Last year, the San Francisco 49ers had two obvious picks for Comeback Player of the Year in Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman. Heading into the 2020 season, the answer isn’t as easy. The Niners don’t have a player listed in Vegas’s top-12 players. Not even a longshot mention.
That doesn’t mean San Francisco doesn’t have a player that can come back from injury or a forgettable season. Here are four players that need to rebound after last season. I’m leaving off Robbie Gould as he kicked it into gear once long-snapper Kyle Nelson returned from suspension.
Who else would lead this list? Pettis followed up a promising rookie season with a stinker of a second-year. General manager John Lynch had this to say about Pettis last Thursday on 95.7 The Game:
I know a lot of people have soured on him, but we haven’t. He didn’t come to camp ready to play last year physically, and we challenged him. That’s got to change. We believe if he does that, he’s a guy who can really excel in our offense.”
That reads as Pettis came into camp out of shape. Shanahan has mentioned players thinking they’ve “arrived,” where he was likely talking about Pettis. From a talent perspective, Pettis is still one of the best options on the roster. He’ll need to overcome drop issues that started in early August. Dante never was able to shake the drops, and that eventually led him to be phased out of the offense. Contested situations were an issue as well.
I still believe putting the ball in Pettis’ hands as a returner will help him mentally deal with contact and turn him into a better receiver. It’s now or never for Pettis.
Of the four players that will be listed, I’d bank on Ford being the 49ers “Comeback Player of the Year.” With Ford, it’s all about health. San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch spoke to a doctor about Ford’s knee tendonitis:
“There are athletes all the time, throughout the season, that are dealing with these issues. I would say 90 percent of the time it’s totally manageable and people don’t have to do anything drastic about this. They are probably going to have a little bit of swelling at the knees. They are probably going to need some maintenance on the knees, such as injections, and they’re going to be in the training room a little more often. If they are extremely talented, then the risk is worth it.”
Ford is worth it, but the 49ers need more than 22% of the snaps from their high-priced edge rusher. Even if that number doubles to 44% and Ford is a part-time player, he’d still likely be one of the most productive pass rushers in the league in this defense. The Niners don’t need Ford to play every snap. They do need the speedy edge rusher to be a threat in 2020. Ford can’t do that from the sideline.
Speaking of health, if there’s a player that can unlock the offense, it’s McKinnon. He’s a mismatch out of the backfield and gives the 49ers a threat that they don’t have. McKinnon is one of those running backs where you feel comfortable lining up as a receiver and actually using him more than a decoy. We saw Matt Breida catch a wheel route for a touchdown, but that was in the preseason. Aside from Jeff Wilson catching a “Texas” route out of the backfield, there weren’t many occasions where a 49er running back made a play as a receiver that wasn’t a screen or a swing pass.
Will we get a healthy McKinnon? His trainer believes Jerick is healthy and ready to roll. I’ll believe it when I see it but will also acknowledge McKinnon’s talent.
Before Witherspoon went down with an injury, he was outplaying Richard Sherman. Once Witherspoon returned, his spot was taken by Emmanuel Moseley. Once Witherspoon returned to the lineup, he didn’t look like the same player. He didn’t have the same confidence and wasn’t nearly as assertive. That led to getting benched. Twice. When that happens, it’s a significant mental hurdle for a player to overcome.
Witherspoon will have a chance to earn a role in 2020. He’s far too talented to give up on. Ahkello made some plays during the first few games of the 2019 regular season that very few cornerbacks can make. He thoroughly outplayed Moseley during training camp as well. It’s not that far-fetched to say Witherspoon can start. If he gets his confidence back, Witherspoon has a strong argument that he should.