Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were great roster additions, but the secret to this 49ers team’s dominance is the players that only die-hard fans have heard off — the Raheem Mostert’s and Emmanuel Moseleys and Sheldon Days.
This team is suddenly very deep and talented, as a bunch of unheralded free agents and late-round picks have turned into solid rotation players, capable of starting if the injury requires. Consider:
A walk-on tight end at San Diego State. UDFA. Two years on the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad without making their 53-man roster. Eight games at tackle for the San Diego Fleet of the AAF, which doesn’t even exist anymore.
Brunskill, 25, was a surprise roster survivor this August because he is surprisingly athletic and played all five offensive line positions. Then he found himself starting at right tackle after a clump of injuries. Against the Los Angeles Rams, he was lined up across from Michael Brockers. Sunday, he was facing Gerald McCoy of the Panthers. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
He not only survived, but he also made Pro Football Focus’ team of the week, with a grade of 79.7, as the Niners picked up 232 yards rushing. He might even work out as a starting right tackle after Staley retires, and McGlinchey moves to LT. Don’t be surprised if Brunskill gets declared pass eligible on a goal line play at some point and is targeted; he pulled in 15 passes for 143 yards and 3 TDs in college.
This depth is making San Francisco very difficult to scheme against. Coordinators are great at putting weak links on your team in harm’s way, which is why the strategy of acquiring high-priced superstars doesn’t work. (Just ask the Los Angeles Rams, who had to give away a 5th round pick to give away Aquib Talib, just to afford Jalen Ramsey’s contract.)
That kind of salary cap hell leaves a team with marginal players on the field, and coordinators will pounce on them — as the Niners know too well from the last four years. Their roster was decimated by the 2015 post-Harbaugh exodus, and they were routinely torched as a result, giving up deep passes and chunk runs, watching linemen get pushed aside as talentless backs and receivers were stuffed.
When you can develop unknown, “free” players, you fill those holes, and opposing coordinators have no weak points to attack.
The 5’11” high school quarterback played four years as a Tennessee cornerback against SEC competition but went undrafted last year despite running a 4.42 40-yard dash at his pro day. The Niners signed him as a UDFA and cut him to the practice squad. He finally got promoted on November 1st, 2018 — before being knocked out for the season (separated shoulder) after just three special teams snaps.
Coming out of this year’s camp, Moseley backed up Akhello Witherspoon, who rebounded from a shaky sophomore season last year to look very impressive until a foot sprain knocked him out for a month. Facing four solid passing teams, Moseley has been outstanding. He started strong against Cleveland, breaking up a TD pass in the end zone, and has only gotten better. Facing the Panthers, he earned an 80.7 grade from PFF and notched his first interception.
There will be a legitimate CB controversy when Witherspoon returns. Does he get his job back when Moseley has been arguable more dominant? The Niners currently have the best pass defense in the NFL, and it’s dangerous to disrupt it.
My guess is that Saleh will rotate Moseley, Witherspoon, and Richard Sherman situationally while keeping them all rested. Akhello shares Sherman’s height (6’3”), making him the natural choice against taller receivers. Then again, Moseley might get some snaps at nickel, spelling K’Waun Williams who has also improved. He can develop versatility while preparing to succeed Sherman (now 31).
Bosa, McGlinchey, and Fred Warner aside, you can argue about how good John Lynch’s high draft picks have been. But he has been outstanding on day three: George Kittle and Trent Taylor in the 5th, D.J. Jones and Justin Skule in the 6th, Julian Taylor and Richie James, Jr. in the 7th.
And his UDFAs and players off the street are insane: Nick Mullens, Matt Breida, K’Waun Williams, Nzeocha, Dekoda Watson, Raheem Mostert, Mike Person, Emmanuel Moseley.
That’s a ton of talent to get for basically free. Breida is one of the NFL’s top running backs, and Mostert developed from a journeyman special teamer to a standout gunner and explosive depth running back, as his 41-yard touchdown from scrimmage against Carolina demonstrated.
Richie James, Jr. — from tiny Middle Tennessee State — has been a solid kick returner and is averaging 21.6 yards per reception in limited snaps, including a much-needed 40-yard completion during the mud slog against Washington.
The ability to find strong reserves for little or no cost tells you several encouraging things about this franchise.
1) Their scouting is excellent, especially at the margins.
Everyone knew Bosa was great, but finding Brunskill in the AAF and Breida, Mullens, and Moseley as UDFAs is impressive.
2) The scheme helps.
Shanahan prizes versatility, intelligence, and raw speed, where other teams emphasize reputation, size, and college production, and the front office knows how to find what he wants. Until more coaches start imitating Shanahan’s schemes, this will keep the players he wants relatively cheap.
3) The staff is teaching well.
Raw players on this roster improve dramatically over time, whether on the practice squad or the pine. Look at Brunskill or his fellow tackle Justin Skule; a sixth-round pick whom no one expected to be starting before mid-season. Given how complicated these formations are, on both sides of the ball, that is impressive.
4) Veteran players are teaching, as well.
Savvy veterans such as Joe Staley and Richard Sherman have been generous in their mentoring of the green kids rushed into the starting lineup, and the results are impressive. The OL and DBs are the units with the most impressive depth development.
The most important trait for a franchise’s continued success is the ability to restock their roster with relatively inexpensive talent. Lynch and his personnel team are showing that, and it might be the difference between a team with one miracle year, and a franchise that wins until 2025.