With all 49ers starters resting for the preseason finale, Thursday night’s contest against the San Diego Chargers was more of a final audition for those seeking backup roles and playing time in the regular season.
Though the 49ers have until 1 p.m. Saturday to trim their roster from 75 to 53, last night’s display apparently made an impression on Tomsula, as veteran 49ers DL Darnell Dockett, S Craig Dahl and OL Joe Looney were deemed expendable Friday morning.
Perhaps the most interesting of these cuts was the release of three-time Pro Bowl player, DL Darnell Dockett.
The 49ers signed Dockett to a two-year, $2.75 million contract during this year’s free-agency, but he saw little time on the field this preseason as he continued to work his way back from a torn ACL.
While it appeared Tomsula was granting the 34-year old some veteran privileges, it appears as if the former defensive line coach may have instead been assessing the state of his younger contingency.
Glenn Dorsey, Ian William and Quinton Dial have all stepped up to form a stout wall of opposition for opposing offenses this preseason, solidifying their starting roles in base downs of the 49ers 3-4 defense. And the 49ers aren’t short of blossoming talent behind the trio as well.
Tank Carradine, first-round draft pick Arik Armstead and Tony Jerod-Eddie — whose versatility at OLB last night helped him escape cuts so far — offer the 49ers a wealth of depth and talent across their line.
Carradine has already showed the flashes of strength and ability needed to be a productive NFL pass rusher while the 49ers mold the raw Armstead into a starting defensive lineman.
Throw in the emerging Mike Purcell, whose extraordinary growth has made him a star of the preseason, and the decision to cut Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowler with 40.5 career sacks, may not seem so crazy.
Without serious playoff expectations, it makes sense Tomsula would want to stick with and develop the young defensive linemen he has built up over the last few years as the defensive line coach.
The 49ers will miss the veteran savvy and wisdom that Dockett could have brought, especially in the wake of the mass exodus the 49ers suffered this offseason. But it was a smart move to continue to let Tomsula work his magic on a young core of players — and it’s a lot cheaper, too.
Another group of young talent made Dahl expendable, an eight-year veteran of the NFL who had spent the last two seasons as the backup safety playing mostly on special teams. Tomsula found Dahl’s services unnecessary as a young core of safeties continued to excel during the preseason.
Highlighting this group has been second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt, whose heavy-hitting and versatility has made him a preseason standout. Tartt has shown ability to stick to wide receivers in coverage while also charging the box to stuff opponents’ run games with his big-hit style.
Tartt’s versatility has also shown when brought in as an inside linebacker in dime and exotic packages for San Francisco, offering the defense a new look to keep opponents on their heels.
First-round pick Jimmie Ward is also looking toward his first impactful season following an injury-plagued rookie year. Primarly a slot-corner last year, Ward was originally a safety for Northern Illinois, adding depth to the young group.
The 49ers got their first look at what could be Thursday night as both Tartt and Ward — who were best friends growing up — received starting nods at safety with Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid sitting out the game.
Finally, offensive lineman Joe Looney was among those cut early Friday morning, leaving depth at center very thin. Marcus Martin will apparently be the starting center, though Looney originally received reps at that position with the first team earlier in camp.
Until C Daniel Kilgore is available to come of the PUP list after six weeks of play, it is unclear who the 49ers will work in as their backup center behind Martin. Looney had been labeled as the “most natural center” of the group during training camp by OC Geep Chryst.
The 49ers could be banking heavily on picking up an offensive lineman or two during the next rounds of roster cuts. Look for a versatile player who can play center position until Kilgore returns.