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NN Mailbag: Coaching staff changes, Nick Mullens’ future, Arik Armstead and more

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Addressing your 49ers questions and concerns before Sunday’s Week 15 matchup against the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Only three games remain for the San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Shanahan’s team, coming off a stunning Week 14 win over the Denver Broncos, turns their focus toward the last few remaining opportunities for players to prove their worth heading into 2019. The Seattle Seahawks come to town on Sunday after handing the 49ers an embarrassing 43-16 loss at CenturyLink Field just two weeks ago.

We’re back with this week’s mailbag before the 49ers’ Week 15 matchup. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for next week’s mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.

“Do you feel that Shanahan will leave the coaching staff largely intact through 2019? Or will changes be made in the offseason?” Bobby Horne

For the first time in four years, the 49ers entered into 2018 with the same coaching staff in consecutive seasons. Continuity is among the most important necessities for any NFL team’s continued success, and for the first time since Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have found consistency. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are nearing the conclusion of Year 2 at the helm of the 49ers, and while it’s clear that all things haven’t gone to plan, it still seems too early to place blame on the staff.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is the first name to arise when discussing 49ers coaches on the hot seat. The missed tackles, miscommunications, late-game collapses, penalties and player regressions have made it hard to defend Saleh’s performance in his second year as a first-time coordinator. On the other hand, the 49ers’ roster on defense, both ravaged by injury and lacking talent in key areas, likely hasn’t provided ideal conditions for a proper evaluation.

Saleh shouldn't be absolved of accountability, nor should the rest of the coaching staff. But until the roster reaches a point where Lynch and Shanahan can confidently say the 49ers have the tools to win on both sides of the ball, placing blame on the coaches would seem counterproductive toward producing a winning atmosphere.

It is worth noting quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello might be on the radar for offensive coordinator jobs this offseason. His work with Nick Mullens appears to be drawing notice. A team cannot deny assistants an opportunity to interview for head coach jobs, but can deny them interviews for coordinator or position coach jobs.

“I love me some Nick Mullens and believe he is out performing C.J. Beathard. In my opinion, Mullens has more upside. Should the 49ers consider “selling high” on Mullens to QB needy teams? And if so, what type of return might we get?” Ian Malovos

It’s safe to say that the 49ers have a decent quarterback on their hands in Nick Mullens. If he continues his solid play through the last four games, it’s conceivable that teams will begin calling the 49ers to see what’ll it take to pry the former third-stringer from Lynch and Shanahan. That may have already begun. At this rate, anything less than a Day 2 pick shouldn’t be considered enough to give up a solid backup who now has significant starting experience.

Given Jimmy Garoppolo’s recovery timetable from his Week 3 torn ACL, the 49ers are likely to hold on to both Mullens and Beathard through the offseason until Garoppolo can resume practice. At that point, they’ll need to decide if Mullens holds more value as the 49ers’ backup or as a trade piece to bolster their roster or draft capital.

“Hi Rob! How is Arik Armstead doing this season so far compared to last season?” Alex Tran

Sup Alex? I’m glad you asked about Armstead. His season so far has been remarkably underrated. Armstead’s not lighting up the stat sheet like his running mate, DeForest Buckner, but he’s finally playing at a level commensurate of his first-round draft position. Armstead has started every game this season for the 49ers after hand and shoulder injuries landed him on injured reserve in 2016 and ‘17, respectively.

In 13 games, Armstead has totaled 40 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, six tackles for loss and three sacks, earning an “above average” Pro Football Focus grade of 79.9. For comparison, Buckner is currently rated a 78.8. The 49ers elected to pick up Armstead’s fifth-year option during the offseason, guaranteeing him over $9 million in 2019 if he’s on the roster when the new league year starts in March. If he finishes the season strong, Armstead may be a candidate for a contract extension that softens his salary cap hit next season.

“How is it possible (if everybody loses out) that the cards would finish above niners in division yet still have the first pick?!” Jeremy Kane

The tiebreaker process is different for division standing vs. draft order. For division standing, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head. The Cardinals swept that, and so if the two teams were tied, Arizona would finish in third place while San Francisco would finish in fourth place. This is notable because two games on next year’s schedule will feature the team in the same divisional standing in the NFC East and NFC North.

For draft order, the first tiebreaker is strength of schedule. Both the 49ers and Cardinals could lose the rest of their games, but the Cardinals’ schedule for the season could prove strong than the 49ers. This would result in the Cardinals finishing ahead of the 49ers in the standings, but behind them in draft order. Right now, the two teams have identical strength of schedules at .529, per Tankathon.

