SANTA CLARA — One preseason game left. Sixty minutes of football. Twenty-two players to be cut within five days. It may take a calculus professor to solve all the possibilities, but even a sportswriter can see that the 49ers' final exhibition game — against the Chargers on Thursday — is a big deal to players on the periphery of the 53-man roster.
Asked whether he and his staff have settled on final cuts, 49ers coach Mike Singletary said: "I have a decent idea, but there are some things that the game could influence. They're always a few things that the game could influence and it's just a matter of in that fourth game, it just depends on what jumps out at you."
The 49ers must slim down from 75 players to 53 by Saturday.
The team will practice today and Wednesday, but the big test for young players will come Thursday. Singletary confirmed that his starters will play a series or two, "if that," against San Diego. Most of the snaps will be devoted to the players who need them most — the young, the unproven, the flawed, the potentially expendable.
With an eye to cut day, here are six roster battles to watch:
Brit Miller vs. Jehuu Caulcrick
Frank Gore, Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon figure to be safe among the halfbacks. Michael Robinson is needed for special teams, and Moran Norris is the guy at fullback. The 49ers could stop the backfield there, or they could go with a second fullback. Either Miller or Caulcrick could play regularly on special teams.
Jason Hill vs. Kyle Williams
Count Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn and camp sensation Dominique Zeigler as safe. The next slot could match Hill, a fourth-year veteran who has operated on the periphery of the offense, and Williams, a rookie who can also return kicks. Williams looked to have the edge before he sprained his right big toe, an injury that will keep him out of the Chargers game.
Barry Sims vs. Alex Boone vs. Adam Snyder vs. Tony Wragge
OK, let's walk through the O-line: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Eric Heitmann, Chilo Rachal and Anthony Davis are the projected starters. David Baas should be the center while Heitmann rehabs his broken fibula. Things are wide open after that. Snyder has the most versatility. Wragge is smart and can snap the ball. Sims is the guy NFL teams are always trying to replace, but he proves just valuable enough to keep around. Boone is the up-and-coming tackle, a giant who has yet to tap his potential. The 49ers could keep anywhere from one to four of them.
Demetric Evans vs. Khalif Mitchell
Defensive line is one of the 49ers' thinnest units. Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Aubrayo Franklin are locks. You'd have to figure on Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean Francois, too. It's conceivable the Niners would stop there, but five men don't make much of a rotation. If they keep two more D-linemen, it will probably be Evans and Mitchell. If they keep one, these two will be going toe to toe.
Diyral Briggs vs. Travis LaBoy
Briggs had an excellent camp, and has fared pretty well in exhibition games. LaBoy has been better than OK in games; he has been a terror, including his knockout of Raiders QB Jason Campbell last Saturday. Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes, Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and NaVorro Bowman are set at linebacker. Ahmad Brooks will be there unless his kidney injury is worse than everyone thinks. Matt Wilhelm knows the defense and is a core special-teamer. That's seven, and the 49ers don't normally keep eight.