We are a game past the halfway point, but we can take time to reflect on the 49ers’ first nine games with a long week. Nobody predicted a 4-5 record to begin the season. We also couldn’t have expected the Niners to be without their best players for most of the season. We’ll stick with the offense today and look at who has been the MVP, biggest surprise, most-improved, most-disappointing, and a player who could earn himself a role for the future based on his second-half play.
MVP - Trent Williams
The biggest question coming into the season was whether the 49ers left tackle could stay healthy. The only game Williams missed was due to him being exposed to COVID. Williams has the fewest blown blocks along the offensive line through the first half of the season, and it’s not close. We spent two weeks discussing whether the 49ers should move on from Williams after the Eagles and Dolphins games and whether he was “washed,” but Williams admitted the coaching staff only charged him with a half-sack by the coaching staff.
Williams’s presence was missed Thursday night, where the Niners offense stalled because they couldn’t block Z’Darius Smith. Williams has played better than expected, considering he didn’t play during 2019. It’s not great that your most valuable player is a left tackle, but Williams has been lights out in pass protection and has given the running game a significant boost.
Runner up: Brandon Aiyuk, Raheem Mostert
Biggest surprise - The poor blocking
The biggest surprise this season has been the blocking—or the lack thereof. Williams and Laken Tomlinson have blocked at an above-average level. Everyone else? It’s been a struggle. When he was healthy, it felt like George Kittle missed more blocks this season than he did in all of 2019. Kyle Juszczyk, aside from the Patriots game, has underwhelmed, too. Those are two of your most critical blockers, and they’ve struggled against the run for their standards.
Because of the rest of the line’s struggles, Kittle had been forced to stay in and pass block. It’s been under six snaps a game, but those are six snaps where Kittle isn’t running routes. Not having their starting center has led to musical chairs upfront for the 49ers. Neither Ben Garland nor Hroniss Grasu has played well this season. Daniel Brunskill’s first full season as a starter at right guard has been a disappointment, and Mike McGlinchey’s issues in pass protection have continued.
Communication has been an issue upfront, but even the receivers have missed costly blocks that have set the offense back. It doesn’t help that backups have needed to fill in, but the running backs have had little to no room to work with all season. This offense hasn’t looked like a Kyle Shanahan unit. That’s what happens when injuries decimate you.
Runner up: Kendrick Bourne, George Kittle
Most-improved - Kendrick Bourne
Bourne has grown as a receiver in 2020. Whether it’s his sight adjustments, using his hands to keep himself clean as a route runner, or creating after the catch, Bourne is a no-brainer for the most-improved player on this side of the ball. He remains a hyper-efficient receiver. Bourne has 25 receptions on the season, and 18 of them have gone for first downs, per PFF. If I told you Bourne led the 49ers in avoided tackles, would you believe me? Well, he does.
Bourne’s played quicker and more confident this season. He’s on pace to have season-highs across the board statistically, despite subpar blocking and quarterback play. Kudos to Bourne for his improvements this season. Bourne will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It’ll be fascinating to see what the 49ers offer Bourne contract-wise or if they feel they can replace his production elsewhere. You can’t replace Bourne’s energy, though.
Runner up: Jeff Wilson Jr.
Most disappointing - Jimmy Garoppolo
Was there any doubt this would be him? The most challenging part for 49ers fans seems to be acknowledging Garoppolo’s struggles are independent of his injury. The same struggles have been around since Jimmy has started his career in San Francisco. They’ve just been highlighted this season. Garoppolo was not hurt during Week 1, where he was the definition of disappointing.
There have been games this season where Garoppolo played poorly, and he was not listed on the injury report going into the game. That has not stopped the excuses from pouring in. It always goes back to 2017 or last year’s Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan is going to remember the red zone turnovers this season, or missed open receivers, or Garoppolo’s unwillingness to pull the trigger or pick up the blitz. He’s not going to give Jimmy G credit for games where he took the ball out of his hands in the playoffs a season ago.
If you’re in the “then who do you replace him with?” boat, look around. We see young quarterbacks weekly elevate talent around them, despite poor offensive line play. If you need a quarterback to be surrounded by a perfect situation to succeed, he’s probably not your guy. The 49ers should have plenty of options next offseason at quarterback—whether in the NFL Draft or free agency—but paying a guy $27 million when he’s missed 33 of 56 games, assuming he’s out for the year, doesn’t make much sense.
The writing appears to be on the wall for the 49ers quarterback. It’s no coincidence that we saw numerous reports over the weekend from multiple outlets that the Niners are ready to move on.
Runner up: Trent Taylor, the injury bug
A future role: Daniel Brunskill/Colton McKivitz
Brunskill did not play well during the first eight games at right guard. He was far too inconsistent. Shanahan said that Brunskill could play all five positions, and that will keep Brunskill around. Brunskill has a chance to show that he could be the center for this team moving forward. He looked much more comfortable at that position in one game. Brunskill handled stunts well and had arguably his best game as a run-blocker Thursday night against the Packers.
The rest of the season is a perfect opportunity for the 49ers to see what they have in McKivitz. As a fifth-rounder, there are zero expectations for him. He played 21 snaps against the Packers and didn’t look out of his depth. The front office will likely upgrade at center or right guard this offseason. One of these players has an opportunity to either cement a role for themselves next season or, at worst, give themselves a chance to compete as a starter in 2021.
Runner up: Richie James Jr., Charlie Woerner