5 takeaways: 49ers preseason opener vs. Dallas Cowboys
Receiver Trent Taylor has been a reason for 49ers optimism this August.
Taylor was one of the toughest covers for defenders while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo often targeted him during red zone drills. He was looking like the player from 2017, when he showed so much promise as a rookie, not like the version last season that was hampered by back surgery.
Yet Taylor’s name on Saturday was added to San Francisco’s growing list of injured players who could miss Week 1 exactly four weeks from Sunday. He suffered a Jones fracture and had stabilizing hardware surgically placed into his foot. The injury leaves a four-to-six week void at a crucial position in the offense.
On the bright side, a replacement might be emerging. Rookie third-round draft pick Jalen Hurd, who is roughly 7 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Taylor, caught two touchdowns in his NFL debut during Saturday’s 17-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys to begin the preseason.
Hurd’s first catch was a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter which culminated in running over 223-pound safety Kavon Frazier to cross the goal line. Hurd, a former Tennessee running back who switched to receiver with Baylor in 2018, channeled his mindset from his former position to reach pay dirt.
“I’m used to D-tackles, 320 (pounds),” Hurd said. “When you get hit from them, that’s a little different.”
Hurd scored a second touchdown early in the fourth quarter coming on a fade route from C.J. Beathard. He jumped over 6-foot-2 cornerback Tyvis Powell, who spent last season with San Francisco, to haul in the score on the left side of the end zone.
“It’s a quarterback’s dream to have a guy like that that will go up and make plays for you,” Beathard said. “He’s tough over the middle. You see what he does after he gets the ball in his hands. He’s tough to tackle.”
While Taylor has been a favorite target from Garoppolo, he’s unlikely to run through big safeties or jump over tall cornerbacks for jump balls like Hurd did Saturday. To be sure, Hurd, who says he weighs over 230 pounds, can’t get open in small spaces or beat man-to-man coverage with slippery moves like Taylor can.
Hurd finished with three catches for 31 yards – and he might be needed to produce even more during the regular season if Taylor isn’t back by Week 1’s trip to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I was excited about him,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He got a few opportunities, and when he did, he capitalized. ... So he did a good job. Still has a lot of room to improve. But it was a good first time.”
Hurd was more known for getting into skirmishes with defensive backs early in training camp. But he’s been a far more prominent receiving threat in recent practices. He connected with quarterback Nick Mullens on three passes during a two-minute drill in Thursday’s practice, including a long one that set up a “game-winning” touchdown.
Hurd missed nearly all of the offseason program while recovering from a knee injury that kept him from playing in the Senior Bowl in January, where the 49ers first became acquainted with him.
“He wasn’t out there in OTAs, so we were eager to get him out there and he made it out for practice one (of training camp) and he’s been in every one since,” Shanahan said. “He plays very physical. He’s in good shape, runs hard, has strong hands. Just trying to pick up the offense. Had a few mistakes today, but played pretty well and it was a good first night for him.”
Added Hurd: “The coaching staff has been getting me more involved. Just coming off of the injury I had, and then just progressing. They’ve been doing a good job of building me back up. Finally, stuff like this happens tonight. It was a great win though, so I’m proud of that.”
QB battle still lacks drama
Shanahan was asked Saturday if there was any separation between Mullens and Beathard in the battle to back up Jimmy Garoppolo.
“None,” he said.
Mullens received the start and threw a touchdown and an interception. Beathard came in after halftime and also threw for a score and a pick. Mullens completed 11 of 17 passes for 105 yards, though he had two drops from receivers that would have dramatically changed his stat line. Beathard completed 13 of 17 for 141 yards.
So the two remain virtually even in their competition to serve as Garoppolo’s understudy, which has been the case throughout camp.
“I thought both of them made some good plays,” Shanahan said, “but I thought each one of them had one really bad play.”
Mullens in the second quarter tossed a pass right to linebacker Luke Gifford while looking for running back Austin Walter. His highlight was finding Hurd on an easy crossing route created by a play-action bootleg to the right. Beathard was intercepted by safety Donovan Wilson at the Cowboys’ 18-yard line, ending a scoring chance for San Francisco.
Shanahan indicated there wasn’t much thought into making Mullens the starter, pointing out he finished as the starter in 2018. Garoppolo is expected to start the next two preseason games and Beathard will be the second quarterback in during the next game in Denver.
“Me and C.J. are great friends,” Mullens said. “We have a great relationship and we both understand the business. We’re just doing what we’re told. ... We battle, we support each other, and it’s been great so far.”
Coleman likely done for the year
Backup tackle Shon Coleman suffered a gruesome lower right leg injury on the fourth offensive snap of the game. He was carted off the field and his leg required an air cast. The 49ers are expecting him to miss the season, a source said.
Coleman was expected to make the team as the primary “swing” tackle backing up Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey. Coleman started Saturday because both starters were among the 28 players the team made inactive to keep healthy.
Coleman after the game had his leg in a cast and was given a scooter for mobility.
The 49ers traded a seventh-round draft pick for Coleman during final cuts last season and might have to make a similar move before the regular season begins. That is, unless the team is comfortable enough with rookie sixth-rounder Justin Skule in that role. The team is also No. 2 in waiver priority, should a tackle spring available by cutting waived.
▪ Also injured Saturday: defensive tackle D.J. Jones (knee), running back Raheem Mostert (concussion), offensive lineman Najee Toran (hand) and safety Marcell Harris (stinger). The 49ers will have updates on the injuries Monday after players receive further testing.