Week 1 is finally here. The San Francisco 49ers travel to Tampa Bay on Sunday to face the Buccaneers in their 2019 debut. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch enter into Year 3 at the helm with high expectations. Jimmy Garoppolo will make his regular-season debut for the first time since Week 3 of 2018. Months of presumption will now take form on the field as the team seeks to capitalize on a retooled roster.
With 2019 upon us, I’m back with my weekly mailbag column. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for next week’s mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.
Which player changed your opinion the most this offseason? Beezy
Trent Taylor, without a doubt. I considered the third-year wideout a bubble player at best going into training camp, finding his spot on the depth chart and his struggles to return from 2018 back surgery. Boy, was I wrong. Taylor was the 49ers’ most impressive and explosive receiver throughout camp and a favorite target for Jimmy Garoppolo. He's sidelined short-term while he recovers from a foot fracture, but I fully expect Taylor to resume his role as a crucial piece of the 49ers offense upon his return.
Does LB Fred Warner impress or regress in 2019? Rod
If Taylor was the biggest standout of training camp, Warner was right behind him. He had established himself as the leader of the 49ers defense, even next to veteran Kwon Alexander. Warner has the demeanor of a seasoned pro, and I expect him to take a step forward in his second year - no small task for a linebacker that totaled 124 tackles in 2018.
Will Bruce Arians exploit the inexperience of the 49ers defense? Rod
Rod’s question was aimed towards rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, safety Tarvarius Moore and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon - all expected to start on Sunday. Both Greenlaw and Moore will be starting at their respective positions for the first time during the regular season, while Witherspoon has regained his starting role after an up-and-down two years with the team. Greenlaw’s role as the “SAM” linebacker only puts him on the field for roughly one-third of snaps, so Moore and Witherspoon will be tested more frequently. Arians’ coaching chops legitimizes a Buccaneers offense that I fully expect to take advantage of a vulnerable secondary.
Is CB Ahkello Witherspoon in danger of losing his starting spot? Beezy
Not yet, even with Jason Verrett waiting in the wings. Witherspoon’s encouraging training camp earned him the starting role, one that I believe he would’ve won even if Verrett stayed healthy throughout the competition. Witherspoon should expect to be targeted often opposite veteran Richard Sherman. If he begins to struggle as he did in 2018, Witherspoon could again find himself on the bench in favor of Verrett.
Is DL Nick Bosa playing on Sunday? Sketchy
That he is, Sketch. The 49ers’ No. 2 pick is expected to play on Sunday after spending the last month recovering from a high-ankle sprain suffered during training camp. Bosa’s quick recovery has been encouraging for a 49ers front office that knew Bosa came with some injury concerns out of Ohio State, having suffered a core injury that ended his season after three games in 2018. Bosa’s refined skillset should help him make an immediate impact on Sunday against a vulnerable Tampa Bay offensive line.
Why has the 49ers’ front office neglected the secondary? Schlocky
It’s a fair question. The 49ers are heading in Week 1 with Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, Antone Exum, and Moore. Both Ward and Tartt come with significant injury concerns, while Moore has never started a game at safety in the NFL. The decision not to invest further in the secondary has already begun to bite back, with Ward suffering a broken finger this week, removing him from the team’s Week 1 matchup. The true picture of the secondary will be painted Sunday when the group faces off against the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, both favorite targets of Jameis Winston.
How long will WR Jalen Hurd be sidelined? Patricia
The 49ers’ third-round pick is currently dealing with a back injury that has worsened in severity. Hurd was initially listed on the preseason injury report as day-to-day but has since been downgraded to week-to-week. It’s unclear how long Hurd will be unavailable. The 49ers kept seven receivers on the final roster to absorb the absence of both Hurd and Taylor. It’s not yet to been determined when either will return.
Are the 49ers considering a trade for RB Melvin Gordon? Kujan
I’m sure the 49ers have spoken internally about the availability of Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, but any sort of real pursuit is doubtful. The 49ers have invested more in their backfield than any other team in the NFL. Unfortunately, a large chunk of that investment is in Jerick McKinnon, who is missing his second season due to a torn ACL suffered before the 2018 season. Shanahan is confident in Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert heading into the season - all proven effective.
Who gets the first 49ers’ touchdown of 2019? Tai
I was tempted to take the easy route with George Kittle, but I’m going to go with Tevin Coleman as the first player to find paydirt for the 2019 49ers.
Does DB Jimmie Ward’s injury indicate an impending contract extension? Travis
Yes, Travis is aware of the 49ers’ fondness for Ward, who broke his finger this week during practice and isn’t expected to compete on Sunday. The former first-round pick missed most of the offseason having suffered a broken collarbone. You needn’t worry, and the 49ers have no plans to offer the oft-injured Ward a long-term deal anytime soon, especially when his one-year “prove it” deal has already featured two significant injuries.