2018 is passing into our rear view mirror Monday evening, and so it is time for a look back at the year that was for the San Francisco 49ers. We’ll be breaking down plenty from 2018 over the coming months, but for New Years Eve, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the 10 biggest 49ers stories of 2018. I would say No. 1 is the clear top one, but the remaining nine can probably be ordered in just about any manner you want.
Happy New Year!
10. 49ers selected to coach South team at Senior Bowl
OK, so we’re kind of cheating with this first one. The 49ers won’t coach the South team until late January, but the news broke on New Years Eve, so I’m counting it! The 49ers might get a chance to coach Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen that week, and that could be a huge deal. The 49ers hold the No. 2 overall pick in the April draft, and Allen could be a guy they keep a close eye on as the draft approaches. Getting a week with Allen at the Senior Bowl would be huge for evaluation purposes.
9. Ken Norton hired as assistant HC, leaves a week later to become Seahawks defensive coordinator
This next one is more about what didn’t happen than what did. On January 8th, the 49ers announced that Ken Norton, Jr. had been hired as assistant head coach with the designation of defense/inside linebackers. A week later, he left to become the Seattle Seahawks new defensive coordinator. It is a story most of us likely forgot about given how quick the turnaround was, but I would argue it was one of the most notable stories of 2018. Robert Saleh appears to be secure in his DC role, but had Norton entered the picture, I wonder what the situation might have been like with some of the inconsistencies on that side of the ball. Would there have been any kind of power struggle? It’s all speculation, but it could have been an intriguing test of Kyle Shanahan’s leadership skills.
8. Jerick McKinnon tears his ACL
The 49ers signed McKinnon to a four-year deal last offseason, in a deal that included $11.7 million guaranteed at signing. McKinnon has never been a work-horse back, but the thought was his athleticism would give Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner something they could do big things with in the run and pass game.
Fast forward to early September, and McKinnon tore his ACL in practice. Shanahan acknowledged the injury resulted in significant changes to their playbook, which was the first big impact of this injury. There was some upside however, as the injury thrust Matt Breida into the starting lineup. Ankle injuries slowed him for stretches of the season, but he broke out in a big way. He finished the season ranked fourth in yards per carry, and likely would have surpassed 1,000 yards rushing if not for the ankle issues.
7. One rookie class struggles, as another excels
For the second straight season, the 49ers got big work from their rookie class. A year ago, it looked like they had several key pieces in their 2017 draft class. Solomon Thomas got off to a slow start, but Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, George Kittle, Trent Taylor, and Adrian Colbert all earned significant playing time as rookies, and were viewed as key contributors heading into 2018.
Kittle broke out in a big way this season, but it was a lot more misses than hits in year two. Thomas and Witherspoon both seemed to pick up momentum in the back half of the season, and D.J. Jones got a starting opportunity these last few weeks, but Taylor dealt with a back issue that likely slowed him and Colbert ended up on injured reserve midway through the season.
2018 saw the next rookie class have its own breakthrough campaign, but after last year I think more of us will be a little hesitant before crowning too many of these players.
- Mike McGlinchey had his growing pains, but was a solid presence at right tackle.
- Dante Pettis was slowed early by injuries, but emerged as the team’s best wide receiver in Weeks 12-15.
- Fred Warner took over as MIKE and even with rookie growing pains was a stabilizing influence when the team released Reuben Foster.
- Tarvarius Moore was a core special teamer and has earned some defensive playing time the last couple weeks. He’s shown some good things in his transition from safety to cornerback and will compete with Ahkello Witherspoon in the offseason
- D.J. Reed has played free safety and nickel back with some regularity these past few weeks. He has looked better at nickel back, but could compete at both positions this offseason.
- Marcell Harris opened the season on injured reserve, but made his debut in Week 9. He moved into the starting lineup in Week 13, and has shown progress, particularly as an open-field tackler.
- Defensive lineman Jullian Taylor and wide receiver/returner Richie James have quietly gotten work, but represent a second straight season of contributions from seventh round picks.
6. Richard Sherman joins a rival
On the one hand, it was not entirely shocking Sherman would go to the Seahawks archrival after his release. On the other hand, Sherman to the 49ers is something I don’t think a single 49ers fan would have predicted during the heyday of the Legion of Boom.
Coming off a 2017 torn Achilles, Sherman signed a deal that was effectively a prove-it deal, and I’d say he proved it. Sherman acknowledged not being completely back to normal at the start of the season, but has looked like the Sherman of old for much of this season. Opponents rarely target him, and while that is due in part to Ahkello Witherspoon’s early struggles, teams have continued avoiding him even as the rest of the 49ers secondary has shown some improvement in recent weeks.
