Final preseason game an opportunity for some 49ers players on the bubble

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SANTA CLARA — For the 49ers’ starters, Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers will be the most forgettable night of the season. The starters won’t even play.

But for the backups, Thursday will be the night their careers end or survive — perhaps their final opportunity to show they belong in the NFL. The exhibition finale is their Super Bowl.

With that in mind, here are five backups to watch closely Thursday night.

1. QB C.J. Beathard

The 49ers took a leap of faith when they traded up for Beathard in the third round of the 2017 draft. Most draft experts considered Beathard a late-round prospect who lacked traits to become a starting quarterback. Only Kyle Shanahan saw Beathard as a future quality starter.

“Every time C.J.’s in there, you’ve got a chance for a big play,” Shanahan said last week. “He loves the big play.”

So far, the experts were right about Beathard. In two seasons, he has started 10 games, his quarterback rating is just 74.6 and his win-loss record is 1-9.

“The numbers aren’t great, but we have a lot of faith in C.J.,” general manager John Lynch said on KNBR Wednesday morning.

Faith is good, but Beathard needs to give the 49ers a legitimate reason to justify their faith Thursday night. He needs to make a case for keeping a third quarterback on the roster. Needs a big performance against the Chargers. Because Nick Mullens, the 49ers’ other backup quarterback, has outplayed Beathard. Mullens’ record is 3-5 — the 49ers know they can win with him. They don’t know they can win with Beathard. They may not need him anymore. No leap of faith required.

2. RB Jeff Wilson Jr.

He spent most of last season on the practice squad. In November, the 49ers promoted him to the active roster because so many of their running backs were injured, including starter Jerick McKinnon.

In six games, Wilson Jr. rushed for 266 yards. He performed well as a powerful alternative to the 49ers’ smaller running backs, such as Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert.

The 49ers probably expected Wilson Jr. would return to the practice squad this season when McKinnon returns from an ACL tear. But McKinnon has not returned. Each time he tried to return, he re-injured his knee. He has re-injured it three times, including once this Tuesday.

“Not encouraging,” Lynch told KNBR. “What that means, we’re not sure yet. We’re working hard to figure that out.”

It’s possible, if not likely, the 49ers will place McKinnon on the injured reserve list for the entire season, which would create a roster spot for Wilson Jr. if he performs well against the Chargers.

3. WR Kendrick Bourne

Bourne led the 49ers’ wide receivers in receiving yards last season. This season, they might cut him.

The 49ers have six receivers who almost certainly will make the final roster: Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Richie James Jr. Bourne would be their seventh wide receiver. And the 49ers may not have room on their roster for seven receivers.

Bourne is a solid backup who knows the 49ers’ system — he joined the team in 2017 as an undrafted free agent.

Despite his experience, he still commits pre-snap penalties and drops passes.

“He just needs to be more consistent,” Shanahan said. “We need him to make sure he only makes good plays for us.”

Bourne most likely will play the entire game Thursday night. If the 49ers decide they don’t need him anymore, another team probably will claim him off waivers, because he has produced modest numbers in the regular season and he’s only 24.

Bourne’s career shouldn’t end just yet, but the 49ers part of his career is in jeopardy.

4. OL Joshua Garnett

Former 49ers GM Trent Baalke traded up to take Garnett in the first round of the 2016 draft. Since the end of 2016, the 49ers have fired Baalke, and Garnett has played just seven games. Most recently, he missed three weeks of training camp with a dislocated his finger.

Last Saturday, after the 49ers beat the Chiefs 27-17, a reporter asked Shanahan about Garnett’s chances of making the team.

“It’s not just about ability and who’s the best,” Shanahan explained, his tone brutally honest. “It’s about who’s going to be available.”

Garnett hasn’t been available much the past two years. He needs to make it through the entire game Thursday night. And even if he does, he still may not make the cut, because the 49ers can’t count on him to stay healthy for a full season.

5. DL Damontre Moore

This is a redemption story.

Moore went to Texas A&M, where he recorded 26.5 sacks in three seasons, and was considered a top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. But he flopped at the combine, fell to the third round and has bounced around the league since then.

Now, he’s 26. This offseason, he played in the Alliance of American Football — a professional league that no longer exists. He stood out and recorded seven sacks, so the 49ers signed him. So far, Moore has recorded two sacks in the preseason. He has played well.

“He’s a new dad,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “It’s amazing how the mind triggers when you’ve got a new ‘why’ in life.”

Meaning Moore has finally found purpose. He’s driven. And now, the 49ers might keep him as a backup defensive end, because their starters, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, both have significant injury histories. Moore might even play Week 1 of the regular season if Bosa’s high-ankle sprain hasn’t fully healed.

What a story that would be.

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