Despite finishing 6-10, the expectations for the San Francisco 49ers are sky-high heading into the 2021 season. I saw one power ranking have the Niners as high as No. 3 in the league, which feels rich.
The massive trade up to the third overall pick will ultimately determine the fate of this team. Still, the 49ers should receive playing time from a couple of draft picks early on, and the team elected to “run it back” with their free-agent signings, signaling they’re happy with the state of their roster.
How does this roster stack up after the draft? Which positions could use an upgrade? Let’s go through each position on the 49ers roster and rank them by positional strength. I know which unit was the clear-cut worst and which was the best, but there are plenty of positions you could argue one way or the other.
8 - Special teams
The 49ers were not good on special teams in 2020. They added depth and speed, but their kicking and return situation leaves a lot to be desired.
Robbie Gould has missed 12 kicks in the past two seasons. San Francisco spent a fourth-round pick on a punter in the 2019 NFL Draft, and their DVOA has remained the same in both of Mitch Wishnowsky’s seasons.
Speaking of DVOA, the 49ers had the sixth-worst punt return unit in the NFL. Unless they plan on giving Brandon Aiyuk a crack at it, we could be looking at River Cracraft or an unknown like a rookie or Trent Sherfield.
Special teams have shot this team in the foot several times during the past couple of seasons, and I’m not sure why that’ll be different in 2021.
7 - Running back
Running back received a bit of a makeover this offseason, and most of that damage came right before and during the draft. Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson are “the guys,” but that appears to be temporary as both of those players are under contract for only one more season.
The same is true for Wayne Gallman, while JaMycal Hasty will be an ERFA after this season. San Francisco has Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell under contract for four years. With the injury history for both Mostert and Wilson, it’s safe to assume the two rookies will get some playing time this season.
Health will bring consistency to the position, which is why the Niners drafted two running backs. Sermon missed his last collegiate game, which wasn’t the only injury he sustained during his college tenure. There’s a bit of a gamble here because of that.
The talent is there, but there are enough question marks with each player, and that’s why this position isn’t as high.
6 - Pass-catchers
I’m lumping the tight ends and wide receivers in for obvious reasons. The 49ers took a risk this offseason by not adding someone who can catch passes for them. They’re banking on a healthy trio of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle. If those three are healthy, Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance won’t have an issue.
If they aren’t, we’re staring at Richie James or the mythical creature known as Jalen Hurd taking over. The hope is that Hurd takes over as the “power slot” for Kendrick Bourne — who was an ascending player who did a lot of the little things right.
Another way Kyle Shanahan can manufacture production is by getting more out of your backfield in the passing game. It always comes back to the starters, though. Samuel and Kittle have a history of being banged up, and it feels foolish to assume that’ll change. Mohamed Sanu or Jauan Jennings aren’t moving the needle. The depth is a concern unless you have high expectations for Travis Benjamin.
The 49ers need more from Aiyuk and Deebo this year, especially in the second half when players become less scheme-dependent and you need a guy to “win.”
5 - Quarterback
The 49ers traded multiple first-round picks for a quarterback who probably won’t start Week 1. If Lance, a freshly turned 21-year-old who didn’t play in 2020 — save a showcase game — beats out Jimmy Garoppolo, then the 49ers have some explaining to do. That’s unlikely, though.
Questions about Jimmy’s ability to stay on the field haven’t gone anywhere. Those questions have taken away from some legitimate concerns such as pocket presence and decision making — two areas where Garoppolo has struggled in a big way at times during his 49er career.
The Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes dynamic doesn’t make sense for several reasons. Namely, Garoppolo/Lance couldn’t be any more different from the former two. Mahomes always had a gunslinger mentality, while Lance plays it on the safer side.
Smith went on to have the best season of his career, but his issues and Jimmy’s aren’t similar, either. We heard leading up to the draft almost every day that the Niners were moving Garoppolo. A report came out late last week stating that was Kyle Shanahan’s intention.
Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer recently said that could happen this winter. I’d love to know the 49ers' plan at quarterback as far as the best and worst-case scenario. It all depends on if Lance is ready.
If he is, does that change how people perceive the Niners? Because with Jimmy G under center, it feels like playoffs or bust.
4 - Linebacker
Which version of Dre Greenlaw will we see this season? From coverage to tackling to rushing the passer, most of Greenlaw’s stats were worse in 2020. The talent around him made a difference, but Dre didn’t stand out as he did during his first season. Greenlaw’s play could determine how much dime defense we see in 2021.
As long as No. 54 is on the roster, the 49ers will have a strong linebacking corps. Fred Warner makes life easier on everyone around him while elevating their game. He’s the reason this position group will always be near the top for the 49ers.
Whether it’s Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Azeez Al-Shaair, Nate Gerry, or even Ebukam, the 49ers have athleticism and depth at all three spots. San Francisco should see some development from this group in 2021.
3 - Offensive line
Though there wasn’t a pass-catcher added this offseason, the 49ers invested in their quarterback. They did so by adding multiple offensive linemen. Trent Williams is back, which should read, “team re-signs their best player.”
Weston Richburg still hasn’t officially retired, but that’s the expectation. His replacement has played under Shanahan at a high level and rarely misses games. Because of that, Alex Mack will be an upgrade. Laken Tomlinson and Mike McGlinchey are above-average starters, while right guard feels like it’s Aaron Banks’ job to lose.
Banks is a rookie, but he was drafted in the top-50. The depth is undoubtedly better as Shon Coleman has a chance to be the swing tackle, and Daniel Brunskill could serve as the backup center and guard. Kyle Shanahan said Brunskill would have started at center had the team not signed Mack, so he’s likely making the roster. That leaves Colton McKivitz, Justin Skule, and Jaylon Moore to duke it out for the final spot along the line.
The offensive line should be much-improved in 2021 as Williams has another year under his belt. They’re this high as I don’t think this unit was as bad as they were made out to be last year, either.
2 - Defensive back
I’m lumping the defensive backs together as Jimmie Ward could play plenty of slot cornerback, and Tarvarius Moore was used in the box before Ward went down with an injury last year. This position group could be one of the tops in the league if they can stay healthy. That’s a big if, though.
Each starter has an injury history or has missed time in the past couple of seasons. I’d expect rookies Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir to have a bigger impact on special teams than defense. If you’re expecting two players picked after the first 100 selections to have an impact on your defense, then you don’t have playoff expectations. Those two don’t go hand-in-hand.
This unit looks great headed into Week 1, but how will they look by Week 7? That’s the worry. We’re an injury away from Dontae Johnson and Marcell Harris back on the field. If there were no questions, I’d say this position group would be a close second to the defensive line. When healthy, they’re that talented. They’re still No. 2, but this is a distant second.
1 - Defensive line
To save everyone time, let’s go ahead and aware Nick Bosa the Comeback Player of the Year trophy. He’s the best addition to any roster this offseason after only playing five quarters in 2020.
Bosa will help Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, while veterans Zach Kerr and Maurice Hurst should prevent practice squad players from playing over 20 snaps in a game this season.
Who knows what this team will get from Dee Ford, or if he’ll even be on the roster come September. The addition of Samson Ebukam will be fascinating to see play out. He could serve as a part-time rusher bouncing back and forth between the first and second levels.
Throw in a quality starter up the middle in DJ Jones and add Arden Key, who should get fans more excited than Dion Jordan, and we’re looking at a defensive line that can go eight deep. This unit will single-handedly win games for the 49ers in 2021.