49ers’ end-of-preseason dilemma: Play starters, or sit them?

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has risk-reward conundrum when it comes to last preseason game vs. Chargers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers will have one more training camp practice on Wednesday before implementing a rudimentary game plan in order to finish the preseason against the Los Angeles Chargers as healthy as possible.

Coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t ready to say who would and wouldn’t take the field at 7 p.m. Friday night at Levi’s Stadium.

Shanahan, like every other NFL coach, is dealing with the same problem. Practice repetitions and preseason game reps (which are essentially elevated practice reps) are how players improve incrementally.

Is it really worth putting a player who is just a little bit better at risk for being available when the 49ers open the regular season on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 10?

Shanahan said after the 49ers’ 21-20 win over Denver last weekend that he expected the starters to play against the Chargers. He told the media on Tuesday that he was waiting in practice sessions to figure out how to approach the Chargers game.

Center Jake Brendel stated that it was his understanding that the starters would get some playing time.

“In years past, we used to have four (preseason games),” Brendel explained. “Some teams do it like we do, where you bring in starters in the second and third games.” But it appears that we’ll get a good amount of snaps on Friday.”

When asked why a team with so many established starters as the 49ers would play them in the final preseason game, Shanahan admitted it was a difficult decision.

“It’s about having guys who are ready to play a real football game,” Shanahan explained. “And there’s so much that goes into being mentally and physically prepared.” You can’t have any reservations. When Week 1 begins, people notice, and you can quickly lose games by being a little off.”

After one drive and nine snaps against the Broncos, it’s unclear whether quarterback Brock Purdy will play. He enters the season as the undisputed starter, and many NFL coaches are choosing to err on the side of caution.

Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia), Jared Goff (Detroit), Justin Herbert (L.A. Chargers), Joe Burrow (Cincinnati), Kirk Cousins (Minnesota), Dak Prescott (Dallas), Aaron Rodgers (N.Y. Jets), Lamar Jackson (Baltimore), Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee), and Matthew Stafford (L.A.

Rodgers will face the New York Giants in the final preseason game, according to Jets coach Robert Saleh, because “you can’t coach scared, you can’t play scared.” You can get out of your car and something bad can happen to you. Everyone will be fine, knock on wood.”

That doesn’t change the fact that Rodgers has yet to play, and that he won’t play much against the Giants as long as he can get out of his car without incident.

When it comes to preseason snaps for his quarterback, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is not following the crowd. In two games, Patrick Mahomes, the current gold standard at the position, has played 26 snaps and thrown 17 passes.

Mahomes, on the other hand, is an outlier. Prospective backups (Aiden O’Connell of the Raiders has 80 snaps) or projected rookie starters such as C.J. Stroud of Houston (34), Bryce Young of Carolina (32) and Anthony Richardson of Indianapolis (29).

Green Bay’s Jordan Love, who is filling in for Rodgers this season, has taken 29 snaps.

Shanahan, for one, is old enough to believe that practice is important but modern enough to understand that losing high-priced talent in a game that doesn’t count outweighs Week 1 precision.

“You kind of build that with experience over the course of your career,” Shanahan explained. “I’ve had guys sit out preseason games and then fumble on the first play they get in, and you kick yourself in the buttocks, like, ‘What was I doing?'” You also play guys who get hurt and you wonder, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ There are no absolutes in this.”

The 49ers’ offensive line is back in full force, with Colton McKivitz taking over at right tackle for Mike McGlinchey. McKivitz has been on the roster, and the 49ers’ offensive line has been healthy and cohesive throughout camp.

However, the Chargers play a 3-4 base defense, while the 49ers practice with a 4-3. Pittsburgh, the opponent in Week 1, has a 3-4 record. Brendel believes that the limited game action on Friday night will be worthwhile.

“It’s a similar defense,” said Brendel. ‘Obviously, they don’t have the same players, but the scheme is similar. We usually go through a 4-3 against our own scheme, so seeing a 3-4 is always welcome.”

The best guess for Friday night is that Purdy will play briefly, as he did against Denver. It’s unlikely to see tight ends Trent Williams, Christian McCaffrey, or George Kittle. Any player who has been injured, such as Elijah Mitchell, will most likely sit out. Some starters may see limited action before taking the rest of the night off.

It all depends on what Shanahan sees during the final camp practices, as well as what his gut tells him about risk vs. reward.

“All that stuff goes into it, and you really don’t know until it’s all over what the right decision was,” Shanahan explained. “That’s why making those decisions isn’t always fun.” But I also know that if you just sit everyone and don’t practice football, you’re doing your guys a disservice.”

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