SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shanahan despises the term “final 53.”
“Never in the history of the NFL has it ever been your final 53,” Shanahan said ahead of today’s 53-man roster deadline. “You’re changing that roster throughout the year, all the time.”
But today is when the biggest change happens. Rosters are pared from 80 men to what actually is the “initial 53,” plus 16 spots reserved for practice-squad players that includes six vested veterans.
The biggest names cut: wide receiver Travis Benjamin, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, running back Wayne Gallman, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
Here are the three biggest takeaways before examining the full (not final) 53:
1. JALEN HURD MAKES IT
Wide receiver Jalen Hurd suited up in a 49ers uniform Sunday for the first time since 2019, and they aren’t taking it away from him. Not yet, at least.
Three weeks ago, Shanahan warned that Hurd’s shelf-life was running low: “We know the potential he has, the upside, and how much we think he can help us. But he’s got to show that. There’s not a lot of time left.”
By keeping him on the 53, the 49ers can now push Hurd onto injured reserve if his surgically repaired knee is bothering him but not to the extent of it ending his season. Back and knee injuries foiled Hurd’s initial two seasons after arriving as a 2019 third-round draft pick out of Baylor.
As they retain Hurd, they cut ties with wide receivers Travis Benjamin, Nsimba Webster and River Cracraft, not to mention Richie James’ release Saturday with a knee injury.
Hurd had four receptions for 25 yards, plus a 2-yard run in the red zone, during Sunday’s preseason finale against the Raiders. It was his first game action since the 2019 exhibition season, which he opened with a two-touchdown performance to excited the masses about his big-play potential.
2. DUAL QUARTERBACKS
Only two quarterbacks made the roster — Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance — so that led to Nate Sudfeld’s release and potential return on the practice squad.
Lance’s slight fracture of a right finger Sunday didn’t necessitate Sudfeld staying on the roster.
Sudfeld, guaranteed $250,000, would be wise to return and wait things out on the practice squad. The 49ers have burned through three quarterbacks in every season with coach Kyle Shanahan except for the 2019 run to the Super Bowl in which Garoppolo started every game.
No need to blow a roster spot on a third-string quarterback when you’re compelled to retain 11 defensive linemen.
3. RETURN MEN?
Do the 49ers dare deploy Brandon Aiyuk, their No. 1 wide receiver, as a punt returner? He’s asked for that double duty, and he could be in line for it after the exits of Benjamin, Webster, Cracraft and James. Any of those could return if Hurd is stashed on IR.
Or, do the 49ers bring one of those players back in the coming days, or do they find a returner who just became a free agent, such as ex-49er and recent Bengals’ castoff Trent Taylor? Too early to say. The season starts in 12 days.
As for kick returner, JaMycal Hasty is an option, although he had none in the preseason and just three (for 57 yards) last year in eight games.
Here is how the 49ers’ initial roster looks and why (*projected starter):
Exiting: Nate Sudfeld
Analysis: Garoppolo will be the opening-game starter for a fourth straight season, barring a stunning audible to Lance, who will not practice this week and was prescribed a week’s rest after a slight fracture to apparently his index finger Sunday. Although Mac Jones outplayed Cam Newton to win New England’s No. 1 job, and as enticing as Lance looks as both a zone-read runner and strong-armed passer, Garoppolo has vast support as he resumes his starting role.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Kyle Juszczyk (FB)
Exiting: Wayne Gallman Jr., Jeff Wilson Jr. (physically unable to perform list)
Analysis: Hasty’s 5.2-yards-per-touch in the preseason helped his stock, as did the flashes he showed last year as an undrafted rookie before he broke his collar bone in November. Wilson is out at least the first five games as he opens on the PUP list because of meniscus surgery in May.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
Mohamed Sanu Sr.
Exiting: Travis Benjamin, Nsimba Webster, River Cracraft
Analysis: Apparently it wasn’t an either/or situation in retaining both Hurd and Jennings, neither of whom have played in an official game as 49ers draft picks. Sherfield and Sanu locked their roster spots up with great camps.
TIGHT END (3)
Exiting: Jordan Matthews, MyCole Pruitt
Analysis: A three-man corps is sufficient but look for either Matthews or Pruitt to return in some capacity, perhaps on the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8)
*LT Trent Williams
*LG Laken Tomlinson
*C Alex Mack
*RG Daniel Brunskill
*RT Mike McGlinchey
Exiting: Colton McKivitz, Jake Brendel, Senio Kelemete, Dakoda Shepley, Shon Coleman (injured reserve), Alfredo Gutierrez (practice-squad exemption)
Analysis: Keeping Compton instead of McKivitz is a mild surprise, in that McKivitz was a 2020 fifth-round draft pick and Compton struggled in 2020 but is versatile. Moore will serve as the swing tackle, and Banks should challenge Brunskill once the second-round pick’s shoulder and technique improves.
DEFENSIVE LINE (11)
Exiting: Eddie Yarborough, Darrion Daniels, Alex Barrett, Jordan Willis (suspended six games)
Analysis: Talk about a stacked unit. Hurst’s inclusion is likely temporary as he’s expected to go on short-term injured reserve with a high ankle sprain from the preseason. Key is insurance for an edge-rushing group that boasts the comebacks of Bosa and Ford, plus the addition of Ebukam.
Exiting: Jonas Griffith (traded to Broncos), Justin Hilliard, Elijah Sullivan
Analysis: Keeping converted safeties Harris and Flannigan-Fowles reflects the speed and aggressive nature expected from first-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans, formerly the linebacker coach. And nice job getting essentially a sixth-round draft pick from the Denver Broncos for Griffith, who joined the 49ers practice squad last year as an undrafted rookie.
Exiting: Alexander Myres, Dontae Johnson
Analysis: Harris sneaks onto the roster over Johnson. If a proven veteran is on the market, perhaps the 49ers recruit him, although they like their returning starters and the rookie tandem of Lenoir and Thomas.
Exiting: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jared Mayden, Tarvarius Moore (PUP list)
Analysis: Clinton-Dix, the former Packers star, made some plays in his two weeks on the 49ers and would be good to keep in the bullpen. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly Hufanga ascends into a starting role, and whether that is dependent on Tartt’s toe recovery.
Analysis: This is Year 2 of this triumvirate, and their preseason finale eased some concerns.