Where Sherman has been most valuable however is added veteran leadership on the defensive side of the ball. He stepped in as a leader starting during the offseason workout program, and has remained in that role throughout the season. The young players still have plenty to prove, but Sherman has become a rock for the defense. The 49ers can get out of his contract this year thanks to a lack of 2019 guaranteed money, but that won’t be happening.
5. Reuben Foster arrested three times and finally released
The 49ers knew Foster had off-field issues coming out of college. He made it through his rookie season without getting in trouble, although the injury red flag from pre-draft evaluations popped up throughout 2017. But he had stayed out of trouble. That changed early in the 2018 offseason.
He was arrested in Alabama in January for marijuana possession, and then arrested in February for suspicion of domestic violence, making criminal threats, and possessing illegal weapons. The marijuana charge was eventually dismissed after he went through a first-time offender diversion program. The domestic violence charge was dropped after the accuser testified under oath that she had fabricated the story. Foster pled no contest to a reduced weapons charge, and was eventually suspended for two games by the NFL for the weapon and drug charges.
Foster returned to the field in Week 3, but shoulder issues slowed him down. Eventually the team deactivated him in hopes he could get back to 100 percent later in the season. And then on November 24th, he was arrested at the team hotel in Tampa the night before the 49ers faced the Buccaneers on suspicion of domestic violence involving the same woman from the February arrest. He was released the next day and claimed off waivers by Washington.
The 49ers rolled the dice on Foster in several ways. His shoulder and off-field issues were red flags heading into the draft. As John Lynch has said a couple times, they’re not drafting a team made up entirely of choir boys. And yet, they also have to figure out where their blind spots are and make sure they avoid these kinds of mistakes. You can afford to make mistakes in the later rounds, but when you are releasing a first round pick less than halfway through his rookie deal, that’s what can eventually lead to people getting fired.
4. DeForest Buckner breaks out with double digit sacks
A year ago, DeForest Buckner was among the league leaders in quarterback pressures by defensive tackles, finishing fifth behind Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Cameron Heyward, and Jurrell Casey. However, while those four all ranked in the top seven in sacks, Buckner ranked 25th. This year, Buckner ranked sixth in pressures, but finished third among defensive tackles in sacks.
I don’t know think many people are shocked Buckner started closing the deal on sacks, but it was still a big deal for this defense. This offseason is the first time he can negotiate a new contract, and the 49ers have until May to decide on exercising his fifth year option. They were assuredly going to exercise it, but seeing him break through with 12 sacks might be enough to convince the 49ers to try and push through a contract extension sooner rather than later.
3. George Kittle breaks out in a big way
The 49ers appeared to get solid value in the fifth round last year when Kittle finished the season as their second leading receiver, with 43 receptions for 515 yards and two touchdowns. Injuries impacted his playing time, but he was clearly a solid tight end.
A year later, he has gone from solid value to one of the bigger steals of the draft. Kittle finished the season with 88 receptions for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. The receptions and yards are franchise records for a tight end, and the yards are an NFL record. Additionally, he became the first tight end to finish the season as the NFL leader in yards after the catch. Considering it was only his second season, it’s easy to be really excited about Kittle’s future.
2. C.J. Beathard injures his wrist, Nick Mullens moves into the starting lineup
The 49ers lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3, and he was replaced by Beathard. The 49ers promoted Mullens from the practice squad to serve as Beathard’s backup. Considering the 49ers had spent a third round pick on Beathard and he had done some decent work in 2017 before Garoppolo arrived, it seemed likely he would finish out the season as the starter.
Beathard made some plays in his first five starts of 2018, but his accuracy was inconsistent and he struggled with pocket presence. He was sacked 18 times, with three resulting in the ball being stripped out. He suffered an injury to his right wrist in Week 8, and the short week leading up to the Raiders game resulted in Mullens getting the start. He put together one of the best debut performances in NFL history, completing 72 percent of his passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 win over Oakland.
Mullens saw his numbers decline each of the next two weeks, throwing for 471 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions combined against the Giants and Buccaneers. It seemed like maybe reality was quickly setting in and Mullens would only have his one brief shining moment.
Mullens put together some decent numbers in a Week 13 road loss to the Seahawks, but it came mostly in garbage time. However, he bounced back in a big way the next two weeks. In two straight home wins over Denver and Seattle, Mullens threw for 607 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. That included snapping a ten-game losing streak to the Seahawks.
Mullens took some lumps in the final two weeks, but he is firmly in the mix for the backup job. And this season’s No. 1 story proved how important that backup job is....
1. Jimmy Garoppolo tears his ACL
When Garoppolo went down late against the Chiefs and was carted off, most assumed the worst. It was confirmed shortly after, and as soon as that happened, the top 49ers story of 2018 was settled. The 49ers were not Super Bowl contenders before he got hurt, but they were projected as a wild card contender. Once Garoppolo got hurt, the 49ers playoff dreams, and really even their dreams of a .500+ season went down the tubes.