We discussed this a little in the comments over the weekend, about how the San Francisco 49ers roster has come a long way. John Lynch and company are far from perfect. The front office also deserves a little bit more credit than they have received. That will come in time, or more specifically, with wins. That’s fair. If you asked Lynch, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
When you lose your starting quarterback for an entire season, you’re not going to win in this league. The names and teams that are coming to mind are outliers. Matt Cassel and the New England Patriots going 11-5 is not the norm. Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles made it to the Super Bowl with a stacked roster and a lot of luck. More often than not, your season will end up like the 49ers in 2018. Flashes, a glimmer of hope, but mostly coming up empty in the win column.
It’s easy to ignore context or use nuance when talking about football. Let’s talk about the roster from this time two years ago to today.
2017 summer depth chart
Using a site called Ourlads, The 49ers top four wide receivers were Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Jeremy Kerley, and Aldrick Robinson. Brian Hoyer was under center, and the top two running backs listed were Carlos Hyde and Tim Hightower. I know Kyle Shanahan had a lot to do with Hoyer, but man, that’s tough to get excited about.
Defensively, you drafted Solomon Thomas to take over for Tank Carradine, and Elvis Dumervil was insurance for Arik Armstead. The cornerbacks were Dontae Johnson, Rashard Robinson, and Keith Reaser. Ahkello Witherspoon would go on to have a nice rookie year, but at the time did we know that?
Looking up and down the roster, there are several names that made the final 53-man in 2017, that probably wouldn’t even have been on the bubble this year.
Two Under the radar moves
Slowly, but surely, the 49ers’ front office started to turn the roster over in 2017. Acquiring Laken Tomlinson from the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick on August 31, 2017, is a great example.
Familiarity helps, and the addition of Tevin Coleman this year ensures the 49ers offense will remain dynamic no matter which running back is on the field. Coleman has a chance to be an X-Factor on offense this season. Being able to(hopefully) get 1,000 yards of production from a player that has a cap hit of $3.6 million in 2019 will make the front office look brilliant at the end of the season.
Two moves they couldn’t control
Reuben Foster was one of the most talented linebackers to come into the league in the past five years. He came into the NFL with plenty of baggage, but it’s impossible to predict that Foster would have been arrested three times in 11 months. The 49ers released Foster in November of 2018 following allegations of domestic violence. A promising career that spiraled out of control before it ever got off the ground. Losing your first-round pick before he finishes his second season is something that will setback any franchise.
Signing one of the best centers in football was a no-brainer. Weston Richburg deserved a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Richburg had missed one game in three years before 2017. That year with the New York Giants, Richburg played four games before going on the injured reserve with a concussion. He battled through injury against last season, but managed to play 15 games. Richburg will show his worth this season.
Two gambles worth the risk
The 49ers took some gambles that weren’t great value at the time. Solomon Thomas never played like a top-five player in college. Joshua Garnett was one-dimensional, and many thought he wasn’t athletic enough. Hoyer was an obvious holdover, but he has always been a limited quarterback. Teams miss on draft picks and free agents all the time. Nobody remembers if you rebound.
Think of the Patriots, they have a history of drafting defensive backs in the second round, and it’s gone horribly wrong. Their draft history, in general, is suspect at best. They have two constants, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, that give the Pats a room for error unlike anyone else. The risks the 49ers are taking have been to do just that, provide them with room for error.
Acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo, a potential franchise quarterback, for a second-round pick, was a no-brainer. The 28-year-old will have to prove himself for 16 games this season. He’s making $19 million this year, with $74 million in guarantees. The Rams just gave Jared Goff $110 million in guarantees. I know Goff has played more, but to me, that’s just as big of a risk.
Dante Pettis has been a hot topic this summer, with his coach wanting to see more out of him. The 49ers needed to add firepower on offense, so during the 2018 NFL Draft, they a second and third-round pick to Washington in exchange for a second and fifth round pick. Pettis didn’t have half a season worth of snaps in 2018 and put up 27 catches, 19 of them for first downs, for 467 yards and five touchdowns. He needs to stay on the field, and he should, but the risk of giving up a third-round pick when the reward means you get a 1,000-yard receiver for the next four years is a gamble that I’d be willing to take.
That wasn’t the only trade during the draft. The opinions on Trent Brown will vary. For me, he falls under the category of replaceable at best. The 49ers traded Brown and a fifth-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for a third-round pick. From a value standpoint, a replaceable right tackle in exchange for a third-round pick and a throwaway fifth-rounder is a risk worth taking.
The Niners used that pick to select DB Tarvarius Moore. They fumbled his usage as a rookie but ultimately moved Moore back to safety after Jimmie Ward broke his collarbone. Moore is the long-term answer at free safety. He won’t start, but he’ll be on the field early and often when offenses are in obvious passing downs. At safety, Moore is both a safe pick full of upside. We’ve seen these “Gus Bradley” defenses, where there is a heavy dose of Cover 3 principles, transform with transcendent safeties. Earl Thomas and Derwin James have done so with their respective defenses. The Niners didn’t view Moore that high if they moved him to cornerback, but his ceiling is evident.
Does evolution equal wins?
The 49ers roster has gone from a bottom-five in the NFL, to a roster that is expected to compete, and hopefully, play deep into January. Think about the players that have been rushing the passer off the edge the last couple of years. Then think about Dee Ford and Nick Bosa.
The offense can come out in an empty set, and throw the ball to Pettis, Goodwin, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and, eventually, a much-needed security blanket Trent Taylor. The offensive line returns and returns with health. It all comes back to the signal-caller. If Garoppolo can execute, spread the ball around, and avoid turnovers as he has in the past, the 49ers are looking at a successful season. It’s time to win, and the time is now.