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Trey or Jimmy? Sanu or Jennings? Musical chairs at DB?

Determining which player gives the 49ers the best chance to win Sunday

Houston Texans v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The 49ers, whether it’s because of an injury, players on the Reserve/COVID list, or seniority, have decisions to make at three of the most critical positions this weekend against the Rams. So let’s start with the one that’s on everyone’s mind.

Jimmy or Trey?

It’s been nearly two weeks since Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a chipped bone and torn ligament in his right thumb. By all accounts, Garoppolo has not thrown a pass since the 49ers played the Titans on December 23.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the doctors want to give Jimmy’s thumb the maximum amount of time to heal. Shanahan specifically used the phrase “kind of relatch.” Knowing this is a 4-6 week injury, if Garoppolo suits up Sunday against the Rams, he wouldn’t be anywhere close to 100% healthy.

Injuries will determine who starts at quarterback. Does Shanahan think Jimmy at 70% is better than Trey Lance in his third start? Who’s to say Garoppolo would be healthy enough to grip the football? If he hasn’t thrown by Thursday, we’ll have our answer who is starting under center for the 49ers Sunday.

I’ve seen this question floating around social media asking who the Rams would rather face? Naturally, nuance isn’t a thing there. So you have one crowd that will point to Garoppolo’s record against the Rams, while the other will look at what Lance did last week as a reason he should start.

There isn’t a wrong answer. However, I’m in the opinion that the supporting cast — Shanahan calling plays, the playmakers, the offensive line, and the defense — are the ones driving the car that's the 49ers offense while Jimmy and Trey are sitting in the driver’s seat.

Now, the car looks a little different depending on who is sitting behind the wheel. You can’t fake beating a team five times in a row. The 49ers had luck in their favor, as Garoppolo had a 1-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio against Los Angeles in 2019. Here’s how Jimmy’s passing chart looked in the 2020 win:

I’d feel more comfortable with Garoppolo running a two-minute drill or an end-of-game situation than Lance — and I’m well aware of what the rookie just did last game. I also know Jimmy would be over-reliant on his best players, which is an excellent thing in a must-win game — especially when that person is either Deebo Samuel or George Kittle.

It feels like there’s a better chance of either quarterback turning the ball over than not against the Rams. So the question becomes, who do you trust more to overcome that turnover?

I think Lance starts because we’ve seen what happens when Garoppolo rushes back from an injury. Trey stretches the field vertically and horizontally, which allows Shanahan to take advantage of cornerbacks on the Rams not named Jalen Ramsey. That hasn’t been the case yet. They threw a 12-yard out route on 3rd & 3 against the Texans. It was like a dream come true.

I also think Lance’s ability to run out of sacks and keep plays alive with his mobility — much like Tyler Huntley did with the Ravens last week against the Rams — will give Los Angeles fits. So in this situation, given the circumstances, I’d start Lance.

More questions than answers at defensive back

On Tuesday, the 49ers added veteran slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard to the practice squad as Dontae Johnson, K’Waun Williams, and Jimmie Ward are on the reserve/COVID list. Dennard, 30, appeared in eight games for the Falcons in 2020. This season he’s spent time on the Cardinals, Colts, and Giants practice squad.

Jimmie Ward is Cooper Kupp’s kryptonite. He’s one of the few players in the NFL that can hang with Kupp 1-on-1. Ward missing the Rams game could be disastrous for the 49ers. Ward had two interceptions the last time these two teams met.

What happens without Ward? You’re crossing your fingers K’Waun or Dontae are cleared from the COVID list. That’s who would play in the slot against Kupp.

If not, welcome back, Deommodore Lenoir. “I know we benched you, but now we need you to guard Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. Oh, and the season is on the line.”

Sean McVay picked on Williams earlier in the season. K’Waun allowed all six of his targets to be completed for 57 yards. The Rams group of receivers is not an ideal matchup for him style-wise. I’d expect Williams to be used more in zone coverages and as a blitzer.

Dennard feels like an emergency addition if multiple members of the secondary aren’t cleared. The best-case scenario would be Emmanuel Moseley, Ambry Thomas, Ward, Williams, and Jaquiski Tartt on the field.

Moseley’s return would allow DeMeco Ryans to be more aggressive, which should pay dividends the way Matthew Stafford’s been turning the ball over as of late and playing under pressure.

Sanu or Jennings?

Seniority could determine what happens at WR3. I don’t want to call it “roster politics,” but Shanahan harps on special teams and how you have to add something of value if you’re going to be active. That’s why we haven’t seen Trey Sermon in the past two weeks. Yet, Sanu has only played 11% of the special teams' snaps in his eight games this season.

That would insinuate Sanu brings something to the table as a wide receiver. He has 15 receptions on 24 targets for 177 yards. In theory, Sanu is supposed to be the big-bodied wideout who you rely upon over the middle when you need a first down.

Garoppolo only completed 62% of his passes when targeting Sanu. His drop rate is 10% with an average depth of target at 11.4 yards. I’d say Sanu’s production is thanks to Jimmy more than the other way around. I also remember two specific plays that should have been first downs that were dropped.

Jauan Jennings plays with a passion and fire that’s easy to appreciate, but he’s far from consistent himself. Nevertheless, he made a fantastic adjustment on an underthrown wobbler from Trey Lance on third down last Sunday against the Falcons.

However, Jennings’ overruns or takes poor angles that led to missed blocks has a higher drop rate than Sanu (13%) at a lower average depth of target (9.3 yards). Both quarterbacks are completing 56% of their passes when targeting Jennings.

The quarterbacks' passer rating is seven points higher when targeting Jennings. I think this is closer than some believe and wouldn’t be surprised if Shanahan goes with “what he knows” in the veteran Sanu.

The offense has performed better with Jennings on the field. Neither are superstars or likely to touch the ball more than 3-5 times a game. But that doesn’t stop Jennings from finding ways to get involved — think of the hustle plays like recovering a fumble. Much like the quarterback, I’d bet on the athlete against a team like the Rams. Jennings should play over Sanu.