After an off-season spent ranking things, I’m doing an about-face to start... ranking different things.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. In this column last year, I may or may not have cursed the players I listed. Three never played a down for the 49ers -- two didn’t make the team (Jerry Attaochu, Joe Williams), another was hurt in the preseason (Jerick McKinnon). Another was cut in mid-season (The LB Who Will Not Be Named). The number one player listed (Jimmy Garoppolo) sustained a season-ending injury in Week 3. Another suffered the same fate in Week 5 (Adrian Colbert). Two promising second-year players had disappointing seasons (Solomon Thomas, Kendrick Bourne). That leaves two success stories (Richard Sherman, Arik Armstead).
The good news: This was a much easier piece to write last year because there was a lot less competition. There were snubs, but I only had about 15 candidates, so while cutting that list down to 10 wasn’t easy, it wasn’t Sophie’s Choice either. This year made Sophie’s Choice look like “Paper or plastic?”
In writing down the list of players I was most anxious to see this season, I had to stop myself at 20 with names still popping into my head. It’s a much more intriguing roster, and that’s a good thing.
Some names that were criminally snubbed:
- Richard Sherman was better than I expected last year despite not being fully healthy until this season. I can’t wait to see what that looks like.
- DeForest Buckner is coming off a career year and is now surrounded by the kind of EDGE talent which could free him up more than ever. Last year, I scoffed at Defensive Player of the Year talk. This year, I’m not scoffing.
- Deebo Samuel, like his fellow rookie WR listed below (SPOILER ALERT), has a sweet college highlight reel and already showed promise in the first preseason game.
- Dre Greenlaw has received nothing but glowing reports from training camp and popped off the screen Saturday night -- both on defense and special teams.
- Mitch Wishnowsky is a punter, which should disqualify him from this list. And yet, he was serious considered. Sure, Aussie punters are the new West Coast offense. But that still takes one intriguing punter.
Okay, let’s get to it. Which players’ performance am I anticipating the most, for any reason (upside potential, importance to the team, or good, old-fashioned curiosity, etc.)?
To reverse the curse, I’m reversing the list. Instead of going 1 to 10, I’m counting down from
10. (tie) Tarvarius Moore/Adrian Colbert/Jaquiski Tartt/Marcell Harris
Okay, so I cheated right off the bat. But the safety position is so crucial, so up in the air, I had to shove them all in here.
Last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the root of the 49ers’ defensive issues. It wasn’t fun. Sometimes, I’d the think the pass rush was so bad the secondary didn’t stand a chance. Other times, I’d think the secondary was so bad, the pass rush didn’t stand a chance. It was a chicken and egg situation -- because both chickens and eggs are better at forcing turnovers than the 2018 49ers.
A lot of people looked at a historically bad team in terms of intercepting opposing QB’s -- two all year (two!) -- and thought the secondary needed a major upgrade.
The NFC West is the new Big 12.— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) April 27, 2019
GO GET COVERAGE DEFENDERS
The 49ers front office apparently felt differently.
Like many, I thought the team would aggressively pursue Earl Thomas in free agency.
Then I thought maybe they had another proven safety in mind -- like Eric Weddle or Tyrann Mathieu.
Okay, I understood they didn’t want to spend so much and believed they’d focus on a safety in less demand, like Tre Boston.
Instead, they re-signed Jimmie Ward, who almost made it through an entire practice before getting hurt.
The 49ers brass apparently felt their young DB’s underperformed last year due to fixable reasons and will improve this year. That sounds fine except it’s the same philosophy they had about their pass rush last off-season. When everyone was calling for the team to land a difference-making EDGE, the 49ers only took a flier on Jerry Attaochu, because they believed their young guys would improve dramatically. We know how that turned out.
How this turns out rests on the shoulders of the young safeties the Niners front office showed so much faith in. The Niners don’t need all of them to excel, but at least two of them better find health and consistency, or this position could be the 49ers Achilles Heel.
9. Kwon Alexander
The 49ers again filled a hole on defense by signing a player coming off a serious injury, hedging their bets with a contract that allows the team to escape after one year (thanks, Paraag!). They did the same last year with Sherman. Let’s just hope it pays off similarly. (Minis the self-loathing we had to get over before embracing Uncle Sherm.
There’s been some who questioned whether Alexander’s price tag matches the importance of an off-ball LB. And, as alluded to above, there were other, possibly more urgent needs, which that money could’ve addressed. But as long as he fills the hole at LB adequately -- unlike, say, a certain other expensive LB signing -- I don’t think anybody will be complaining much.
Plus, he gives me the opportunity to introduce you all to the work of Jackson Kreuger Sports, which sent me down a rabbit hole on YouTube from which I may never escape.
8. Jalen Hurd
I actually wonder if the 49ers might’ve added too much skill position depth if that’s even possible. It isn’t, of course, in theory. But there’s a finite amount of resources (draft picks, cap money, roster space) teams can utilize, and like someone who gets stoned before they go grocery shopping, the 49ers might have acquired too many tempting snacks (RB and WR) and not enough eggs and vegetables (CB and S).
