What makes a player watchable?
It’s a simple question, but can be interpreted in many ways. For me, the bottom line is: Which players do your eyes gravitate to? The best players, sure. But also the bad ones — say, the offensive lineman who can’t block on a 3rd & 10. Rookies. Players new to the team. Guys returning from injury. That’s what this list is all about. The guys my eyes will go to first once these games get rolling — whether it’s with hope, fear, or simple curiosity.
My tastes tend toward mysteries. How will Player X look coming back from injury? How will Player Y perform in a salary year? How good will Player Z be in Shanahan’s scheme? And who named all these players after letters in the alphabet?
Just to show you where my head’s at, among non-Niners the No. 1 most watchable player right now for me is Baker Mayfield — not because I think he’ll be great, but because I can’t wait to see how he does, good or bad. Either way, how it goes over in Cleveland will be epic. Especially since the sideshow will be on HBO. My No. 1 most watchable team would be the Los Angeles Rams, again because it’s a great story either way it goes — though obviously I’d rather see their flag-throwing, chain-snatching, habitual Packer-stepping acquisitions display more of their attitude issues than their talent.
So who are the most watchable 49ers heading into training camp?
1. Jimmy Garoppolo
I know, totally obvious. That’s why I didn’t countdown to No. 1 — because I hate predictable, anti-climactic endings. Predictable, anti-climactic openings on the other hand? Pure gold.
I don’t think there’s a wide range of feelings about Jimmy G’s 2018 season among 49er fans. I’m anticipating it for the same reasons you are. We all know the risks. We all share the same hopes and dreams. We’ve bought the ticket, we’re just waiting for the ride to start. I know I’m ready.
How ready? While others were watching a certain TMZ video last week, I was re-watching these 12 minutes of Jimmy G highlights for 73rd time (come for the highlights, stay for the infectious grooves!):
2. Richard Sherman
Sherman is going to play for the 49ers. Perhaps you’ve heard. I think Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz said it best in Apocalypse Now, “That’s my dream, that’s my nightmare.” I’ve had all off-season to prepare for it. I’ve seen him mentor teammates, support them in court, pick up a nickname, even coach up Jimmy G, but somehow I still feel emotionally unprepared to see him line up in the red and gold.
Of course, the big question is how he’s going to bounce back from the Achilles injury, which has been known to bring down many a fierce warrior. Like, say Achilles for instance. His heel became such a weakness, his name is now a universal metaphor for weakness. So as many positive reports as we’ve heard about Sherman’s recovery this off-season, and as great as it was to see him work out, you have to wonder how he’ll bounce back. That would be true even if there weren’t whispers that he’d lost a step even before the injury. All of which makes every chance to see him play must watch TV.
3. Solomon Thomas
Whether you’re disappointed by his rookie season or not, it’s pretty easy to find someone who agrees. Either way, you’re probably curious to see what he brings to the field this year. Some smart folks think he’ll have a breakout year. I expect good things, but I’m not so sure that I’m not anxious to watch every snap looking for evidence one way or the other.
4. Reuben Foster
It was hard to find fault with anything Foster did on the field last year, other than how often he had to leave it. I thought his nickname might become “Stinger.” He’s vowed to change his tackling technique to address that, but the same was said in his college days. So I’d be interested to see how much he’s able to avoid injuries this year even if his off-season was quiet and uneventful.
BREAKING: His off-season was not quiet or uneventful.
Now we can add, “How will he respond to all the adversity/exposure/criticism he experienced since last year?” I believe Foster will be extra motivated to show what he can do on the field, especially after having to wait for two games. Imagine Foster with a chip on his shoulder. Then consider he plays like this in meaningless preseason games:
LOL Foster is ridiculous. (sorry one of my favorite players to watch already.) pic.twitter.com/FbZWjRMc4J— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) August 28, 2017
5. Jerick McKinnon
Is he an overpaid 3rd down back, or a starter finally getting his big chance? We can look at tape and see what he’s capable of, but not what he can do carrying the bulk of the workload, or what his talents will look like in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Speaking of running backs in a Shanahan system, the production I envision out of McKinnon is reminiscent of Ricky Watters’ 1994 season under Kyle’s dad. Watters actually had a career low rushing total (877 yards on 237 carries), but a career high in receiving yards (719 yards on 66 catches, and 88 targets). I see McKinnon sharing carries with Matt Breida, Joe Williams, even Kyle Juszczyk, keeping his rushing total down for a starter — and reducing the pounding he takes — while being one of the more dangerous receivers out of the backfield in the league. But what do I know?
