There was a stark improvement from the 2018 San Francisco 49ers linebackers to the 2019 version. Fred Warner was a rookie in 2018 and showed promise and flashes, but needed to be more consistent. The next three linebackers that played the most were Elijah Lee, Reuben Foster, and Malcolm Smith. Lee lacked athleticism, Foster had concerns off the field, and Smith has never been great in coverage. So last offseason, the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander in free agency, drafted Dre Greenlaw in the fifth-round, and signed undrafted free agent Azeez Al-Shaair. In a year, the 49ers went from, to reference track, long-distance runners to sprinters.
The speed at the second-level made a world of difference for San Francisco. We saw the three-headed monster get to throws they had no business contesting. The trio also showed they could dart past blockers and make plays in the backfield. What was a giant question mark is now not only a strength of the team but one of the best units in the NFL.
Looking at the 49ers 2020 roster, they’re simultaneously stacked with question marks. If you have concerns at cornerback, you’re not alone. The way Emmanuel Moseley played during his first season as a starter was as promising as a “rookie” season as it gets. I have a ton of faith in him moving forward as the starter. Ahkello Witherspoon has a chance to bounce back as well.
At wide receiver, there is a lot of youth and inexperience. Can Kyle Shanahan mask that? Because the group is young doesn’t mean they’re without talent. By now, you’ve heard all about how Trent Taylor is going to be a big part of the 49ers’ plans in 2020. Jalen Hurd figures to be in the mix, and we haven’t mentioned the wideout the Niners took in the first round, Brandon Aiyuk, who was as good of a fit for San Francisco in the draft as any receiver. Add in returners Deebo Samuel, and Kendrick Bourne and receiver has a chance to be the 2019 linebackers.
While those two positions are obvious answers, don’t count out the safeties. Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt were underrated in 2019. If the duo can create turnovers or “splash plays,” they’ll get more recognition in 2020. The addition on Trent Williams, a healthy Weston Richburg, and, let’s say Daniel Brunskill wins the right guard job, the offensive line has a chance to improve on what was already one of the top-10 units in the NFL. I’ve seen fans complain about the offensive line, and that’s something I don’t understand. Then again, you only remember the times when a player messes up on the line.
Who do you think? Jimmy G? If Garoppolo can eliminate those one or two head-scratching throws a game, it’ll be tough to nitpick Jimmy in his second full season with the weapons he has around him. My answer is the receiver corp, as I think Deebo, Aiyuk, and Taylor form a strong trio.