SANTA CLARA (AP) — Jimmy Garoppolo and most of the other high-profile members of the San Francisco 49ers made brief cameos at most in the exhibition opener.
That gave a pair of seventh-round picks an opportunity to shine, and they made the most of that chance.
Receiver Richie James Jr. and defensive lineman Jullian Taylor both played from start to finish and delivered big plays throughout in San Francisco’s 24-21 victory over Dallas on Thursday.
James caught four passes for 46 yards, and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds remaining, as he tries to make the team as a slot receiver. Taylor had three tackles, one sack, two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss, showing more signs that the Niners might have found a late-round gem.
But both players know there’s plenty of more work needed to make the roster.
“You can’t get too high off one play when you have a whole season ahead of you,” James said Sunday. “If that was the Super Bowl then wow, I’m celebrating. But that was just preseason.”
James has taken advantage of an injury to Trent Taylor, who has been limited following offseason back surgery that kept him out of the first exhibition game.
James got on the field early, catching the first pass from Garoppolo to convert an early third-down out of the slot and then catching the game-winning TD from Nick Mullens.
“His athletic ability for such a young guy, it’s impressive,” Garoppolo said. “You know, once you put the mental part of it with the physical part it’ll be something good.”
James was prolific in college, catching 212 passes for 2,959 yards and 20 touchdowns his first two seasons at Middle Tennessee State. But a broken collarbone limited him to five games last year and he wasn’t picked until 240th overall.
With Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon solidified as starters, James is competing with Taylor, Kendrick Bourne, Aldrick Robinson and Aaron Burbridge for a backup spot on the 53-man roster.
James showed his versatility with a 33-yard kick return in the game against Dallas, but he was best as a receiver, with Niners quarterbacks having a 150.4 rating when targeting him, according to Pro Football Focus.
“What we love about Richie is that I think you guys can all see is he’s fearless with the ball in his hands,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s making good cuts and getting himself after the catch.”
Taylor had barely played organized football before getting drafted 223rd overall by the Niners in April. He played only one year in high school and had just limited experience at Temple because of injuries.
That’s why it was so important for Taylor to get as much time as he did against the Cowboys. He played 32 defensive snaps in all, starting at defensive end in place of the injured Arik Armstead and playing through the fourth quarter.
He had a few misplays early but delivered the sack that helped set up the game-winning drive.
“It was probably just me getting the jitters out honestly,” he said. “This was my first game and I started so it was kind of like, ‘Whoa!’ Once I settled down and really got my feet under me, it got easier. It was just playing football at the end of the day.”
Taylor just hasn’t done much of it. He went down with season-ending knee injuries in 2015 and ‘16 and played just 15 games in all on defense in college. He showed promise as a senior last year with 40 tackles, including 10 for losses, in 12 games for the Owls.
He matched up well against No. 6 overall draft pick Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame and had 4 1/2 tackles for loss against undefeated Central Florida to get on the draft radar.
He has been impressive in camp, which carried over into his first game action as a pro when Shanahan wanted to get him snaps with the starters to see how he’d fare against tougher competition.
“His arrow is going up,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He does everything right. He plays violent, relentless. He fought his tail off against the big O-line with the 1s. As the game wore on, the expectation was that he’d become more dominant and he did. ... He took a really good step.”