The San Francisco 49ers amazing turnaround last year — winning six of their last seven games after losing the first nine — was even more stunning considering their numerous injuries.
24 players made the Niners Injured Reserve list this year, plus a few more who were waived/injured in training camp and one -- offensive lineman JP Flynn — who was put on the separate Practice Squad Injured Reserve List. (Who knew?)
The carnage did have a silver lining. In a year of wholesale rebuilding, all the injuries gave GM John Lynch a chance to try out several players who probably wouldn’t have seen many snaps otherwise. Some budding contributors or even stars emerged, including starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Adrian Colbert, depth defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Cassius Marsh, and WR Kendrick Bourne.
As they continue their rebuild, San Francisco will have a number of players returning to the roster once their injuries heal. (Defensive ends Ronald Blair III and Tank Carradine filled the two available return-from-IR slots during the 2017 season).
You can never be sure that a player will recover 100 percent but aside from the ACL injuries to strong safety Chanceller James and outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert, and possibly Donavin Newsom’s brutal concussion, all of the injuries should be fully healed by training camp.
Here’s my rough grouping of the 21 returnees by their likely value to the roster. Who do you think will have the most impact?
The seven starters on IR are OT Trent Brown, DBs Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, WR Pierre Garçon, DE Arik Armstead, and OLB Malcolm Smith, and still TBD G Joshua Garnett. RB Raheem Mostert, a special teams stalwart, belongs in this category as well.
Garçon should form a great tandem with new QB Jimmy Garoppolo, and the shaky OL definitely needs Brown and Garnett back.
Though Garnett’s rookie season was mixed at best, the guard position is this roster’s weakest. At his worst, he should be a major upgrade over the likes of Zane Beadles and Laken Tomlinson.
In the secondary, Jaquiski Tartt took Eric Reid’s strong safety job after the latter got hurt, before the former broke his forearm (the same injury that Jimmie Ward suffered, oddly). With the emergence of rookie (and seventh round pick) Adrian Colbert as the team’s starting free safety, the 49ers have to figure out how to get him, Tartt, and Ward on the field. Ward could very well return to cornerback to compete for the starting position that Dontae Johnson is certain to lose, but OTAs and minicamp will tell us more.
Armstead and Smith are the biggest question marks in this category. Both clearly have talent and have produced on Sundays, but each has been inconsistent. There’s no doubt that they’ll add something, but it’s not clear whether that will be as starters, depth or trade fodder.
RB Raheem Mostert is mostly a special teams player, but he belongs in this category because he’s so damned good at it. Before he landed in San Francisco, he bounced around the league as an outstanding kickoff returner (28 yards per, in 19 returns over 3 seasons), and not much else.
Under coach Kyle Shanahan and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, though, Mostert has developed into a versatile player. He started running (averaging 5.1 yards on his seven attempts) and emerged as as a dominant gunner on punts, with 8 tackles in 11 games.
The Niners were 1-9 before Mostert’s injury and punted a LOT (5.6 times per game), but allowed the fewest yards per punt (2.45) of any NFL team since 2008. The next closest team this year, Dallas, allowed almost twice as many (4.5). Working both sides of kicks, Mostert singlehandedly shifts field position in the Niners favor.
A number of the injured players are young guys who’ve shown NFL talent and could grow into key contributors.
UDFA OL Erik Magnuson, projected as a guard in the pros, wasn’t expected to make it off the practice squad last year. Instead, he beat out several journeyman veterans to start two games in place of injured right tackle Trent Brown. At 6’6”, 310, he has prototypical NFL size for an athletic guard in a zone-blocking scheme. And playing through torn ligaments against the Seahawks, while perhaps unwise, impressed GM John Lynch.
Cole Hikutini aka “Dirty ‘Tini” didn’t play much, given George Kittle’s great success, but the move tight end caught 2 passes for 15 yards. Kyle Shanahan used 3-TE formations a lot in Atlanta and ‘Tini would be a perfect piece if the coach brings that look to San Francisco. He’ll have to learn to block NFL lineman to get a lot of snaps, though.
UDFA Chanceller James was impressive at strong safety in the preseason before getting knocked out in August. He has good size and, provided his knee has recovered, is a good bet to back up Jaquiski Tartt. He also won the team’s Community Relations Service Awards for rookies.
The biggest wild card is probably RB Joe Williams, who missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury. Williams has undeniable football talent, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at the combine, but was kicked off of one college team and quit his second (Utah) during his senior year.
Then coach Kyle Whittingham asked him to return for the last seven games after Utah’s RBs had a rash of injuries. Williams averaged 7.1 yards per carry and 190 yards per game, scoring 10 touchdowns. He had 332 yards against UCLA alone.
GM John Lynch took Williams off his draft board for being a quitter, but changed his mind and traded up in the 4th round (giving away an extra 5th round pick) to secure the mercurial running back.
The drama wasn’t over then, either. Williams had a bad training camp, showing lackluster effort and problems mastering the offense, learning pass-protection assignments, and hanging on to the ball. He fumbled in red zone against the Chargers in the preseason, earning a rebuke from Shanahan.
“If you can’t hold onto the ball it’s very tough to play in this league. He’s had a few of them. So that definitely is alarming. Something we have to get fixed.”
Williams was clearly outplayed in training camp by UDFA Matt Breida, who went on to rack up 465 yards, 22 first downs and 2 TDs this season. So when Williams suffered an ankle injury in that preseason game, the team put him on the Injured Reserve list for a redshirt season of weight training and film study.
No one will be surprised if Williams can’t make the roster, but you also can’t rule out an explosive debut, given Kyle Shanahan’s success in getting production out of later round running back picks.. He’ll be a very interesting wild card.
Veteran Asa Jackson appeared to have finally found an NFL home with a strong preseason and three ST tackles in four games before he got injured. He knocked Keith Reaser off the roster as backup slot corner in mid-September. At 28, though, this is probably his last shot to stick with a team.
After running back two kicks for touchdowns in the preseason, UDFA Victor Bolden Jr. returned 23 kickoffs and punts, combined, for a total of 419 yards this season. The fact that he forced two fumbles while covering kicks may help him stick with the team more than those fairly average return numbers.
WR Aaron Burbridge was strong on special teams in his rookie season (2016), and could form a devastating pair of punt gunners with Mostert if he’s fully healed.
Don’t Get Too Excited
The remaining players would probably be fighting to stay on the roster even if they had remained healthy. Good luck to them and all, but don’t expect them to lead the Niners deep into the playoffs next year.
Guys in this category include Don Jones, Chris Jones, Gary Gilliam, Donavin Newsom, JP Flynn and Jimmie Gilbert. The team already waived WR B.J. Johnson III and CB Will Redmond off of the IR list mid-season.