Keep an eye on the two teams’ uncommon opponents, such as the Atlanta Falcons and Washington for the Cardinals, versus the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 49ers. The success and failures of those four teams will make the difference in strength of schedule.

If the 49ers and Cardinals have the same strength of schedule at the end of the season, the tiebreakers are in order: 1) record in common divisional games, 2) record in common conference games, 3) coin flip. If the 49ers and Cardinals lose out, they’ll both have lost four total games to the Rams and Seahawks, and they’ll each have a loss to one of their common NFC North opponents. That means they would be tied in the first two tiebreakers, and thus go to a coin flip — assuming their respective strength of schedule numbers were the same.

“Who will the 49ers cut to get more salary cap space going into 2019?” Uncle Salty

Shanahan recently spoke candidly on three veterans whose spots on the roster may be in jeopardy heading into 2019. Receiver Pierre Garçon was officially placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, for the second consecutive season. Linebacker Malcolm Smith and defensive lineman Earl Mitchell both played zero defensive snaps during the 49ers’ win over the Broncos on Sunday. All three could conceivably be released in the offseason, saving the 49ers some $9 million in salary cap after taking into account the dead money.

Other salary cap standouts on the roster are defensive end Cassius Marsh and backup swing tackle Garry Gilliam, whose salaries combine for $9.25 million in 2019 with zero guaranteed money. The 49ers could easily free up a significant amount of cap room if either were deemed expendable.

“Did Robert Saleh’s defense find success against the Broncos due to better coaching, better player execution, or percentages of both?” Tim Stringer

Surprisingly enough, the 49ers’ win over the Broncos can largely be attributed to the defense. Denver was held scoreless in the first half and only managed 14 points in the second, covering just two of 15 third downs on offense. Broncos quarterback Case Keenum completed 57% of his passes and averaged just 4.4 yards per attempt. He was sacked twice and hit another seven times.

Denver could only manage 103 total yards rushing at a mere 3.8 yards per carry. Entering the game leading the NFL in yards per carry, Broncos back Phillip Lindsay totaled just 30 yards and 2.1 yards per rush. Both coordinator Robert Saleh and the 49ers’ defensive players deserve an equal share of the credit for their execution, especially at a time where praise is few and far between on that side of the ball.

“Top three positions that need to be filled?” Gold Blooded Podcast

The 49ers’ biggest roster needs are on the defensive side of the ball. High above the list is an impact edge rusher. An effective threat to the quarterback will relieve many of the roster’s deficiencies at the other levels of the defense. Second on the list is a true free safety. Saleh’s defense routinely utilizes a single-high scheme that requires the range and ball skill necessary to erase big plays. Third is cornerback and eventual successor to veteran Rickard Sherman. Although, after Reuben Foster’s release, I wouldn’t put linebacker too far behind, as well.

“If the Niners arent able to land Bosa, what player would be the main priority?” Ricardo Garcia

Former Ohio State pass rusher Nick Bosa (6-4, 265) is the consensus top player on nearly every reputable 2019 NFL Draft big board. He’s the easy choice if the 49ers manage to land the No. 1 overall pick. Not far behind Bosa is another pass rusher that’s drawing rave reviews in Kentucky’s Josh Allen. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Allen’s racked up 84 total tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, five forced fumbles, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries so far in 2018. He’s a very good consolation prize if Bosa is beyond the 49ers’ reach come draft day.

“What offseason moves can legit make us super bowl contenders for next season?” T

It’s difficult to pinpoint all the moves the 49ers can make in one offseason to immediately catapult them into Super Bowl contenders. The roster has too many holes. But, for simplicities sake, let’s say the offense is in good hands under Kyle Shanahan, as long as Garoppolo’s recovery goes as planned. That sets our sights on the defensive side of the ball where the need for an elite pass rusher is painfully apparent. Landing Bosa in the draft is likely the best the 49ers could do in regards to immediate impact. Adding another talented pass rusher and some help in the secondary through free agency would add to the potency of the defense, and would represent a significant step forward for the roster.

“Who do you think will be the team’s main target in free agency?” Markus Brown

It’s a crap shoot, but I’ll go with Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford. He’s the best pass rusher that’s most likely to hit free agency. Names like Dallas Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence and Houston TexansJadeveon Clowney jump off the list, but I don’t expect they'll hit the open market. Ford has totaled 41 tackles, 26 quarterback hits, 11 sacks, eight tackles for loss and six forced fumbles so far in 2018.