The Niners do not have a WR1. And that’s just fine. It might even be part of the plan.
Would Shanahan love to have Julio Jones on his team again? Sure — if it didn’t require a trade and he wasn’t too expensive. Maybe he’ll join up with Shanahan again when his contract runs out in 5 years, or sooner if he’s cut for money reasons.
But the identity of this franchise is no name, unpretentious, team players. They are doing the dirty work. Players are as happy to block as to catch passes. Squads of wide receivers and running backs, not a marquee star — who can get injured or develop an attitude. A quarterback who is impressing nobody with his arm strength or mobility — and is 13-2 as a starter.
Lots of GMs talk about character, but few teams are willing to pass on talented players who don’t have it. Lynch has made some mistakes, such as Reuben Foster, and hopefully, he learned his lesson there, but in general, he has built a really solid culture for the team.
Stars make the TV highlight reel, but teams make goal-line stands and shut down their opponents on third and fourth down, as the Rams found out Sunday. On the best teams, the only player you want in fantasy is the defense.
A huge talent can be great, as the team is learning with Nick Bosa. But when you emphasize stars, you end up with a few high-paid divas and little depth, and you’re vulnerable to injury and game-planning around them.
Look at the Rams. They’re stuck with Goff and Gurley, two damaged stars with huge guaranteed contracts, plus two defensive stars who can’t carry a team by themselves. To get these big names, a team that had a draft haul from the RGIII trade ended up with no first-round picks over the next four years.
Stars can be schemed against
Yet, as great as Aaron Donald is — and he’s probably the best defensive lineman in football — Kyle Shanahan was able to scheme around him, even with three of his four best blockers out injured. How do you scheme against the Niners deep DL?
Jalen Ramsey won’t change the Rams’ situation, either. He complained about playing so much zone coverage in Jacksonville and is looking to play more man. He wants to be the hero and shut down WR1s. And it’s true, Ramsey can shut down pretty much any receiver in the NFL, except maybe the fastest (such as Marquise Goodwin).
But he can’t shut down two, or three, or four receivers at the same time. Which Niner does he cover? The team’s biggest receiving threat is tight end George Kittle, who blocks on most plays and offers Ramsey some match up challenges with his strength. Shutting Kittle down won’t cripple the Niners’ passing game.
Are you going to put him on, Dante Pettis? Deebo Samuel? Marquise Goodwin? Fine. Shanny won’t lose any sleep scheming around him, whatever you do. Keep his WR in to block, or send him deep on a post.
On the flip side, a roster full of strong WR2s, with different strengths and weaknesses, is full of chess pieces for Shanahan to play with, exploiting matchups and the element of surprise. As Kyle Posey noted, it forces Shanahan to spread it around and rely on his strengths.
How can a defensive coordinator prepare for all of the possibilities? Triple option plays by a fullback who used to play QB. Jet motion runs by a tight end. Goodwin — the team’s shortest, lightest receiver — inline blocking, or pretending to block and leaking out for a touchdown.
The Niners have weathered a terrible streak of injuries, and once reason they can weather, it is the lack of stars. There are plenty of options in every position. This is not, as some say, a “plug and play” roster. There are particular traits players need to fit in — notably speed, athleticism, and versatility. Ideally, every skill player can run, catch, block, or pass protect on a given play.
But a lot of non-star players fit those requirements, and they are often relatively cheap because other teams are looking for specialists, the first-round level running backs and receivers who aren’t going to want to stay in and block for someone else.
A winning attitude
Perhaps the most important part of this approach is the team focus. Set up your teammates to win. Even if you’re injured, as Joe Staley is, you can mentor your replacements and cheer them on. The combination of humility and teamwork makes winners.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of stars make a move late in their careers, accepting less money to play with a Super Bowl contender. Once they have their money and their stats, they want to win a ring. This is precisely the kind of team they join, and I’m sure the 49ers will pick up an aging star or two in the next couple of years.
So, could the Niners trade for WR1? Sure. Should they? Hell, no.