It’s been a while since I’ve been able to craft a piece for Niners Nation. With training camp set to commence on Friday, it seemed like the perfect time to break down key areas of intrigue. As many pundits and columnists have noted, this year is one of high variance for San Francisco. It’s just as likely the Niners surprise people and push for a playoff appearance as it is that they continue to stumble to another four- or six-win season.
Here are some reasons to be excited and concerned, which, ultimately, offer insight into why both scenarios are possible.
Reasons for excitement
Jimmy Garoppolo’s return
The mania and renewed optimism that came with Garoppolo’s emergence at the end of 2017 came to a screeching halt when the 49ers lost their new franchise quarterback for the year, just three weeks into the 2018 season. Ten months later, Jimmy Garoppolo is back under center. Garoppolo is a fierce competitor—he’s likely equally as excited to get back to playing football as he is to prove to himself and observers that he’s one of the league’s better quarterbacks. Despite being on the shelf for 2018, the former Tom Brady understudy was still able to get another year to digest Kyle Shanahan’s concepts and playbook.
The team Garoppolo comes back to has a record-setting tight end, a trio of talented running backs, a promising second-year tackle in Mike McGlinchey, and a host of young wide receivers.
The pass rush
San Francisco has had zero pass rush since 2013. Addressing the pass rush was de-prioritized in 2018, and it showed on the field. The 49ers only had 37 sacks, 12 of which came from their most gifted defensive player, DeForest Buckner. In 2019, it was the focal point of the offseason. Acquiring Dee Ford and Nick Bosa could pay tremendous dividends for the 49ers. Last year, teams had to make sure DeForest Buckner didn’t bust through the middle. Even if Buckner broke through, opposing quarterbacks could sidestep in either direction to buy time because nobody was there to meet them coming off of the edge.
The presence of Ford and Bosa now gives opponents three players to worry about, spread across the line. It could also elevate the play of an underwhelming Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead, who showed some improvement last season and is now playing for a new contract. If Bosa is as good as advertised and Ford picks up where he left off last year in Kansas City, the 49ers could be a top-ten team in this category.
A sum-is-greater-than-its-parts stable of running backs
Despite not yet knowing what Jerick McKinnon will offer to the offense or what role he’ll have a year removed from a torn ACL, the running back position looks to be one of the Niners’ most significant strengths.
Matt Breida turned more than a few heads with the season he churned out last year, despite playing through injuries in an offense thin on talent. And, in one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, the 49ers brought Tevin Coleman over from Atlanta to reunite with Kyle Shanahan. Coleman can catch out of the backfield and is already well versed in the offense. That, coupled with Breida’s coming out party last season, gives the 49ers the leisure to bring McKinnon along at a pace they feel comfortable with.
The one caution here is that McKinnon may feel added pressure to assert himself early with the addition of Coleman and the emergence of Breida. Healthy competition elevates everyone but McKinnon would be wise to make sure he doesn’t overexert himself and risk a setback or re-injury.
Robbie Gould inking a new deal
Kickers are criminally underrated players —especially in today’s NFL, where so many games are decided by their own feet. If you recall, the 49ers set a record in 2017 for most consecutive losses by three points or fewer with five.
The way things looked a few weeks ago, Robbie Gould was going to hold out indefinitely and possibly force a trade. Now, he’ll be reporting for training camp with a hefty new contract that locks him in for at least the next two years. Gould has been a very bright spot on a dismal team the past couple of seasons. He only missed one field goal last season, notching a 97.1% completion rate: the best in the NFL. If you’re looking at career leaders in NFL field goal percentage, he’s number two all-time. His game-winner in December snapped the 49ers ten-game losing streak to Seattle.
Gould’s presence is a massive boon for a young team that can’t be expected to generate big leads against opponents. Yes, he’s a kicker...the statistical-best a season ago, coming off the three best years of his career, with the veteran experience that includes kicking in the harsh conditions of Soldier Field and a 2006 postseason in which he was a perfect 6/6 en route to the Super Bowl.
Reasons for concern
A history of injury
Injuries happen. It’s one thing to experience an excessive amount of unfortunate key injuries like the 49ers did last season; it’s another to continue to actively acquire so many players that either has a lengthy injury history or are coming off of major ones. As it stands right now, there is no reason to think—based on what’s been demonstrated throughout their careers—that players like Jimmie Ward and newly-acquired Jason Verrett will all of a sudden become these durable players they’ve never been. Ward already broke his collarbone running around in shorts during OTAs. The fact that John Lynch and the coaching staff are relying on these players to be critical contributors defies logic. While linebacker Kwon Alexander’s skill is undeniable, he’s also coming off of a torn ACL. Deebo Samuel is a game-breaker; he’s also a guy who has experienced chronic hamstring injuries and a broken right fibula in his collegiate career. Third-round receiver Jalen Hurd is nursing an injury too. Even Nick Bosa has some question marks. His final season at Ohio State was limited to just three games thanks to core muscle surgery, and his OTA participation was minimal after suffering a mild hamstring strain.
Part of this, again, is out of the organization’s control, but for a team that’s endured so many costly injuries, one would think that a clean bill of health would be a chief requisite for targeting players, versus the minimal afterthought it appears to be for this front office. Thus far, these gambles haven’t paid off for the 49ers—it’s hard to envision that changing.
