The San Francisco 49ers finished off the 2018 season with an impressive five-game winning streak, setting the team up for high expectations this offseason. Jimmy Garoppolo was the difference-maker, and that has turned the team into an offseason darling.
The 49ers still face a tough challenge in a division led by the Los Angeles Rams and still dealing with Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. This is likely a continued transition year, but the playoffs are not exactly completely off the radar. If a few things go right for the team, they could snag a wild card spot. And if we see a regression from the Los Angeles Rams, the division is not entirely out of the picture.
Over the past month, NFL.com’s writer Marc Sessler has been going through all 32 teams to provide five reasons they will make the 2018-19 NFL playoffs. Some are more difficult than others, but in light of the Vegas Golden Knights unexpected playoff run in their inaugural season, it’s easy to get optimistic about almost anybody. On Tuesday, Sessler took a look at the 49ers potential road to the playoffs.
Naturally, Jimmy Garoppolo leads the way. The 49ers need other players to step up, but if the team is going to take that next big step in 2018, Jimmy G will be a big reason why.
The remaining four reasons included the following:
The mind of Kyle Shanahan
In reality, all five of the reasons are obvious ones, but they’re still important. The 49ers took a big step into the free agency market to add running back Jerick McKinnon. Kyle Shanahan loves using his running backs in the passing game, and this where his creativity could make McKinnon fully worth the deal he signed. As noted by Matthew Berry, last year the 49ers ranked top five in the NFL in RB receptions, RB targets, and RB receiving yards. Additionally, during Kyle Shanahan’s time in Atlanta, the Falcons were eighth in RB receptions, fifth in RB receiving yards, led the NFL in RB red zone receiving yards, and were second in RB red zone receptions.
The creativity will go beyond that, but McKinnon is going to be a critical tool to this offense in 2018. Jimmy Garoppolo will need to build on last season, and McKinnon could make his life a lot easier.
Rapid, organized roster building
The team has had a massive overhaul at numerous positions, including quarterback, wide receiver, the offensive line, cornerback, and safety. The team is likely to make some more changes with roster cuts, but John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have firmly put their stamp on this team. In reality, one more offseason of roster work is probably necessary to make the playoffs, but if they hit on this year’s free agency and draft class, and we see the 2017 class take another step forward, the playoffs are not entirely unlikely.
A less-than-stellar NFC West
The Seahawks will be in contention as long as they have Russell Wilson in his prime, but they are seemingly closer to rebuilding than Super Bowl contention. Those two 49ers-Seahawks games won’t necessarily decide the team that finishes higher, but if the 49ers want to take a step forward, they have to beat Seattle for the first time sine 2013. A sweep is not entirely off the table given how they performed last season, but bare minimum, they have to split.
The Arizona Cardinals have moved on from Carson Palmer at quarterback. They have some veterans around the roster, but given Sam Bradford’s injury history, there is a better than even chance Josh Rosen sees the field at some point as a rookie. I do think Rosen will be among the better quarterbacks from this class, and they could surprise folks, but it’s hard to see them anywhere but the cellar of the division.
And that leaves the Rams. They are the runaway favorite after last year’s emergence coupled with some huge moves this offseason. That defense is ridiculously stacked, and puts Jared Goff in a position where he doesn’t need a huge emergence for them to repeat as division champs.
Valuable mix of youth and experience
We’ve talked plenty about the addition of Richard Sherman, but one veteran I am particularly curious about this year is Malcolm Smith. The 49ers gave him a sizable deal last season only to see him tear his pectoral muscle in training camp and spend the season on injured reserve. There were questions about the deal a year ago, but with NaVorro Bowman gone, he is the veteran presence Reuben Foster and Fred Warner will learn from this year. He knows Robert Saleh’s defense, and could get a chance to lead it from the MIKE position if the team decides to give Foster a little more free reign without the need to call defensive plays.
We’ve talked plenty about Richard Sherman’s early impact on the secondary, and Joe Staley is making an early impact on
Weston Richburg Mike McGlinchey. There will be plenty of that up and down the roster, and if they find the right connection, maybe the 49ers surprise some folks and take an even bigger step!