The San Francisco 49ers have a unique development opportunity this week in Houston, as they visit with the Texans for joint practices before an exhibition game Saturday at NRG Stadium. This will be the second time this year they’ll see unfamiliar competition – and the first time in a week of practice – which should better prepare the team for the season.
[DESIMONE: Rookie, potential starter Jullian Taylor stands out in 49ers' preseason opener] The Niners aren't the only team conducting joint practices this year. The Jets and Washington got together, as did the Jaguars and Vikings; the Lions held sessions with the Raiders and now the Giants; the Bears and Broncos linked up, as well as the Bucs and Titans, and the Rams and Ravens.
This burgeoning and mutually beneficial tactic utilized by coaching staffs in the league is designed to get their players out of their comfort zone and sharpening their tools against a more diverse group of talent. Now, while Houston was a 4-12 team last year, that doesn't tell the story of their roster at all.
The 49ers, and most importantly several featured players, are going to be lucky to have a week of work with the Texans. Mike McGlinchey vs. J.J. Watt
Few 49ers have an opportunity like the team’s No. 9 overall selection and new starting right tackle. McGlinchey, a rookie, will get considerable time against a perennial All-Pro, three-time DPOY and one of the faces on the NFL in Watt. The two will be matched up in practice, but also in the game as they are on the same side. This'll be great because it’s going to be Goliath vs. Goliath. Not many have been able to stand up to Watt, but McGlinchey has three inches on him, and top-10 technique to go with. Watt, however, is a force with more than a few tricks up his sleeve, so he will have his wins in practice and potentially in the game, which will help get McGlinchey up to NFL speed.
Trent Taylor vs. Tyrann Mathieu
This is big time fight between two undersized guys. Taylor, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound slot receiver, and Mathieu, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound safety/nickel should have some good 1-on-1s and hopefully get a chance to face each other in team drills and on game day. The matchup will be a worthwhile one as Taylor is used to beating everyone with low leverage and route running, while Mathieu is one of the elite agile cover guys in the league. This is an opportunity for both players to get a little better before the season.
Joe Staley vs. Jadeveon Clowney
Like McGlinchey and Watt share a side, so do these two. This sets up as a great competition between a highly technical and polished veteran and one of the more athletic freaks in professional football. It’ll be beneficial for both Staley and Clowney to see how they fare against one another. But for Staley, who turns 34 at the end of the month, this will be a good maintenance check prior to the start of his 12th NFL season. Clowney will be able to test him with elite power and counters. Richard Sherman & Ahkello Witherspoon vs. DeAndre Hopkins & Will Fuller
Fingers crossed these four are a go in San Francisco’s second preseason game Saturday, at least for a drive or two. But if not, this should still make for a good week of practice. The All-Pro Hopkins had a 96-1378-13 line a year ago, while his running mate Fuller averaged 15.1 yards per catch and had seven scores of his own. If Deshaun Watson starts 16 games, these two have potential to be the most dynamic receiving duo in football in 2018. This presents an opportunity for a returning Sherman and an up-and-coming Witherspoon. Facing that level of route running and aggressive high-pointing from both, as well as the speed from Fuller, will only sharpen both 49ers corners.
Dante Pettis vs. Aaron Colvin
Pettis, the team’s second-round pick in 2018, has been the talk of 49ers camp with his consistency and flashy plays. He’s worked about every 49er CB at least once by now. But it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against a top-end cornerback wearing another uni. Colvin is a true 6-foot corner in his prime. He’s 26 coming off a strong year with the Jaguars, one that landed him a 4-year, $34 million deal from a division rival this offseason. Since 2014, Colvin ranks first in coverage snaps per TD allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. If there’s a first non-49er to check Pettis, and maybe give him an experience he can learn from, it’s the Texans’ new cornerback.
Adrian Colbert vs. Deshaun Watson
I like the cerebral matchup and challenge here for the 49ers' second-year free safety. Watson is one of the more promising QB talents in the league, and played like a veteran gunslinger in his brief time as a rookie in 2017. Colbert similarly had elite flashes last year, and is looking to build on that and plant his flag as one of the league’s next great centerfielders. In particular, Watson’s placement, ability to extend the play, fearlessness with the deep shot and eye manipulation will be a test for the 49ers safety.
Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images, Eric Branch/San Francisco Chronicle, Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle, AP Images, San Francisco 49ers, SI