A suspect secondary
The Niners stand to benefit significantly from an improved pass rush; they also might desperately need it to help compensate for what looks to be a very lackluster secondary. This unit was one of the NFL’s worst in 2018 and set a league record for fewest interceptions in a season.
San Francisco is counting on the likes of perpetually-injured Jimmie Ward, Jaquaski Tartt, and Jason Verrett; a 31-year-old Richard Sherman; and Ahkello Witherspoon, who’s coming off of a truly miserable 2018 campaign. In a perfect world, the coaching staff envisions Sherman returning to dominant pre-Achilles injury form, Ward and Verrett finally staying healthy and delivering on potential, and Witherspoon coming into his own in year 3. Those are a lot of “if” scenarios and leaps of faith to put into an entire position group that ranked dead last in the NFL. There is no weaker or more questionable unit on this roster than the defensive backfield.
The interior offensive line
To avoid dealing with Pro Bowler Joe Staley and 2019 first-round selection, Mike McGlinchey, defensive coordinators are going to dial up pressure and target the middle of the 49ers offensive line. While Laken Tomlinson and the newly re-signed Mike Person held up well enough in 2018, they were far from world-beaters. Meanwhile, Center Weston Richburg was a complete disappointment, ranking as the 33rd best center according to Pro Football Focus (keep in mind there are only 32 NFL teams). Offseason surgery revealed that Richburg was playing hurt in 2018, so there’s reason to believe he can improve this season. He’ll have to be better if the 49ers want to keep Jimmy Garoppolo upright and open up inside lanes for the running game.
The bright side here is that personnel continuity is a crucial component of success across the offensive line. Shanahan is banking on this to offset the talent deficit on the interior.
Reasons for either excitement or concern
A young staff coaching under increased pressure
One could argue that, with a long-term deal and the trust bestowed by ownership, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch haven’t felt a heightened urgency to deliver. Pressure is fickle in terms of how people respond to it. It can drive productivity and galvanize, or it can create tension and duress. In 2019, we’ll see which way it swings for San Francisco.
It’s Year 3 in a league that demands results. If the 49ers struggle early, that pressure will only grow. If they deliver a sub .500 season, that patience and trust from the Yorks could dry up pretty quickly, and some changes will have to be made.
A promising but completely unproven wide receiver corps
Rookie receiver Deebo Samuel has a high ceiling both as a player and as a piece in Shanahan’s system. Dante Pettis flashed some playmaking ability in his rookie season and will look to build upon it in Year 2. Then, you have Trent Taylor, looking to bounce back from an injured, utterly forgettable 2018; Marquise Goodwin, who is expected to take a more scaled-back, focused role to maximize effectiveness as a speedy downfield threat; a wholly underwhelming Jordan Matthews, aiming to carve out a roster spot; rookie running-back-turned-receiver, Jalen Hurd; Kendrick Bourne; and Richie James.
Those are a lot of names, some with interesting upside. As of right now though, this group lacks a bonafide proven player at the position. In today’s NFL and in the offense Shanahan runs, you don’t necessarily need a true number-one wide receiver. But it couldn’t hurt to have a known entity. The attention that George Kittle will demand certainly helps the 49ers wide receivers but San Francisco will need at least one of these receivers to take a big step forward and assert themselves as a reliable, go-to option. Is this Shanahan knowing exactly which role players he needs for the passing game to succeed or a case of overconfidence in his coaching ability?
Yes, the same player you should be excited to see is the same one that still has to answer some big questions in 2019. Garoppolo flashed a skillset and penchant for winning during that five-game finale in 2017 that was akin to the days of Steve Young. That performance and the fervor it ignited were catalysts for making him the new franchise quarterback. In other words, it was a combination of small-but-terrific sample size, and the potential he has moving forward.
What the contract wasn’t based on is his track record—which is a unique circumstance for a 6th-year quarterback. Garoppolo turns 28 this season and has still only started ten games in his career. The main reason is a guy named Tom Brady was starting ahead of him for his first three and a half seasons. It’s also important to note, however, that an AC joint shoulder sprain in 2016 quickly ended Garoppolo’s stint filling in for Brady during his suspension. Everyone knows what happened in 2018.
This isn’t so much a question about Garoppolo’s durability as it is a concern about his lack of playing time and experience. One can only glean so much from sitting on the sideline and starting ten games—all of which lacked any real significance or playoff implications. How will Garoppolo fare in games where the stakes are high, when he’s not starting on a bottom-feeding 49ers team playing out the string or a Patriots team as a temporary replacement for Brady to start the season?
The “it” factor is there. How he approaches the game and prepares for it is there. The way he handles himself in the media, the confidence, the leadership...it’s all there. What isn’t there yet is even a single full-season slate where you can point to a top-ten finish in passing yards or a playoff or Pro Bowl appearance.
Again, this is in large part due to not having the opportunity. 2018 was supposed to be that opportunity until the injury deferred it to 2019. Keep in mind, Garoppolo looked much more human in those first three games of 2018 too. Will all of this lead to a setback or will it be even more fuel an inspired performance?
What are you excited about and concerned about heading into this season?