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Garoppolo start among 10 things to watch when 49ers play Broncos in preseason Week 2

Chris Biderman

The 49ers had two productive practices with the Broncos on Friday and Saturday. The well-connected teams will play a preseason game Monday night, which will likely be less beneficial than those training camp sessions but still notable nonetheless.

Let’s preview the second of San Francisco’s four preseason games (ugh) with 10 things to keep an eye on:

1. Jimmy Garoppolo, duh

Coach Kyle Shanahan will start San Francisco’s franchise quarterback for the first time since Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL last September, though how much Shanahan plans to play Garoppolo will depend on the film from the two sessions and health of the offensive line.

Garoppolo was mostly sharp, save for a bad interception Friday, to bounce back from his five-interception practice against his own team Wednesday. The key for Garoppolo is balancing when to make risky throws versus playing it safe. Getting that feel can only come from playing.

The best bet: Garoppolo plays only a series or two before getting more time next week in, gulp, Kansas City.

2. The Hot Boys

You might have read about the 49ers’ defense bringing way more intensity than Denver’s offense Friday. That could largely be attributed to the “Hot Boys,” the new moniker for San Francisco’s inside linebackers, Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner. They’ve taken it on themselves to elevate the energy level every time the defense takes the field, whether that’s in practice or a preseason game. That emotional lift has been lacking from San Francisco’s defense in recent seasons.

Warner and Alexander watched last week’s exhibition opener in street clothes. Monday could mark their debut in game action.

3. Dante Pettis and the receivers

The talking point coming out of last week’s game was that Dante Pettis was forced to play while 28 teammates were held out. That was a clear signal Shanahan needs to see more from the second-year wideout, who was challenged physically and verbally during the practices with the Broncos.

We know Pettis is a good fit for Shanahan’s offense, given his route running and knack for getting open. But we haven’t seen Pettis earn the trust from the quarterbacks in tight-window situations where he has to play stronger to make contested catches. He could use as much work with Garoppolo as possible.

It’s also worth keeping tabs on Jordan Matthews, Richie James Jr. and Kendrick Bourne, as the battle to make the team rolls on.

4. Will the pass rush bother Flacco, like in practice?

The 49ers’ defensive line was problematic for quarterback Joe Flacco and the Broncos even while Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were on the sideline rehabbing injuries.

Don’t expect DeForest Buckner to play much, if at all. But Monday’s game could be another opportunity for key players such as Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead to continuing ramping up for the regular season. Thomas has quietly been solid throughout training camp and will be an X-factor for the defensive line, particularly if his workload increases due to absences from Ford and Bosa. Armstead didn’t play last week, either, so Monday night could be his first shot at showing off his renewed confidence.

5. Offensive line depth

The 49ers are without starting center Weston Richburg (knee/quad), starting right guard Mike Person (foot), top interior backup Joshua Garnett (dislocated finger) and top swing tackle Shon Coleman (lower leg/ankle). So they need players further down the depth chart to develop.

Ben Garland has been playing center but was brought in to be a top backup. Najee Toran would be the favorite to start for Person as long as Garnett is out, though Daniel Brunskill also saw time with the first team in practice. Sam Young was signed off the street to replace Coleman.

The 49ers might have to find options outside the organization during final cuts if these players don’t distinguish themselves.

6. Moore’s case to start

There aren’t many battles brewing for starting jobs, but free safety is the notable exception. Second-year pro Tarvarius Moore is forcing the 49ers to think about starting him over Jimmie Ward, who hasn’t participated in team drills since fracturing a collarbone in May.

Moore has been a quick study and has all the physical traits needed to win a starting gig. But he still needs to prove he can be assignment sound, given the importance of his “eraser” position as the last line of defense.

The coaching staff loves Ward despite his penchant for breaking bones, but Moore might have the edge in physical upside and is a candidate to be a long-term starter down the road.

Can he earn that job now? Or will it go to Ward, who’s entering a contract year?

7. A nickel for your thoughts

The 49ers are hopeful their top nickel cornerback, K’Waun Williams, can come back from his knee injury in time for the regular season. If not, it appears Emmanuel Moseley would fill in.

Moseley has worked there with the starters since Williams went down and has played well.

But if Moore wins the starting free safety job, might the coaching staff consider moving Ward back to the slot, where he began his pro career? It’s not out of the question, particularly if the emphasis is getting the best players on the field. Moseley needs to play well to fend off that possibility.

8. The backup tight end vacuum

George Kittle isn’t concerned about his calf injury. He told The Bee in Denver he’d be able to play if the regular season started tomorrow, but it doesn’t and we’re still three weeks away from Week 1.

In the meantime, there’s a competitive battle to fill out the tight end group. Sixth-round pick Kaden Smith and Ross Dwelley seem to be the favorites, but undrafted free agent Tyree Mayfield’s athleticism and special-teams versatility could make him appealing.

The 49ers are also without Levin Toilolo because of a shoulder issue, so expect Smith and Dwelley to get most of the playing time to help clarify the battle behind Kittle.

9. A running back unlike the others

Nearly all the 49ers’ running backs are small-ish speedsters, save for second-year pro Jeff Wilson Jr., who returned to practice this week after a calf injury sidelined him early in camp. Wilson makes up for his lack of speed and elusiveness with physicality. He played particularly well Friday carrying the rock and on special teams.

Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert should give Shanahan enough depth to survive a prolonged absence from Jerick McKinnon, who’s status remains uncertain after receiving platelet-rich plasma injections in his knee.

But one more injury could mean a lot for Wilson’s battle to make the team. Expect him to get plenty of carries Monday night while splitting the load with Austin Walter and Brandon Wilds.

10. The backup quarterback battle

The signs might be pointing to Nick Mullens grabbing hold of the competition to back up Garoppolo soon. Monday’s game could bring a little more clarity to that competition.

Shanahan said C.J. Beathard will follow Garoppolo after Mullens started the opener. Their stat lines were nearly identical, and Shanahan said he didn’t think one player distinguished himself from the other.

But keep in mind, Mullens broke down the huddle before the game (that stuff matters) and has been the more galvanizing presence. If there’s a tiebreaker — aside from Mullens’ advantage in production in 2018 — that might be it.