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2 sleeper / breakout players for 2019

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A disappointing season masked some real progress

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers ended last season with a dismaying 4-12 record after a bad rash of injuries that led the team to overhaul their training and conditioning staff, and the disappointing (lack of) development of several highly touted youngsters (such as Ahkello Witherspoon, Joshua Garnett, Trent Taylor and Adrian Colbert).

But underneath those grim results, they upgraded the roster at almost every position (except in the secondary). Some of these improvements were obvious and much-discussed. (Hello, George Kittle!) Tackle Mike McGlinchey was considered for rookie of the year, and while Dante Pettis started the season slowly due to injury and erratic quarterback play, he was amazingly productive after the bye, as Kyle Posey recently broke down.

Here are two players I think might surprise you with big seasons in 2019: free agent slot receiver Jordan Matthews, and second-year linebacker Fred Warner.

You’re probably saying, “Warner got good marks all year, Mark. He led the team in tackles with 124. How can he be a sleeper?” And that’s true, but I think he’s still going to take a big leap forward.

Last year, as a rookie, he beat out first-round pick Reuben Foster to take over the defensive play-calling (green dot) role. Despite a few early rough patches, he learned quickly and was a solid performer all year — with a terrible secondary behind him, an underachieving pass rush in front of him, and Foster’s mid-season release after another domestic violence allegation.

Now he’ll be playing alongside Kwon Alexander, a player with Foster’s skill and enthusiasm. Alexander has also worn the green dot, so at the least he’ll allow the Niners to rest Warner without losing communication. It’s possible Kwon may take over the “defensive quarterback” role and free up Warner to just make plays. Either way, Warner has a full year of solid experience under his belt and with much more support all around him, he’ll be in a much better position to make plays.

On the offensive side, the Niners are likely to draft a talented wide receiver on day two to beef up their pass targets, along with Pettis, Kittle and speedster Marquise Goodwin (one of the fastest WRs in the NFL). But veteran FA slot receiver Jordan Matthews may be the one who surprises you with his production, particularly if one of those better-known names gets injured.

Matthews is not especially fast, or great at high-pointing or jump balls. All he does is produce against top competition. He’s the all-time SEC leader in receiving yards and averaged 891 yards a season as the Eagles’ third option in his first three seasons, before injuries hit him in 2017.

Last year, the Eagles didn’t target him much (28 times to be exact) but Matthews was great when they did: 20 receptions, 14 first downs, 2 touchdowns and 300 yards (for a 15.0 yard average, his career-best). He also showed the ability to play out wide.

As a 6’3” slot receiver, he’s a matchup dream for Shanahan as well as a very effective blocker, perfect for the Niners’ outside zone runs. I expect him to play a role like Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk — blocking first but deadly when he sneaks out for a pass, just when the defense has forgotten about him.

You know all those 15-20-yard-burst runs that Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert broke last year? They’ll be that much more effective with Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon running, and Matthews clearing out the LB or safety at the second level.

Sure, all eyes will be on Nick Bosa (or is it Quinnen Williams? Or Brian Burns?) and Jimmy G and Coleman and McKinnon and whoever the 49ers pick up on day two of the draft. But don’t forget about Matthews and Warner. Shanahan loves to punish opponents with the quiet players that opponents have lost track of.