That being said, those snacks look delicious. I haven’t been this excited about the Niners WR corps in a long time. I was able to get past my fantasies about a huge trade for Odell Beckham or Antonio Brown, mainly because I know Kyle Shanahan’s ability to scheme open receivers removed a lot of the need for a true No. 1 and were very pleased with the second-round selection of Deebo Samuel. And though I was pretty shocked at the choice of the Jalen Hurd in the 3rd round, I can’t wait to see what he can do in the pros. Especially after seeing what he did in college from a variety of positions.
And I swear I made this list before Hurd showed his potential in the first preseason game.
7. Ahkello Witherspoon
I love the additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford and look forward to a dramatically improved pass rush. That will help the secondary, but I wonder whether it will solve the interception problem. Or the opposing receivers running wide open problem.
The teams gamble is that pressure + new position coach + development = better secondary.— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) April 27, 2019
We’ll see if it pays off. https://t.co/fJqeMlVU6A
Last year, the 49ers were the worst team in the NFL at defending quick passes. If the QB doesn’t need to wait to find an open receiver, great EDGE players are largely negated. If you need an example of this, you need look no further than last year’s Chiefs. They had three fearsome rushers -- Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones, who combined for 37.5 sacks -- yet still gave up 421 points (14 less than the Niners).
Because the 49ers only addressed the CB position by signing injury magnet Jason Verrett and using their last pick on Tim Harris, a lot of the weight of the secondary’s success rides on Witherspoon. Is he the impressive young player we saw at the end of his rookie year, or the much toastier version last year?
6. Jason Verrett
Forget what I just said about Verrett. Sure, he may have only played five games in three years, not to mention being injured at this very moment, but if he can get healthy and play anywhere near the level where he started his career (two big if’s, I know), the 49ers could have a very solid CB corps. Unlike Witherspoon, we know for sure he has it in him. The only question is, will we get to see it in a 49er uniform?
5. Tevin Coleman
Adding RB Tevin Coleman to an already crowded backfield raised some eyebrows, but I was all for it, especially at such a reasonable price. I’m not confident about what the 49ers will get out of McKinnon this year, particularly since — unlike Jimmy G — he needs to be 100 percent back to be effective. I also don’t think Matt Breida, as effective as he is, has the durability to be a lead back for 16 games. I think Coleman was not only needed but will be the most productive option in a deep backfield.
4. Dee Ford
Total honesty: I have some doubts about Ford. He was arguably the best pure pass rusher in football in 2018, compiling 13 sacks, 29 QB hits, and a league-leading seven forced fumbles, but before that I think many Chiefs fans might have talked about him the way 49ers fans speak about Arik Armstead, or even Solomon Thomas: A first-round pick who hadn’t played like one, due to injury and inconsistency.
Ford only started five games his first two years in the league, notching just 5.5 sacks and 30 tackles. He broke out in his third year, starting 14 games and totaling ten sacks. But in 2017, he was hurt, playing in just six games and registering only two sacks and 13 tackles
That inconsistency worries me. So does the fact he’s already dealing with knee tendonitis, which by all accounts is a long-standing injury — one you’d expect to only get worse over time.
All that being said, Ford’s potential is sky high, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about Thomas or Armstead the way OL who’ve had to block Ford talk about the experience. And hey, look who also raves about his first step!
The 49ers have gone so long without a special edge rusher; it’s actually hard to imagine. I’m not sure I’ll believe it until I see it on the field during a game.
3. Nick Bosa
Nick’s father, John, was a DE who had the talent to make him a first-round pick by the Dolphins in 1987. But injuries derailed his promising career. Nick’s brother, Joey, has been a standout with the Chargers but has missed time with injuries.
So my desire to see Bosa on the field springs from multiple places. I want to see him play, and play well, to provide the edge rush the 49ers have needed for so long, and I want him to prove he can play for extended periods of time without getting hurt to quiet the injury narrative.
2. Dante Pettis
Everybody knows how high the 49ers are on Pettis. Most fans feel the same way. So do I, but I’m anxious to see it displayed on the field on a consistent basis. I’ll take what he from Thanksgiving last year, only for 16 games.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo
Last year’s description in this spot started like so:
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.
Ahem. As I said, we’re doing the opposite this year.
Remember what I wrote above about how the Chiefs gave up all those points despite having a great pass rush? Well, they still managed to go 12-4 and were one Dee Ford-lining-up-onside from going to the Super Bowl. Why? Because they outscored that porous D by 144 points in scoring the most points in the NFL.
So even if the 49ers defense doesn’t improve, the offense could overcome it by all these new weapons helping Jimmy become Pat Mahomes West, or at least what he was down the stretch in 2017.
If that happens, the 2019 49ers will be extremely watchable.