6. Arik Armstead
See: Solomon Thomas. Some of the same questions surround them. Does he belong inside or outside -- or is he a tweener? Will he be able to convert more quarterback pressures into sacks? Can he ever justify his lofty draft status? With Armstead, you can add one more: Can he stay healthy?
I actually have a good feeling about Armstead this year, but that’s a lot of question marks for a player. And you know what they say, “Mo’ question marks, mo’ watchability.”
7. Jerry Attaochu
If you haven’t heard a ton of discussion about the 49ers issues getting pressure on opposing QBs, especially from the outside, then ... Welcome to Niners Nation! Whether it was desired free agency signees, or wish-casting mock drafts, the lust for a dynamic edge rusher runs rampant ‘round these parts. And for good reason — it’s clearly the unit where the 49ers which could most use an influx of talent/production.
Enter Attaochu. I’ve written before about how much I was impressed with his first NFL game, when he used tremendous athleticism to record a sack, forced fumble, and blocked punt. Attaochu’s potential has intrigued me ever since, despite his lack of production. Even as a card-carrying member of his fan club, I know he’s far from a sure thing to fill the 49ers void on the edge. But surely it’s worth watching him try.
8. Adrian Colbert
Colbert was probably the biggest pleasant surprise in last year’s draft — though Trent Taylor could say something about that. You just don’t expect a seventh round pick to be a solidified starter by the end of the season. You don’t expect them to cause a former first round pick to move positions because he took theirs. You don’t expect them to tweet like a veteran.
But Colbert is not your typical seventh round pick. He only played 22 games at two different colleges, and only seven his last two seasons. One might question why he played so infrequently in college, but you can’t question how he’s played in the pros. And you can hold his pedigree as a seventh round pick against him, but being undrafted didn’t keep James Harrison from being Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl hero. Still, it’s only natural for some nagging doubt to remain, so I’m anxious to see him prove it over the course of a full season. Keep in mind he had only two interceptions in college and is still looking for his first NFL pick. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t fly around and make impact plays.
Forced fumble for @AdrianColbert25 and Aaron Lynch with the recovery! #SFvsHOU pic.twitter.com/9DFHkU5ccT— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 10, 2017
9. Kendrick Bourne
There has been talk about the 49ers lack of superior skill position talent, specifically their wide receiver corps. Pierre Garçon is solid, but not a game-breaker. Marquise Goodwin has game-breaking speed, but lacks size and consistency. Dante Pettis has potential, but has yet to prove anything in the pros — not mention his own size limitations. But the WR who caught my eye more than any other down the stretch last year was Bourne. He lacks the top-end speed you’d like to see, but has exhibited elite quickness. He played against inferior talent at Eastern Washington, but was part of the top receiving duo in FCS history with Cooper Kupp, who had no problem adjusting to the NFL. Bourne is raw, but appeared to make major strides last year, and seemed to develop a rapport with Garoppolo. If you told me there’s a future star WR on the 49ers roster, he’d be my pick. Not to go all Brian’s Song on you, but I love Kendrick Bourne, and I’d like all of you to love him, too.
10. Joe Williams
The waiting may be the hardest part, but it also tends to ramp up the mystery. I’ve been intrigued since he was drafted, and it takes more than a lost rookie year to dim those hopes.
While I’m listing the most watchable, I also want to look at the other side of the coin. Normally I’d go with a player, but overwhelming evidence points to someone who (mis)evaluates them for a living.
Any pessimism I had about Sherman returning to 100 percent was eased by Dilfer’s proclamation that he wouldn’t. I can’t remember the exact moment I stopped listening to Dilfer’s “analysis,” but it might’ve been when he called Blaine Gabbert a “special” draft prospect, likening him to John Elway. Poorly-aged Dilfer takes are everywhere. From his pro-Baalke nonsense, to the video clip of him slamming the Seahawks for passing on Andy Dalton in 2011 — and saying they “overdrafted nearly every single position” despite taking K.J. Wright in the 4th round and Sherman in the 5th. Now he’s taking on science, doubting CTE and global warming. At this point, Dilfer should just pull a George Costanza and do The Opposite.
Speaking of being wrong, I’m sure your list of Most Watchables differs greatly from mine. Who did I miss? DeFo? Marquise Goodwin? One of the rookies? Who will your eyes gravitate to when the 49ers finally take the field?