49ers: Five things to watch against Denver

49ers-Broncos: Three stories to follow - Jenkins, Daniels, James

49ers: Five things to watch against Denver
August 8, 2013, 12:00 pm
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A.J. Jenkins (left) and LaMichael James will both start Thursday's preseason opener against Denver. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

A.J. Jenkins must demonstrate a sense of urgency to win the trust of the coaching staff. His every move will be scrutinized. (AP)

Veteran Colt McCoy is being challenged by two quarterbacks who have never taken an NFL snap. (AP)

Editor's note: Training camp is underway. For all the latest news from Santa Clara, check out our 49ers training camp page

SAN FRANCISCO -- Coach Jim Harbaugh reluctantly divulged veteran running back Frank Gore will not play and quarterback Colin Kaepernick will see only a series or two of action Thursday night.

[NEWS: 49ers sign CB Eric Wright]

Harbaugh, instead, wanted to share what he views as being significant about the 49ers' 6 p.m. exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park.

"This feels unlike any other preseason game, certainly any other first preseason game of the year," Harbaugh said. "(At) almost every position group there is a fight for either a starting spot, a backup spot, to make the team, more so than I can ever remember the last two years."

While most of the 49ers' starting lineup is set, there are still plenty of things to watch in the exhibition opener:

1. A.J. Jenkins: Were the 49ers attempting to light a fire under Jenkins with the additions of veterans Lavelle Hawkins and Austin Collie last week? Perhaps not, but those players unquestionably supply Jenkins with more competition to earn a role in the 49ers' offense.

Jenkins was the 49ers' first-round draft pick a year ago. He remained healthy the entire season but did not catch a pass despite injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham.

"He needs play time," Harbaugh said.

[RELATED: Daniel Kilgore aims to remain with starting unit]

And Jenkins should get that during the exhibition season. He must demonstrate a sense of urgency to win the trust of the coaching staff. His every move will be scrutinized.

Jenkins is likely to start, and should receive a lot of playing time. Rookie Quinton Patton (left index finger) will not play. Williams, who's been limited with a hamstring strain, might sit it out, too. And don't expect starting flanker Anquan Boldin to see much (if any) action, either.

Boldin is the confirmed No. 1 wide receiver. After Boldin, it's wide open among the 49ers' wide receivers.

2. LaMichael James: He is likely to start Thursday at running back. He has done a good job in training camp, catching balls out of the backfield and showing much-improvement in blocking drills.

The 49ers must replace Ted Ginn on punt returns, and James will be the first option.

He struggled mightily in that area as a rookie with four mishandled punts in four exhibition games. James has spent the past year working with special teams coordinator Brad Seely and assistant Tracy Smith.

James' confidence has grown, but he will be tested in the first exhibition game. The winds at Candlestick Park are fierce in August, so James does not face an easy task.

3. Backup quarterback: Harbaugh said the race is even for the No. 2 job behind Kaepernick. Veteran Colt McCoy is being challenged by two quarterbacks who have never taken an NFL snap: Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels.

[RELATED: Harbaugh: Race for backup QB job is 'even']

Daniels is the one to watch. He is adept at running the read option, and he has the second-strongest throwing arm on the team. But what makes Daniels unique is his versatility.

Daniels has been seen running routes as a wide receiver, taking handoffs and blocking as a running back. He has also worked on punt and kickoff returns. But, ultimately, his ticket to a roster spot could hinge on how well he plays quarterback.

4. Cornerback competition: With Chris Culliver out for the season with a torn ACL, the 49ers must find a new No. 3 cornerback. Tramaine Brock gets the first opportunity. This is a job he won in 2011. He recorded interceptions in the 49ers' first two games before he was sidelined with a broken hand. Culliver stepped in and Brock was never able to get back his job.

Nnamdi Asomugha is battling for a role. The 49ers signed Asomugha after the Philadelphia Eagles released him. He was awarded no guaranteed money and no guarantees of a roster spot. Asomugha is in the unique position of competing for a job. He must prove that he is capable of running with NFL wide receivers to insert himself into the mix for the No. 3 job.

[RELATED: Undrafted rookie D.J. Harper gets high praise]

5. Defensive line: Those who just assume the 49ers are going to create more of a rotation this season along the defensive line must not be familiar with coordinator Vic Fangio.

"You play your good players as much as you can," he said.

In other words, the 49ers are not going to set up a rotation on the defensive line if Fangio believes there is a significant drop-off from the starters to the reserves.

[RELATED: Okoye must improve to reach level of 'bad']

Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey are engaged in a competition to replace Isaac Sopoaga as the starting nose tackle. But there's a lot more to watch than the two players who are battling for playing time on base downs. In addition, both players could see action in the 49ers' nickel defense.

Demarcus Dobbs is likely to gain the starting assignment in place of Justin Smith, who is not expected to play due to a finger injury. Will Tukuafu will also see significant playing time.

Newcomer Lawrence Okoye (shown, right) could give you a reason to watch the game in the fourth quarter. A year ago, he threw the discuss for Britain in the Summer Olympics. On Thursday, he will play is first game of American football.

He is extremely raw, but his athleticism at 6 foot 6, 304 pounds is obvious. It could be a rough night for Okoye, but it'll give him a much-needed gauge of what it's like to play a real game against others competing for spots on an NFL roster.