Robbie Gould and Jimmy Garoppolo stole all of the headlines in their homecoming game, as they led the San Francisco 49ers to just their second win of the 2017 campaign. The full connotations of Sunday’s result and the performance of several players are unlikely to become apparent for some time, but the performances that helped to haul the Niners to victory undoubtedly deserve consideration and attention as we enter the final four games of the season.
The 49ers franchise quarterback
The 49ers appear to have themselves a franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. It may only be one full game here (and three total starts in his whole career) but Garoppolo has shown he possesses all of the traits to be at least a top ten quarterback in the NFL. He reads defenses excellently, shows a quick release and is an accurate passer. He repeatedly went to the right man and when the 49ers needed a big play, Garoppolo delivered (including going 10 of 18 on third downs).
There is nevertheless room to improve. He failed to recognize Marquise Goodwin was invariably open on curls, comebacks and out routes against cover 3 - including on the Louis Murphy-assisted interception and on the second down incompletion to Carlos Hyde on the final drive. He also made a couple of bad reads - notably reading cover 6 as cover 4 in the first quarter and throwing a dangerous ball to Carlos Hyde when he may have had a receiver running open toward the end zone. But that didn't matter - Garoppolo got the 49ers a win and showed plenty to ensure he will enter the offseason as the 49ers’ QBOTF.
Marquise Goodwin is raising his game
As previously alluded to, Marquise Goodwin should have had a 100 yard game. Since Pierre Garçon’s injury, Goodwin has really raised his own levels. Against the Chicago Bears, his route running and hands were consistently excellent, explaining his eight receptions on eight targets. Now he enters the final four games of the season with a legitimate shot at a 1,000 yard season — he requires just under 81 yards a game to reach that goal.
A rookie receiver steps up
Another receiver who was outstanding - having his Jordan game as Kyle Shanahan called it - was Trent Taylor. Taylor is developing nicely this season, and was deadly against the Bears, particularly against man coverage on in breaking routes. On the year, Taylor is 13 out of 13 on slant routes and Sunday was a continuation of this trend. Furthermore, Garoppolo showed faith in him not only in man coverage situations, but also against zone. Garoppolo trusted Taylor’s YAC ability to find him open in soft spots against zones and allowing Taylor to get himself beyond the markers. Their relationship should continue to blossom as their team in San Francisco continues.
Reuben Foster is rolling
Reuben Foster continued his stellar (if injury affected) rookie campaign. His tackling was much more efficient than it was against the Seahawks and he continues to fly around the field. Foster may well be the most explosive linebacker in the NFL, particularly in the contact area, where he absolutely detonates people on a regular basis.
Adrian Colbert is showing signs
Speaking of detonating people, rookie safety Adrian Colbert has picked up where third year man Jaquiski Tartt left off as the enforcer in the secondary. Colbert’s work as the deep free safety has been eye-catching so far, and whilst he has not been perfect, especially in coverage, his range and hitting ability to continues to make him an intriguing option at the position. A safety pairing of him and Tartt next season would strike fear into most teams.
A rookie cornerback continues to emerge
Colbert’s fellow rookie DB, Ahkello Witherspoon, has also impressed since coming into the team. He has been far more impressive than Rashard Robinson (who I was woefully wrong about in preseason). Witherspoon is staggeringly athletic - the way in which he moves on the field looks effortless at times - and though he can be a bit indisciplined, he continues to fulfill his assignments impressively for a rookie thought of as unpolished coming out of college. Arguably more impressive has been his willingness to mix it up in run support. Witherspoon is positioning himself to be a starting corner for the 49ers for the next few seasons at least.
Eli Harold is doing grunt work
Eli Harold also had a solid game against the Bears, and continues a season where he has certainly been under-appreciated. As the SAM linebacker, he does a lot of the unnoticed grunt work up front - either setting the edge or as the cutback defender against the run. He also has flashed excellent athleticism having to drop back into coverage and chase players downfield when the opposition passes on early downs. He made one run stop this week that was particularly impressive and showed his impressive physical traits. He should continue to be a key run down contributor who has been surprisingly effective as a coverage player when the opposition throws the ball.
All about the defensive line
Both Ronald Blair and Solomon Thomas looked solid against the run on Sunday, with Thomas also flashing occasionally as an interior rusher. I have been an advocate in the past of Thomas rushing from over the center, and he had his most success from that spot on Sunday. Both Blair and Thomas could be making Tank Carradine expendable, but even if the 49ers keep the former Seminole around, the team is blessed with outstanding run stoppers throughout their defensive end rotation when you consider Arik Armstead is also around. Now they just need a pure edge rusher.
That man is unlikely to be Cassius Marsh or Elvis Dumervil in the long run, but both players impressed on Sunday. Marsh’s sack was unblocked, but he flashed an explosive first step on that play as well as others. His success will likely continue to be a product of the ability of those around him however. One such man is Dumervil, who recorded sack 5.5 of the season and continues to be a threat off the edge. The 49ers should keep Dumervil around next season, so he can tutor whoever they do bring in as a pure edge rusher as well as continue his work with the players they have in the building. That kind of veteran nous is irreplaceable.