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49ers projected to take a step back in 2022 based on ESPN’s Mike Clay’s unit grades

There are some high highs, but some low lows in the grades

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

ESPN’s Mike Clay projected the 49ers to be a slightly above-average team heading into 2021, believing the offense would rank around 15th with the defense doing the heavy lifting, ranking ninth.

Clay wasn’t far off, despite the 49ers being on the verge of another Super Bowl. It took the Rams blowing a double-digit lead in Week 18 for San Francisco to sneak into the playoffs, not to mention the help needed throughout December from other teams to make it.

Heading into 2022, Clay projects the 49ers as the 17th best team, with the 20th, yes, 20th best offense and 9th best defense.

Here is how the rankings were last year compared to this season:

Quarterbacks

2022: 1.8

2021: 1.6

One spot higher than Carson Wentz and comfortably behind Mac Jones and Kirk Cousins. I agree that it’s not fair to prop up a first-year starting quarterback, but at the same time, some analysts are ignoring Trey Lance’s situation and surrounding parts and assuming that the unknown will turn out to be negative.

Lance was the No. 3 overall pick. Shanahan hasn’t had this type of talent under center in a long, long time.

Running backs

2022: 1.0

2021: 1.1

Last year was low unless the projection included Raheem Mostert’s injury history. I think the world of Mostert and believe the Dolphins got a steal if Mostert can hold up.

It’s difficult to remove the talent from the scheme when talking about running backs and Kyle Shanahan. However, I don’t necessarily disagree with Clay for ranking the young backs so low. Between Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, Trey Sermon, and Ty Davis-Price, each has something to prove.

Clay has the Niners running backs as the 8th worst unit.

Wide receivers

2022: 2.0

2021: 1.0

Up a full unit after Deebo Samuel set the league ablaze. Still, 2.0 is merely average compared to the rest of the league, as there are 16 teams with higher grades.

If there was a time for Brandon Aiyuk to prove that he was worthy of trading up for, it’s this season with Lance under center and all eyes on Deebo. It’ll be a luxury for the team if they get anything out of Jauan Jennings, Ray-Ray McCloud, or Danny Gray. Aiyuk needs to become a 1,000-yard receiver. I believe he will.

Tight ends

2022: 3.8

2021: 3.9

The second-highest grade in the NFL, thanks to Charlie Woerner, of course.

Offensive line

2022: 2.0

2021: 3.0

That’s a dramatic drop-off, but when you lose veteran center Alex Mack and are unsure whether right tackle Mike McGlinchey will return at 100%, not to mention replacing Laken Tomlinson with a first-year starter, bumping down the Niners a full unit makes sense.

Lance will run out of potential sacks and improve the running game enough to the point where the offensive line won’t be an issue in 2022. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the best left tackle in football.

Defensive interior

2022: 3.3

2021: 0.6

Any grade in the 3’s is considered above average. It’s nice to have Arik Armstead playing inside full time, isn’t it? That’s the difference in the grade. The Niners rank sixth at the position and one spot in front of the Colts’ defensive interior.

Armstead terrorized offensive lines last year. If, and it’s a big if, Javon Kinlaw can replace D.J. Jones and Hassan Ridgeway can serve as a formidable backup, the 49ers run defense will be elite once again.

Edge

2022: 3.3

2021: 3.9

A slight decrease that should offset if Samson Ebukam picks up where he left off down the stretch. This should be the season Nick Bosa flirts with Defensive Player of the Year now that he’s a year fully removed from his ACL injury.

But the Niners come at you in waves and substitute like hockey lines. Losing Arden Key hurts, but Drake Jackson, Kerry Hyder, Charles Omenihu, Kemoko Turay, and Jordan Willis should combine for 20 sacks.

San Francisco ranked 7th among all edge rushing groups.

Linebackers

2022: 4.0

2021: 3.8

The Niners get a perfect score at linebacker because they have the best linebacker in the sport. Based on last season, I’m here to tell you that Azeez Al-Shaair deserves to be in the conversation as a top linebacker.

Al-Shaair played 143 fewer snaps than Warner last year. He had two fewer stops, eight more “defeats,” and finished in the top 18 in success rate and yards per pass allowed. And that’s before referencing Al-Shaair’s pass breakups and an interception.

Plus, the way Dre Greenlaw played in the playoffs, it’s easy to see why the 49ers have the best linebacking corps in the NFL.

Cornerbacks

2022: 1.8

2021: 2.1

If Charvarius Ward is as good as I think he’ll be, Emmanuel Moseley remains consistent, and one of the young guys is competent; this is the unit that has the best chance to outperform their unit grade.

I’m not sure we can count on Jason Verrett, but that’d be a dream come true to have him on the field with Moseley and Ward. I’m bullish on rookie Samuel Womack and believe he has a chance to win the nickel job.

Safeties

2022: 1.4

2021: 1.5

Replacing Jaquiski Tartt will not be easy. Tartt was the glue guy on defense last season. He was also one of the better safeties in the league. He finished 12th among all defensive backs in success rate and was 25th in yards per pass allowed.

Talanoa Hufanga was 8% worse in success rate and allowed three full yards more per pass. The 49ers’ best bet may be using Tarvarius Moore deep, allowing Hufanga to roam and poach routes over the middle of the field.

But we’ve heard that Hufanga has gotten faster this offseason, and the game has slowed down for him. So he’s a player I’ll be watching closely during training camp.