SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If there is such a thing as a friendly preseason rivalry, the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos have it. Over the past few years the two teams have made a regular habit of practicing against each other for a couple of days before playing an exhibition game.
That tradition comes to the Bay Area this year with the Broncos set to practice with the Niners at the SAP Performance Center on Wednesday and Thursday before Saturday night's game.
For the Niners, the chance to see how they stack up against another team is a welcome one after a grueling couple of weeks of training camp. Perhaps more important, the next two days of practice will shine some light into important position battles and allow coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and their respective staffs to evaluate the roster.
With that in mind, here's a look at four things the 49ers can learn about themselves in their shared time with the Broncos:
Are the Niners receivers better than expected?
Throughout this training camp, a number of Niners receivers have consistently made plays in practice. Whether it's established veterans like Pierre Garcon, a drafted rookie like Trent Taylor or undrafted free agents such as Kendrick Bourne, the wideouts have surpassed expectations. But as always is the case in training camp, it can be difficult to discern whether that success is the result of a group that's better than expected, a group taking advantage of mostly unproven cornerbacks or somewhere in between.
While we can say with confidence that Garcon is as advertised and his body of work speaks for itself, these practices will provide an opportunity to get a gauge on the rest of the 49ers wideouts. That's because Denver brings to the table some of the best corners in the league. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. form perhaps the best corner combo in the NFL and Bradley Roby is solid in the slot.
There might not be a more interesting player to watch in these practices for the Niners than wideout Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin has been, perhaps, the team's best and most consistent play maker in this training camp. Now he'll get the chance to go up against the likes of Talib and Harris, which should offer some clues on what can be expected from him in 2017.
Is the offensive line capable of holding up against one of the league's best pass rushes?
When these teams got together last year, Denver pass-rusher Von Miller came away impressed with Niners right tackle Trent Brown. Miller said he could see Brown becoming one of the best young tackles in the league. Now, Brown and the rest of his line mates are adjusting to a new scheme. That process has been expedited by San Francisco's own deep and talented young line but it will get ratcheted up against the Broncos.
Denver's Shane Ray is dealing with a wrist injury and the Broncos have three other injuries along the defensive line. The Broncos still bring talented pass-rushers such as Miller. What's more, the Niners are searching for their best combination on the interior offensive line. That group has struggled against their teammates but there's at least familiarity there. Taking that away should give the 49ers an opportunity to get a better evaluation of what they have and find the right mix. The sooner, the better.
Do the 49ers have enough talent and depth at cornerback?
This relates to the first question on this list and we probably won't have a definitive answer until we get to the regular season. As it stands, the Niners top cornerback is Rashard Robinson, a talented player entering only his second season. Robinson has had his share of ups and downs and a lot is being asked of him going into 2017. Garcon and Goodwin have given Robinson all he can handle in this camp and he struggled against Kansas City's Tyreek Hill in last week's preseason opener. This week, he'll get to see Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom are more accomplished than any Niners receiver save for Garcon.
Robinson is pretty well locked into his starting job at one outside corner spot. From there, the Niners are sorting through a group that includes Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, K'Waun Williams, Will Redmond, Adrian Colbert, Ahkello Witherspoon and others. Johnson is the leader in the clubhouse for the spot opposite Robinson and Williams looks like the favorite for the nickel job.
The 49ers might need to keep scouring the league for an upgrade as cutdown day nears but the time with the Broncos should give them a better idea of where this is headed.
Will the Niners' physical practice approach be matched by the Broncos and will the teams keep their cool?
The 49ers have been in pads for most of training camp and Shanahan has pushed his team to take a physical approach in every practice. That approach has manifested into a team that's unafraid to hit hard without going over the line.
Of course, that's a line that's easier to walk when you're competing with your teammates. The Broncos and Niners had some minor dustups in practice a year ago but nothing that went too far.
Still, it's common to see tempers flare in these types of practice settings. Niners coordinator Robert Saleh emphasizes "extreme violence" with his defense but he doesn't want to see that go too far against the Broncos.
"As long as the players do it the right way," Saleh said. "It’s a great chance for us to get great work. The intensity level will pick up. You are seeing new techniques. You are seeing new players. You are communicating with different indicators that you get from the offense. So, I think it’s an awesome, awesome thing to do, so long as the players do it the right way and they take the work, they respect each other’s job. To me, that’s priceless work."