year statement. What he also needs is a healthy finish to the exhibition season, presuming he and other starters are held out of next Thursday’s game against San Diego. If Hyde struggles, do the 49ers find other backs more appealing, including Tim Hightower, Raheem Mostert and rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida?
4. Defensive front auditions. Will Eli Harold beat out Ahmad Brooks at strong-side linebacker? Who can win roster spots on the interior from a hodgepodge including Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial, Chris Jones, D.J. Jones and newcomer Sen’Derrick Marks, who signed Wednesday and isn’t nearly in game shape? Is Tank Carradine really emerging as a “near elite” force on the edge, as defensive coordinator Robert Saleh claimed?
5. Rookie show. The 49ers, rebuilding after a 2-14 season, ought to have a bunch of rookies make the club, beyond top picks such as Foster, Williams, defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspon and quarterback C.J. Beathard, who could lock down the No. 2 role as Hoyer’s backup. Keep an eye on how many reps these undrafted rookies get in their best bid to date: Breida, free safety Lorenzo Jerome, offensive lineman Erik Magnuson, tight end Cole Hikutini and wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden.
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