The coaching, chemistry, and collective strength of the San Francisco 49ers looks promising heading into 2018. Solid, if unspectacular, is an apt characterization of the team right now. A lot of that is due to the much-needed overhaul that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan orchestrated upon arrival, resulting in an influx of youth and veteran role players. San Francisco is currently in the Vegas books as an 8.5- to 9-win team. As the cliché goes, football is a game of inches. This hit especially close to home for San Francisco last season, when they became the first team in NFL history to lose five consecutive games by three points or less. Despite what coaches and players will say in post-game interviews after losing a close one, sometimes it really is one or two plays or players that make the difference.
If the Niners want to push for a playoff spot this season, they’ll need to turn the tables and get on the winning side of those games. A few more guys aside from Garoppolo will have to step up and make plays at crucial points in the game. Today, we take a look at a handful of the names who could emerge as big-play difference makers.
Note: Jimmy Garoppolo was excluded from this list. Not because he’s not a playmaker but because he’s in a distinct category of his own as quarterback. He’s the pulse of the offense; the catalyst. The players referred to here are the ones Garoppolo will be counting on—through the air, on the ground, and on special teams—to deliver impact plays that can change the course of the game.
The Deep-Threat Known Commodity: Marquise Goodwin
The 49ers’ greatest threat at wide receiver is Goodwin: one of the fastest players in the league. After leaving Buffalo to join San Francisco last year, he turned in his most productive season as a pro. If he can stay healthy, he should be able to at least replicate last year’s performance—albeit with less targets due to Pierre Garçon’s return and more mouths to feed on offense. That’s a bigger “if” than I think most are accounting for. Goodwin is far from the epitome of durability. His tenure in Buffalo was plagued by injury and he suffered a concussion in the 2017 season finale against the Los Angeles Rams.
Nevertheless, his vertical speed is something opposing defenses have to account for; they have to make sure he stays in front of them. If he gets behind the secondary or has enough space around him while he’s on the move, there’s no one on the field that’s going to catch him.
The Redzone Target: George Kittle
Kittle comes into his second NFL season looking to build greater chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo and, most importantly, stay healthy. The former Iowa tight end turned in an impressive debut season despite gritting through a rash of injuries last year. He wrapped 2017 with 515 yards on 43 receptions and two touchdowns, including a 100-yard outing vs the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17. The stat line is more impressive when you consider how battered and bruised he was, and the fact that he played on a putrid offense with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at the helm until Garoppolo arrived.
Regardless of who was under center, Kittle demonstrated great game-speed for a 249-pound tight end and notched some key plays to move the chains. At 6’4, he’s the largest target (outside of fellow 6’5 TE Garrett Celek) for Jimmy Garoppolo in the passing game. There’s no reason to think Kittle can’t take a big step forward in Year 2—specifically as a go-to guy in the red zone. The 49ers improved in red zone efficiency when Garoppolo took over last year, but there were still plenty of instances where they left points on the board or had to settle for field goals. Against the Bears, the Niners were 0-5 on touchdowns in the red zone. In the following two games, they went 2-4 and 1-4 against the Texans and Titans, respectively. As the offense continues to gel and Shanahan introduces a few new pages in his playbook, Kittle is likely to be one of the focal points inside the 20- and 10-yard line.
Garrett Celek finished the year strong and he’ll still figure into the offense. He developed a good rapport with Garoppolo at the close of the season and Shanahan places a premium on the multiple tight-end sets in his offense. Kittle, though, has the youth and athleticism to thrive in 2018.
The Swiss Army Knife: Dante Pettis
Shanahan and Lynch picked Pettis in the second round of this year’s draft; he was the fourth receiver off the board. What was regarded as a huge reach around the league and by draft experts was a very purposeful selection for San Francisco. In other words, Shanahan has a very clear plan in mind for how he wants to use Pettis in his offense. The former Washington Husky has decent height (6’1) but at 186 lbs, he could get bullied at the line of scrimmage and thrown off his route. That said, you can expect the offensive staff to dial up some creative rub and wheel routes to help Pettis get early separation. Once he has the ball in space, he’s a serious threat to make people miss and take off.
Trent Taylor did an admirable job in punt return duties last season, an area that—outside of Ted Ginn—the franchise has seemingly struggled in for forever. Pettis, however, brings game-breaker potential to the position. During his four years in Washington, he amassed 1,274 punt return yards, taking 9 back for touchdowns—an all-time NCAA record.
The versatility Pettis offers is a prime factor in why the 49ers placed such a high value on him. His special teams talent was on full display in college and should give Garoppolo and co. a huge boost in terms of field position. How much he can contribute as a wide receiver will ultimately determine whether or not the second-round selection was warranted or an ill-fated leap of faith.
The Dark Horse Candidate: Joe Williams
First things first: Jerick McKinnon is “the guy” in the offensive backfield. He’s going to see the lion’s share of snaps and get plenty of work in the passing game as well; the amount of cash the team threw at him says as much. Matt Breida will figure into the mix after registering a solid rookie campaign last year, especially for an undrafted free agent. Depending on where things shake out in training camp, Joe Williams could end up making the 53-man roster in his sophomore season and carving out a role, too.
McKinnon runs extremely hard and can catch out of the backfield. He’s quick (he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the combine in 2014) and powerful. If you watch his tape from Minnesota, you’ll see that he never shies away from contact; in fact, he gravitates toward it. That’s one of the weaker aspects of his game though: he doesn’t excel at making people miss.
I’m standing by my belief that Joe Williams secures a roster spot. If he does, he can truly be an X-factor. He might only see a few snaps a game but don’t be surprised if Shanahan calls specific plays to allow Williams the chance to shine. At Utah, Williams showed a knack for being able to find a crease, make his defender miss, and spring long gains. Heading into this season, there looks to be little—if any—middle ground for the second-year back: he either gets cut or develops into a valuable, even if rarely used, weapon for the offense.