Training camp has officially come to a close. We can no longer latch onto QB stats during practice or overanalyze something subjective, like whether a play would have been a sack or not.
With the regular season on the horizon, we asked Niners Nation’s staff what we’re most excited about for the upcoming 49ers season.
Marc Delucchi: It’s hard to say anything except for Trey Lance.
At least at some point this season, Shanahan's offensive genius will have the most talented quarterback he’s had over his time in San Francisco. I know plenty of fans will disagree, but time will tell us that between Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens, and (yes) Jimmy Garoppolo, Shanahan has been starting varying degrees of backup quarterbacks for his entire time with the Niners.
Lance may not become an elite quarterback, but it should be a huge upgrade if he’s even a top-15 QB.
Besides that competition, I’m excited to watch the defensive line this year. First, I wondered whether Dee Ford would ever return to the field, and now he looks fully healthy and could finally form the elite dynamic 1-2 punch with Nick Bosa that he was acquired to form.
Mix in Arik Armstead’s consistency, the depth of viable backups, and a potential year-two jump from Javon Kinlaw, and this defensive line could once again be dominant enough to carry a championship contender less than two years after trading DeForest Buckner.
Tyler Austin: DeMeco Ryans and what he does with the defense
Let’s get this out of the way up top, Trey Lance. However, since he and his potential impact have been covered extensively, we’ll flip the field for this one. Currently, I’m on the edge of my seat to see what DeMeco Ryans will do with this defense.
We’ve gotten hints at his distinct modus operandi; press-man coverage, aggressive blitzes, and more Fred Warner, all of the time. Sounds good so far. I’m also particularly interested to watch his demeanor on the sidelines. No one expects him to match the energetic and GIF-able outbursts of Saleh, but getting a sense of where he lands on the scale between ferocious firebrand and strong, silent type will be an interesting development.
On top of that, the entire unit is filled with exciting potential and question marks at every level for Ryans to manage. Will the defensive line, relying on its impressive depth and a returning superstar, surpass the 2019 line’s towering legacy? Can Dre Greenlaw make a leap in his third year, similar to Warner’s, and solidify them as the best linebacking duo in the league?
Like the already impactful Lenoir and Hufunga, rookies are going to be called upon to contribute in the secondary? I don’t have the answers, but I know I am ready to see these questions addressed on the field starting in two weeks.
Rob Guerrera: If Brandon Aiyuk can take the next step
Lance is the obvious answer, but since the 49ers seem bound and determined to start Jimmy Garoppolo, I’ll look elsewhere for the purposes of this post. I’m excited to see if Brandon Aiyuk can take the next step and ascend to a true #1 wide receiver. It’s one thing to look good in camp, and another to do it in the games. So far, Aiyuk’s drops have been the most notable thing about his preseason.
With luck and improved play by whoever is under center, Aiyuk will lock in once the games count and continue his pace at the end of the season last year. If Brandon can become the player that many think he can be, it will open up the entire offense. With Aiyuk to attack with the intermediate and deep routes, Kittle over the middle, and Deebo Samuel on short routes and drop passes, defenses are going to be forced to cover every blade of grass on the field. Oh, yeah, and the most creative ground game in the league, too.
Jordan Elliott: The defensive line
There is a lot to be excited about heading into this season, but for me personally, nothing else has grabbed hold of my attention the way the defensive line has. While the top-end talent from the 2019 team will be hard to replicate, I genuinely believe the current group of players has a strong chance to be the better of the two units.
Obviously, there is a great deal of talent between household names like Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, but what really stands out this year is how deep the position group runs with objectively above-average NFL talent.
It’s not just the amount of depth they have amassed but the quality of the players that currently populate the second and third waves in the trenches. Players like Kevin Givens, Kentavius Street, and Arden Key have all performed at a level that makes me believe they possess the capacity to start for a number of teams in the league.
The 49ers have the luxury of utilizing that level of talent in a depth role, speaking again to how strong this unit is from top to bottom.
One last thing to keep an eye on is Dee Ford and the edge rotations as a whole. Ford has had an extremely impressive training camp, displaying the burst and bend out of his spot in the 9 technique that made him such a nightmare for opposing offensive lineman during his dominant 2019 season.
If Ford can regularly contribute to a pass rush specialist role, the defensive ceiling immediately is raised immensely. A potential rotation on the outside of Bosa, Armstead, Ford, Key, Jordan Willis, and Samson Ebukam is not only lethal from an overall skill standpoint.
Still, it would hypothetically allow the 49ers the leeway to not be forced to overexert their superstar edge rusher in Bosa, who is still likely feeling the effects of an ACL injury suffered last season, while also giving them the flexibility to kick Armstead to the interior, where he has proven to be a matchup nightmare rushing the passer.
Xavier Dixon: How different Ryans’ defense will look compared to Robert Saleh’s
Trey Lance has us all entranced and captivated with his dazzling plays and athletic feats, but DeMeco Ryans is who I want to shine the light on. Ryans joined the 49ers two years removed from his playing days in 2017. Rising the ranks from defensive quality control coach to inside linebackers coach, to now being the defensive coordinator of a team that was top-5 in total yards allowed last year.
Ryans should not feel pressure at all. He has seen a lot entering his fifth year around the Niners franchise. I haven’t had access to the “all-22” to get a feel on how Ryans calls plays truly, but I like what I see so far. It’s only preseason, so Ryans is clearly not showing his hand. I'm mainly excited to see the different things he will do with the defense compared to Robert Saleh.
Deommodore Lenoir has been one of the key risers through the preseason. His improved play can help with the cornerback depth questions. The defensive line has been on a terror in training camp, but they still have to go out and do it in real games. Ultimately, the defense has a chance to be elite again, and Ryans is leading the charge in that.
Kyle Posey: This is the strongest roster Kyle Shanahan has ever had
There’s no doubt the Niners will field one of if not the best defensive line in the NFL. San Francisco could go 11-deep if they wanted to, and even then, they still have other players who won’t be on the roster that’ll be in another team’s rotation this season.
Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance under center, they’ll be protected. You know you’re a privileged fan when your only complaint is about the right guard. Outside of that on offense, what can you say? You don’t fully trust the third wide receiver who’s really the fourth wideout?
The addition of Alex Mack will keep Garoppolo and Lance upright, while the running backs will have plenty of rushing lanes to choose from. Offensively, there’s no reason for the 49ers to finish worst than fifth in critical stats like third down, yards per drive, and red zone efficiency, among others.
We’ll find out later on Friday whether Jason Verrett has a serious injury. If so, that’s concerning. Lenoir would have to learn on the fly as he’d be the next man up. Still, the front four is so dominant — and you could say the front seven because of that Fred Warner guy — that whoever is at cornerback will look better thanks to a fierce pass rush.
This roster is the most talented group of individuals that Shanahan has had. I know he’s been to the Super Bowl twice, but he’s never had this many good players on both sides of the ball. What’s even more promising is that everyone seems to have bought into the team's philosophy, making the 49ers even more dangerous than they appear on paper.