The early notes from San Francisco 49ers training camp have been full of mixed commentary. Quarterback Trey Lance has had his share of struggles in his first preseason as the top signal-caller on the depth chart.
However, the Niners’ defense has quickly built an impressive reputation with its play at all levels of the field. In fact, comparisons to the 49ers 2019 team, which reached Super Bowl LIV, have quickly popped up surrounding the team.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan would love to get back to the Super Bowl in Trey Lance’s first season as his starting quarterback. But how does the Niners preseason roster compare to the 2019 team that eventually won the NFC?
Obviously, a lot will change on the 49ers’ depth chart between now and the start of the regular season with injuries and roster cuts, but it’s still worth looking ahead and projecting how the lineup will compare. Let’s break it down position by position:
2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard
2022: Trey Lance, Nate Sudfeld (Brock Purdy)
Jimmy Garoppolo may have been entering his sixth NFL season back in 2019, but injuries and years serving as Tom Brady’s backup had limited him to just ten career starts. For better or worse, Nick Mullens and Nate Sudfeld have a lot in common as backup quarterbacks, which is not a compliment.
Still, in terms of Trey Lance vs. Garoppopolo, Garoppolo was particularly bad early in the 2019 season as he worked back from his ACL injury. In his first ten games of the season, Jimmy G completed 68.8% of his passes but averaged less than 250 yards per game while throwing ten interceptions and amassing 7 fumbles (4 that resulted in turnovers). It was the Niners’ defense that carried them to their hot start. Garoppolo’s play improved down the stretch, capped off by his memorable performance in a 48-46 victory over the Saints. While Lance will generate his production in a different way than Garoppolo (lower completion percentage, more passes downfield, and more rushing yards), he should be able to follow a similar arc.
2019: Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Jeff Wilson
2022: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, Ty Davis-Price, Trey Sermon
Almost everyone would take the 2019 group of backs over this season’s group right now, but the 49ers had yet to realize Raheem Mostert was more than a good special teams player for much of the regular season. Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman received 260 carries that season, amassing 1,167 yards on the ground.
There is not an explosive back like Mostert on this roster, but Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., and some combination of Ty Davis-Price and Trey Sermon should be enough depth to pair with the Niners’ new dynamic runner at quarterback to match their 2019 production.
So far, during camp, it appears as though Mitchell and Davis-Price are the leading candidates for carries this upcoming season.
2019: Kyle Juszczyk
2022: Kyle Juszczyk
Kyle Juszczyk is two years older, now 31, but remains one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. While his age raises concerns, Juszczyk has never been out for more than he was in 2019, when he missed four regular-season games.
2019: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Garrett Celek, Levine Toilolo
2022: George Kittle, Charlie Woerner, Ross Dwelley, Josh Kroft
George Kittle missed two games during the 2019 season, but no other tight end on the roster amassed 100 yards receiving even in his absence. Ross Dwelley has become a more effective pass-catcher since 2019, but there’s once again no one who will come close to matching Kittle if he missed time with injury.
Kittle has missed multiple regular-season games in each of the past three seasons, playing just 8 in 2020. Kittle will be 29 in October, but his physical playstyle has had him take a lot of big hits. If he’s healthy this season, it should be easy for the team’s tight end to approach their 2019 production. If he misses extended time, though, there will be a big drop-off.
2019: Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, Richie James
2022: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Danny Gray, Jauan Jennings, Ray-Ray McCloud III, Malik Turner
Heading into the preseason, the 49ers’ wide receiver group in 2022 is well ahead of their 2019 group. Entering training camp, a rookie Deebo Samuel and second-year Dante Pettis were supposed to be the unit’s top pass catchers, with Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne as depth options.
This year’s group is comparable but looks better on paper. Samuel is a far better player at this point in his career than he was as a rookie, and Brandon Aiyuk is far above Pettis. Jauan Jennings’ production has mirrored Bourne, while Danny Gray’s speed should potentially stretch the field like Goodwin.
Obviously, the 2019 team’s midseason acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders lifted the 2019 offense quite a bit, but I would not be surprised if the Niners end up adding one of the more talented free agent receivers left on the market after they clear Garoppolo’s salary.
Sanders, alongside veterans like T.Y. Hilton and DeSean Jackson, are all free agents who could add some valuable depth and experience to a young group. If the Niners end up taking a bigger swing on someone like Odell Beckham Jr. (extremely unlikely) or Will Fuller, though, this receiving corp could easily be one of the
2019: Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Justin Skule, Dan Brunskill
2022: Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey, Jaylon Moore, Jordan Mills
How close Mike McGlinchey is to his pre-injury, or better yet, pre-covid, form could be one of the many questions facing the 49ers offensive line heading into this season. Even with a lot of unproven players on their interior line, a healthy McGlinchey opposite the best-left tackle in the NFL should go a long way towards stabilizing the unit.
Still, the 49ers’ offensive line in 2019 had plenty of issues. Staley and McGlinchey combined to miss 11 regular-season games that year, forcing Justin Skule and Dan Brunskill into consistent action. The current iteration of Trent Williams is better than Staley was when healthy back in 2019, and if he and McGlinchey are healthy, the Niners should have even better tackle play than they did when they last went to the Super Bowl.
