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Robert Saleh will be one of the coaches that defines 2018

Jimmy Garoppolo is the big story, but the defense could be key to taking a big step forward.

The San Francisco 49ers head into the 2018 season with high expectations, primarily because of Jimmy Garoppolo. They’ve got playmakers on both sides of the ball, but we know the impressive Super Bowl odds and higher win total odds are based on Jimmy Garoppolo’s five game win streak and offseason contract extension.

However, if the 49ers are going to take a step forward and make some real noise in 2018, it might come down to what Robert Saleh’s defense is able to do. The team added Richard Sherman in free agency and will look for an impact from Fred Warner and maybe Tarvarius Moore. But with no big name or high draft pick additions to the pass rush, questions abound to its efficacy.

On Wednesday, ESPN posted their list of 99 players, coaches, and themes that will define 2018. They list out 99 names and things, but they group them into various categories. They talk about veteran stars returning from injury, rising stars returning from injury, coaches on the hot seat, free agent acquisitions who will make a big impact, rule changes, and more.

The 49ers end up with three names on the list. Richard Sherman is listed among the veteran stars returning from injury. ESPN had this to say about him:

It’s fair to wonder if Sherman, 30, will have lost a step once he returns from a torn Achilles tendon. But his presence will bring an important attitude to the 49ers’ young defense, and he’ll be highly motivated to lift them above and beyond his former team (and division rival) in Seattle.

Jerick McKinnon shows up among free agent acquisitions who will make a big impact.

It’s fair to argue that the 49ers overpaid relative to the market. McKinnon will earn the second-highest cash total ($12 million) among all running backs in 2018. But there is no question how productive he could be, especially as a receiver, in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

And of course, Jimmy Garoppolo was listed among young quarterbacks who could make the jump.

He has still not lost an NFL game as a starting quarterback. If that continues, all other storylines will pale in comparison. But assuming it doesn’t, the ups and downs of Garoppolo’s development will be worth watching. What he did as a midseason trade acquisition who didn’t have time to learn the offense is incredible and has led to sky-high optimism in the Bay Area.

There was no grouping for “coordinators facing uncertainty (or big expectations, or anything else).” They had a limit to what they include, but if the 49ers do manage to make the playoffs this year, I would not be at all surprised if it’s because of that defense taking a step forward. It will primarily be because of the players, but the pressure will be on Robert Saleh to get this group going, and he’ll carry some measure of the success or failure of the group.