49ers enter preseason with key injuries

SANTA CLARA - The 49ers limp into their first preseason game after doing everything they could to stay healthy during training camp.

They didn't tackle, nor did they scrimmage for more than an hour a day. The practices were relatively light. And yet, six starters on defense went down: Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, K'Waun Williams, Jason Verrett and Jimmie Ward.

Now, the 49ers must take extra precautions and make sure no one else gets injured during an exhibition game, just so they can field a competitive team Week 1 of the regular season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Here are five things to know about the 49ers as they begin their exhibition game schedule with Saturday night's home game against the Dallas Cowboys.

1. Nick Bosa will miss every exhibition game and possibly the regular season opener, too.

He's hurt again.

The 49ers' first-round pick, who tore his ACL his senior year of high school, tore a bilateral core muscle in 2018 at Ohio State and then pulled his hamstring during his first OTA with the 49ers, will miss more time. He injured his ankle Wednesday during practice.

“We had a big man fall on (Bosa's) leg,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said on KNBR. “Our gut reaction was he was going to miss the year, and then we found out it was the ankle with some high-ankle components. It's not a major one - any time you get a major high ankle, it could be a while. It's a pretty minor one. But anytime you're dealing with a high ankle, it's never THAT minor. We're hoping for Week 1. We think he has a good chance for it, but can't guarantee that.”

Former 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster suffered a high-ankle sprain in 2017. His injury took six weeks to heal. If Bosa misses six weeks, he will miss the season opener. But his father, John Bosa, doesn't expect Nick to miss that much time.

“The grade of the MRI was the lowest grade,” John Bosa said on 95.7 The Game. “The X-rays were clean. There's no bone chip or things like that. But a high-ankle sprain takes time, and so I don't know if that means three or four weeks, but I'm pretty confident that he'll heal up and be ready for Tampa.”

2. Dee Ford's injury might be more troubling than Bosa's.

At least Bosa made it through nine camp practices. Ford made it through only three.

Ford, 28, has knee tendinitis.

“He says it happens about every camp and then usually goes away,” Shanahan said.

Unlike Bosa, whose ankle sprain will heal eventually, Ford will have tendinitis the rest of his career. Last week, his knee required a platelet-rich-plasma injection. He will miss at least the first preseason game, according to Shanahan.

Did the 49ers know Ford had tendinitis before they acquired him from the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2020 second-round pick, then gave him a five-year, $87.5 million extension?

“I mean, you get every medical report that they've ever had from their trainers and stuff, and that's been on lists and everything,” Shanahan said. “So, you hear about all of that.”

So, the 49ers knew.

Maybe now it's clear why the Chiefs didn't offer the linebacker a long-term contract extension, and instead gave him the one-year franchise tag, then traded him to the 49ers. Perhaps they were worried about his knee.

“Talking to (Ford), it doesn't seem like a cause for concern,” Shanahan said.

3. Jerick McKinnon's career might be in jeopardy.

His recovery from ACL surgery hasn't gone well.

The 49ers gave McKinnon a four-year, $30 million contract in 2018, made him the seventh-highest paid running back in the NFL. Then, last September, just before the regular season, he tore his right ACL.

McKinnon wanted to be healthy for the first day of training camp, but he had a setback with his knee and missed the first two weeks. When he returned to camp, he lasted two days on the field before he had another setback with his knee. And now, he will miss at least another two weeks.

“(McKinnon) is the guy we've got to be careful with,” Shanahan said. “He'll have 18 days (to practice) before Week 1. If he's ready, that'll be great. If not, we'll be patient with him.”

In this case, patient means potentially placing McKinnon on the injured reserve list to start the regular season.

“I hope that doesn't happen,” Shanahan said. “But that's an option with anybody. Those are tough decisions you've got to make.”

If McKinnon starts the season on IR, he can join the 53-man roster after Week 8. If he's not healthy enough by Week 9, he may never be healthy enough.

4. Jimmy Garoppolo won't play in the preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

The 49ers don't feel he's quite ready to face live action. Garoppolo hasn't played live football since Sept. 23, when he tore his left ACL.

“I expect (Garoppolo) to definitely play in (preseason games) two and three,” Shanahan said. “But nothing's mapped out and set in stone yet. We kind of take it day by day with that.”

Garoppolo has seemed rusty at times during camp, but mostly has played well. Through 11 camp practices, he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions - almost a four-to-one ratio.

His completion percentage has been just 57%, primarily because he hasn't connected well with his starting running back, Tevin Coleman, and wide receivers Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin.

When throwing to those three players, Garoppolo's completion percentage in camp has been just 40.3.

They will have time on the field together during preseason to build chemistry.

5. Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard will compete for the No. 2 quarterback job.

The winner of the competition will be Garoppolo's backup. The loser may not make the final roster if Shanahan decides to keep only two quarterbacks.

So, who is winning the competition?

“I wouldn't say anyone has the edge,” Shanahan said.

Maybe he was being diplomatic, because Mullens clearly has the edge. He has completed 65 of 102 pass attempts (63.7%), and thrown seven touchdown passes and just one interception during camp. Meanwhile, Beathard has completed 55 of 94 pass attempts (58.5%), and thrown five touchdown passes and a whopping four interceptions in camp.

Mullens has outperformed Beathard in real games, too. Beathard's career passer rating is just 74.6 - Mullens' is 90.8.

“Everything I was doing last year as far as going through progressions and trying to put the ball in the right spot, all of that stuff, I'm seeing it one step quicker,” Mullens explained. “Not before the snap, but right when I get the ball in my hands.”

Mullens exudes extreme confidence. And general manager John Lynch likes that about him.

“The thing we've learned inside this building, don't put limitations on this guy,” Lynch told KNBR. “He's got that element where he's not going to wilt under pressure. He's just got something special to him. He improved his throwing mechanics, he's got a little more juice (on his throws now). Nick is playing at a high level, and that's a good thing.”

Let the best backup win.

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