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San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans: 5 players to watch, including Trey Lance

Vincent Frank

The San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans will do battle in the opening edition of Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” inside NRG Stadium in their preseason finales.

Both the 49ers and Texans plan on playing their starters extensively in this one. It won’t look too much like an exhibition game with Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit getting the call from the booth.

On the field, young quarterbacks Davis Mills and Trey Lance will look to prove that they are ready heading into Week 1. In particular, Lance is under a microscope in that he’s replacing Jimmy Garoppolo for a contending 49ers team.

As for Houston, it begins the post-Desahaun Watson era in full after the drama we’ve seen over the past 18 months. Will Lovie Smith have his team ready to play? Below, we check in on five players to watch during Thursday’s San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans game.

Related: San Francisco 49ers schedule and game-by-game-predictions

San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Danny Gray has the ‘it’ factor

san francisco 49ers wide receiver: danny gray
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

A third-round pick of the 49ers from Southern Methodist, this rookie has opened some eyes in Santa Clara. That included catching a long touchdown pass from Trey Lance in the 49ers’ preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers a couple weeks back.

Gray should get an opportunity to go up against a fellow rookie in that of star Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. in this one. Stingley was on the receiving end of a highlight-reel play a week ago against the Los Angeles Rams and will want to prove he can contain speed like what Gray boasts.

As for Gray, there’s a chance he will open the regular season as San Francisco’s No. 3 receiver behind Deebo Samuel and Bandon Aiyuk. A strong performance in this one could cement that status.

Related: Houston Texans schedule and game-by-game predictions

Houston Texans wide receiver Nico Collins looks to continue strong summer

houston texans wide receiver nico collins
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of young wide receivers, Nico Collins was one of the few bright spots for Houston a season ago. third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Collins caught 33 passes for 446 yards as a rookie. Apparently, Collins has picked it up even more this summer.

“Nico’s a big target with a lot of talent. We want to get him in those type of situations. We continue to run the ball well. If we run the ball well, we’ll get more one-on-one situations for Nico. As I say, he’s got length, he can catch the ball. It’s a big play by him there. He’s capable of making a lot of plays like that.”

Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith on Nico Collins, via the team’s official website

It was just last week that Collins caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Mills against the Rams to help get Houston’s offense jumpstarted late in the second quarter. With 49ers starting cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Emmanuel Moseley not playing in this one due to minor injuries, Collins could exploit 49ers reserves and set the stage for a breakout 2022 campaign.

Related: San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans standing in our latest NFL power rankings

San Francisco 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz

san francisco 49ers tackle colton mckivitz
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The status of starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey is a major storyline around Santa Clara right now. The former first-round pick missed nine games last season due to torn quad muscles. He returned to open the preseason, but has since gone down to a minor knee injury.

San Francisco’s offensive line is already a major question mark outside of left tackle Trent Williams. With a young quarterback under center, the team is going to need above-average pass protection. That’s where McKivitz, a fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, comes into play. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed that he will be starting at right tackle against the Texans.

Despite starting only four games in his two-year career, San Francisco seems to have confidence that McKivitz will step up. Remember, he started Week 18 last season against the Los Angeles Rams with Williams sidelined to injury and played well against the eventual Super Bowl champions.

Related: Houston Texans QB Davis Mills as a sophomore standout

Davis Mills prepares to shock the world

NFL: Houston Texans at Los Angeles Rams
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Texans pushed back against acquiring a proven starter this past offseason, fully believing that Mills can progress as a second-year player. As it relates to the former Stanford star, there’s no lacking of confidence in his game. “We’re ready to go out and shock the world,” Mills told NBC’s Peter King recently.

Despite being less heralded than Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Lance heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, an argument can be made that Mills put up the most-consistent rookie season of the group. He did so with a lack of talent around him.

Houston isn’t going to contend for a playoff spot this season. The team is still in the initial stages of a rebuild. With that said, a strong performance from Mills as a sophomore will have the Texans’ future looking bright.

Related: Trey Lance set up for success as the face of the San Francisco 49ers

Trey Lance as the face of the San Francisco 49ers

NFL: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his pure talent and athleticism, there’s a certain level of uncertainty surrounding Lance as he enters his first season as a full-time starter. The 22-year-old former North Dakota star has thrown all of 101 total passes since the end of his sophomore season with the Bison back in 2019. There’s also pressure on Lance to perform at a high level for a team that boasts championship aspirations. This doesn’t mean there’s a lack of confidence in Lance within the organization.

“Every day, [Lance is] getting better, learning how to be a leader. Not even learning; he has it already. It’s a natural thing with him. Actually, I came in with Josh Allen and the Bills, and he gives me that same type of energy, that ‘I’m ready to take the next step’ energy.”

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud on Trey Lance

One of Lance’s two starts as a rookie last season came against these Texans in Week 17. In need of a win to remain in playoff conention, the then-rookie completed 16-of-23 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and an interception en route to leading San Francisco to a 23-7 win. Set to play at least a half Thursday night, this is Lance’s final prep before Week 1 against the Chicago Bears.