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6 Niners to watch over the final six games of 2018

Head coach Kyle Shanahan issued an open challenge to the 49ers’ roster to prove their worth over the final stretch of 2018. We’ll take a look at six players with roster implications heading in 2019.

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers wrapped up their Week 11 bye and have begun preparing for this week’s matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 2-8, without hopes of a playoff berth, coach Kyle Shanahan has made it clear that the rest of 2018 is about finding out who wants to be a part of the team’s plans in 2019.

“This league doesn’t have patience. I don’t have patience,” Shanahan said. “Who is going to help lead us into next year? Who is going to help finish us this year? There are lots of things that are very important to us, and we want to know, as I always say, who are we dealing with?”

Shanahan’s challenge extends to every player on the 49ers’ roster, veteran and backup alike. Let’s take a look at players whose performance throughout the rest of the 2018 season may determine their standing on the team come the offseason.

DL Arik Armstead

Armstead is having his best season since being drafted in 2015. The 49ers’ first-round pick has started all 10 games in 2018, the most of his career. In that span, Armstead’s totaled 33 tackles, six tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, three sacks and an “above average” Pro Football Focus grade of 75. The 49ers picked up Armstead’s fifth-year option during the offseason, but have until May to determine if he’s worth the $9 million he’ll be due in 2019. If Armstead finishes strong, he could play his way into a contract extension that softens the blow to the 49ers’ salary cap. A poor showing could result in his option being rescinded, and free agency in 2019.

WR Pierre Garçon

Garçon's tenure with the 49ers got off to an encouraging start in 2017. The veteran receiver was on pace for 80 receptions and 1,000 yards before a Week 8 neck injury cut his season short. Garçon hasn’t looked the same in 2018, with rotating quarterbacks, and knee and shoulder injuries hampering his production. In eight games, Garçon’s caught 24 passes for 286 yards and touchdown. He’s due $8.4 million in 2019. The 49ers will save $6 million of that if he’s designated a June 1st release next offseason. Garçon, in his 11th season, still needs to prove that he’s a valuable asset in Shanahan’s offense if he wants to remain with the 49ers.

QB Nick Mullens

Mullens took the NFL by storm in his Week 9 debut against the Raiders. The former third-string quarterback completed 72% of his passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns, zero turnovers, and a nearly perfect 151.9 rating under the prime time lights of Levi’s Stadium. Mullens’ stat line took a significant dip in Week 10, only throwing one touchdown to two interceptions against the Giants. His performance over the final six games of the season will not only ensure that he remains the 49ers’ week-to-week starter, but will be an audition to earn the role of primary backup over C.J. Beathard when Jimmy Garoppolo returns in 2019.

WR Dante Pettis

The 49ers drafted Pettis in the second-round of the 2018 draft. General manager John Lynch traded one of the team’s third-round picks to move up to pick No. 44 to select the former Washington wideout, indicating a strong interest. So far in 2018, Pettis has struggled to establish a significant role in the offense. A Week 3 knee injury sidelined Pettis for five weeks, before making his return against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8. He’s only managed four receptions for 12 yards since. Pettis is still a rookie and while his spot on the team isn’t in jeopardy, he still needs to show that he’s capable of handling an increased role in 2019.

DB D.J. Reed Jr.

The rookie defensive back entered the game in replacement of injured nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams during the Giants’ final drive in Week 10. Quarterback Eli Manning immediately targeted Reed in coverage, hitting receiver Sterling Shepard for the go-ahead score. It was a tough break for the 49ers’ promising fifth-round rookie, who spent time at both free safety and cornerback this season. It’s unclear how many snaps Reed will get on the defense through the last six games, but with injured free safety Adrian Colbert underperforming before being placed on injured reserve, and Jimmie Ward slated for free agency, Reed has a chance to show the 49ers’ coaching staff that he’s worthy of a starting spot in 2019.

DL Cassius Marsh

The 49ers’ pass rush, particularly off the edge, has been forgettable this season. The 49ers claimed Marsh off waivers in 2017 after he was cut by the New England Patriots. In response to a strong showing to conclude the 2017 season, the 49ers signed Marsh to a two-year extension over the offseason. He’s totaled 20 tackles, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and 3.5 sacks so far in 2018. An edge rusher is widely considered the 49ers’ most pressing roster need. Marsh’s play to conclude this season could determine how heavily Lynch invests in his position during the offseason. None of his $4.2 million salary in 2019 is guaranteed.