The return of NFL football kicks into full gear this week and continues with a battle between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. Preseason games are a time for teams to find out exactly who will be playing for them, whether it be specialists, rotational guys, or full time starters. Below, PFF’s team of analysts have all the most important position battles and players to watch during today’s game.
Coverage by: David Neumann
Position Battle: Joshua Garnett/Daniel Kilgore/Brandon Fusco, Interior OL
Entering training camp, thein San Francisco and little has changed as the team prepares for its preseason opener. Joshua Garnett (LG), Daniel Kilgore (C) and Brandon Fusco (RG) had been pencilled in with the starting unit for most of camp, however, a knee injury to Garnett requiring minor surgery means it’s unlikely we’ll see that trio on the field come Week 1.
With Garnett likely to miss the entire preseason, Zane Beadles has stepped in to his spot with the first-team. Both players struggled a season ago as the 49ers’ primary starting guards, recording identical 39.5 overall grades that ranked them among just seven qualifying guards (out of 73) with an overall grade below 40.0. Pass protection was especially problematic, as Beadles allowed 36 quarterback pressures on 453 pass block snaps, good for a 93.8 pass blocking efficiency that ranked 69th — one spot ahead of Garnett (93.2).
Reuben Foster, LB
Selected with the 31st overall selection in this year’s draft, Foster finished the draft process as the No. 5 overall player on the PFF Big Board and is in position to provide an immediate upgrade to a linebacking corps that was one of the league’s worst a season ago. Foster’s 95.2 overall grade during his final college season was the second-highest earned by a linebacker since PFF began grading college games in 2014.
Joe Williams & Matt Breida, RB
Williams, a fourth-round selection out of Utah, brings a big-play element to the 49ers’ backfield. His 670 rushing yards on breakaway runs (those gaining 15 yards or more) during his final college season were the 15th-most among FBS running backs. Utah had one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in college football in 2016, something that cannot be said for the 49ers.
Breida’s production took a hit during his final season, but in the two years previous, Breida showed off an intriguing combination of big-play ability and toughness to generate yards after contact. Breida’s 3.61 yards after contact per attempt in 2015 was eighth-best figure among 51 qualifying FBS running backs.
Trent Taylor, WR
Few receivers in college football were as prolific from the slot as Trent Taylor. Taylor led the nation in routes run from the slot (528), slot targets (163), slot receptions (131) and slot yardage (1,734). It wasn’t all volume either, as Taylor’s 3.28 yards per route run from the slot ranked fourth out of 190 wide receivers with at least 132 slot routes run.
Coverage by: Mike Guerrelli
Positional Battle: Steven Nelson/Terrance Mitchell/Phillip Gaines, CB
The Chiefs have All-Pro Marcus Peters locked in at left cornerback, but the other cornerback spots are not set in stone yet. Steven Nelson played 1077 snaps in 2016 with 724 of them in slot. Nelson’s 63.3 PFF grade ranked 66th out of 110 qualifying cornerbacks. He was better inside allowing 0.89 yards per cover snap in the slot, compared to 2.08 elsewhere.
When Kansas City played nickel at the end of last season Terrance Mitchell manned the right side, playing 279 of his 295 snaps at right cornerback. Mitchell recorded an 82.7 PFF grade from Weeks 13 through 17, allowing 0.93 yards per cover snap (29th out of 87 corners that played 100+ snaps during those weeks).
Phillip Gaines is looking to regain the job he lost last year, playing 349 of his 449 snaps at right cornerback before being replaced by Mitchell. Gaines posted a career low 34.8 grade in 2016 that ranked 108th of 110 qualifying cornerbacks. D.J. White and Kenneth Acker will also push for playing time, with White logging 138 snaps as a rookie in 2016, and Acker playing 147 snaps after being acquired in a trade from the 49ers.
The Chiefs will get their first look at their quarterback of the future after trading up in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to get Mahomes. He was the fifth highest graded quarterback in FBS in 2016 with a PFF grade of 89.9. Mahomes used his elite arm strength to pass for 1281 yards on deep throws (targets over 20 yards downfield) last season at Texas Tech, the seventh highest total in FBS.
Mauga spent 2016 on injured reserve with a shoulder injury after playing 469 snaps in 2015. He could challenge Ramik Wilson for playing time at right inside linebacker if he regains his 2015 form, when his overall PFF grade of 75.9 was 30th out of 90 qualifying linebackers. Mauga was strong in coverage, allowing 0.71 yards per cover snap, seventh best out of 50 inside linebackers that had at least 200 snaps in coverage.
Hunt was drafted in the third round this year and has the ability to be an every down back in the NFL. Last year at Toledo he forced 98 missed tackles, tied for the most in FBS in 2016. Hunt caught all 41 catchable targets he had last season, the most in FBS without a drop. He should begin as the Chiefs passing down back, but eventually could challenge Spencer Ware for playing time.