Ronnie Bell

Seven young 49ers to watch in 2023 NFL preseason opener vs. Raiders

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When the 49ers and Las Vegas Raiders meet in the preseason opener for both teams Sunday, it will be the second game between the teams over the course of four days.

The starters played what amounted to a full game over two days of joint practices at the Raiders training facility in Henderson, Nevada.

On Thursday and Friday, Brock Purdy and Jimmy Garoppolo led their respective teams. The 49ers got a game’s worth of work for Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams, Javon Hargrave, Fred Warner and . . . well, you know all the names.

All eyes, of course, will be on the competition for the 49ers’ backup quarterback job between Trey Lance and Sam Darnold during Sunday's game.

There will be many others vying for specialized roles or backup duty.

Here are some of the 49ers to watch when the game kicks off at 1 p.m. PT on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium:

WR Ronnie Bell -- No. 10

Bell, a seventh-round draft pick from Michigan, has a difficult challenge to work his way into a position to get regular-season playing time on offense.

But Bell can make an immediate impact for the 49ers on special teams this season. The door opened for him to become the team’s primary punt returner when Ray-Ray McCloud sustained a fractured left wrist.

McCloud underwent surgery and could miss up to eight weeks, potentially sidelining him for four games. The 49ers will need someone to field punts until McCloud is cleared to return.

Bell will get the first opportunity. He returned only 13 punts in college, but he said he is very comfortable in that role. Bell must prove that he is sure-handed and reliable during the preseason to win the job.

CB Ambry Thomas -- No. 20

Coming off a disastrous second NFL season in which he tumbled down the depth chart, the onus is on Thomas to prove he is worthy of a roster spot.

Thomas gained weight and strength this offseason. He also looks like a more assertive player than last season, when he failed to capitalize on the momentum of a promising end to his rookie year.

Thomas has the talent that prompted the 49ers to select him in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Now, he must carry it over to competitive situations to win a spot on the regular-season roster.

TE Cameron Latu -- No. 81

We declared it’s been an up-and-down training camp for Latu, whom the 49ers selected in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft. But, let’s be honest, it’s been mostly down.

Latu admits to being overwhelmed with his myriad of responsibilities and a daunting playbook. He has looked unsure of himself and thinking his way through his every movement instead of just going out and playing with a clear mind.

Latu dropped a pass in the end zone at the conclusion of practice Thursday. But he appeared to come back strong on Friday with a couple of receptions from Lance, including an 8-yard touchdown during a 7-on-7 session.

With a good effort — both physically and mentally — Latu can take a big step in the right direction as he battles for a role on the team.

CB Samual Womack -- No. 0

Womack had a solid first two weeks of training camp. Then, he took an even greater step forward during the two days of practices against the Raiders.

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks lamented a play in which Womack failed to make a play because he gave a receiver too much space inside and did not properly take advantage of the sideline to make the play more difficult on the Raiders’ offense.

“You've seen him throughout camp, and you also saw him this week, the last two days, he's stepping up.” Wilks said. “So (I’m) looking forward to him having a great game.”

K Jake Moody -- No. 4

It was surprising to some folks when the 49ers selected Moody, a kicker from Michigan, in the third round with the No. 99 overall selection.

The 49ers have kept veteran Zane Gonzalez on their 90-man roster, but don’t be fooled: There is no competition. The 49ers are hoping to flip Gonzalez for a draft pick as the countdown continues to final cuts.

Moody’s leg strength is impressive. He provides the 49ers with more range than Robbie Gould.

But will Moody come close to the consistency with which Gould kicked the ball during his six seasons with the club?

Yes, it’s just the preseason. But kickers are a different animal. Confidence is everything, so it’s important for Moody to experience success from the beginning.

CB D’Shawn Jamison -- No. 22

Yes, we’re highlighting yet another cornerback.

Jamison came to the 49ers as an undrafted rookie from Texas. He has been very steady during training camp, making noticeable progress in his uphill battle to win a roster spot.

“He's done it against us,” Wilks said. “He made some plays out here this week. But in a game-like situation, will he step up? I think he will, but hopefully he'll show up because he has done some great things for us.”

Jamison also factors into the equation as a return man with McCloud out of action.

He played five seasons of college football and did not handle any of the return chores last season. But in his first four years, he averaged 26.8 yards and scored two touchdowns on 53 kickoff returns while averaging 8.3 yards with one touchdown on 43 punt returns.

RB Ty Davis-Price -- No. 32

Davis-Price ended his rookie season as the team’s No. 4 running back behind Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell and undrafted Jordan Mason.

It will be difficult for Davis-Price to move ahead of any of those players, but he has positioned himself a lot better than a year ago. The 49ers selected Davis-Price in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

“At times last year, it just didn't feel like it was the guy we watched in college,” 49ers general manger John Lynch said recently. “But, man, it's been a complete turnaround.”

Davis-Price is running with more decisiveness and aggression, and he’s shown to be improved as a blocker and receiver out of the backfield. He should get plenty of action during the preseason to prove whether he deserves to move up the depth chart.

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