2019: Laken Tomlinson, Michael Person, Ben Garland, Sam Young
2022: Aaron Banks, Spencer Burford, Nick Zakelj, Jason Poe,
The 49ers will undeniably feel the loss of Laken Tomlinson this season, but the Niners have succeeded with questions at guard throughout Kyle Shanahan’s tenure. Mike Person was the team’s primary right guard in 2019 and received a nearly identical PFF grade as Dan Brunskill did last season at the position (61.8 vs. 61.4). Obviously, PFF grades are far from an exact tool, but Person and Brunskill have both been flawed but competent starters.
Currently, though, the early returns from camp for 2021 second-round pick Aaron Banks and 2022 fourth-round pick Spencer Burford have been extremely positive. Replacing Tomlinson will not be easy, but Burford already appears to be an upgrade at right guard.
2019: Weston Richburg, Garrison Sanborn
2022: Jake Brendel, Daniel Brunskill
While some folks may favor the interior defensive line or running back, to me, center is easily the biggest shortcoming of the 49ers' current roster compared to 2019. Injuries ultimately derailed Weston Richburg’s tenure in San Francisco, but he was an above-average center for the first 13 games of the season before suffering what ultimately was a career-ending injury. It’s worth noting that Richburg missed the entire postseason, so the 2019 Niners did succeed without him at some pivotal moments.
Shanahan has done a lot of talking up Jake Brendel, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of a former undrafted free agent who will be 30 in December and has been cut by more NFL teams (4) than his total number of career NFL starts (3). Perhaps Burford wins the starting job at right guard, allowing Brunskill to compete with Brendel and undrafted free agent Dohnovan West at center. Even then, though, it’s hard to feel confident about any of those options. Granted, with all that said, free-agent center J.C. Tretter is a perfect scheme fit in San Francisco and has not missed a game since 2016. Perhaps the Niners are waiting to move Garoppolo before adding their actual starting center.
Interior defensive line:
2019: DeForest Buckner, D.J. Jones, Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day, Julian Taylor
2022: Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Charles Omenihu, Kevin Givens, Hassan Ridgeway,
Splitting up a defensive line between interior and edge players is not as simple as madden makes it seem. Players like Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas spent plenty of time on the outside in 2019, with DeForest Buckner and D.J. Jones doing the bulk of interior work.
It’s hard to match a unit that had Buckner and Jones, and this year’s group is not up that level, especially after losing Maurice Hurst to a season-ending injury. However, Armstead is a different player now that he’s able to stick on the inside and comes close to approaching DeFo’s impact. Javon Kinlaw, Kevin Givens, Robert Nkemdiche, and even Charles Omenihu each have some intriguing upside too. Given how strong the line around them will be, there should be a great opportunity for one of those players to have a breakout year (a la Arden Key in 2021).
2019: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Ronald Blair, Jeremiah Valoaga
2022: Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam, Kerry Hyder, Kemoko Turay, Drake Jackson
While most people think of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford on the outside for the 2019 49ers team, Armstead actually lined up on the outside in 78.8% of his defensive snaps.
Nick Bosa was fantastic in 2019. He was also a rookie. Bosa is an early contender to be this year’s Defensive Player of the Year, and he has an impressive collection of talent prepared to rush from the other side of the line. Veterans like Samson Ebukam, Kerry Hyder, Kemoko Turay, and even Omenihu (who will play all over the line) all have solid track records of production on the outside. On top of that, rookie second-round pick Drake Jackson is an added lottery ticket for Kris Kocurek to generate pressure up front.
2019: Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair
2022: Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair, Dre Greenlaw, Demetrius Flanagan-Fowles
Kwon Alexander entered 2019 as the top linebacker on the 49ers roster, but injuries limited him to just eight games while then rookie Fred Warner emerged as a truly elite defender. A few years later, the 49ers linebacking corp is basically identical to the 2019 roster with Alexander off the depth chart and a primary special teamer like Demetrius Flanagan-Fowles or Oren Burks taking up the fourth spot. Warner, Greenlaw, and Al-Shaair are all better players than they were in 2019, putting this unit on equal, and possibly stronger, footing than 2019.
2019: Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, D.J. Reed
2022: Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett, Samuel Womack
The biggest advantage the 2022 team has over the 2019 roster, at least on paper, is easily at cornerback. Charvarius Ward is probably the best cornerback the Niners had had in the Kyle Shanahan era (Richard Sherman is a future Hall of Famer, but he was severely limited by the time he got to the Bay Area). Emmanuel Moseley has been solid as the top corner on several above-average defenses in San Francisco as well. Throw in the lottery ticket that is Jason Verrett’s health and Samuel Womack/Ambry Thomas’ development, and this unit could easily have three above-average starting outside corners.
I expect the competition at nickel to come down to Dennard and Womack, which could pose some risk for the team. 2019 was arguably the best season of K’Waun Williams’ career, but even then, Williams excelled against the run, as a blitzer, and in zone, but struggled when tested in man coverage.
The 49ers should be able to match his production fairly easily, even with youth. Pair that with the best group of outside corners in San Francisco in at least a decade, and this group should be exciting to watch.
2019: Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Tarvarius Moore, Marcell Harris
2022: Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga, Tarvarius Moore, George Odum
Ward and Tartt missed seven regular-season games in 2019, forcing Moore and Harris into some extended action. While the Niners will struggle if Ward misses extended time, Moore could finally be ready to live up to his draft status, and George Odum has excelled filling in at safety during his time in Indy, giving them some quality depth to round out a stacked secondary.
2019: Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowksy, Kyle Nelson
2022: Robbie Gould, Mitch Wishnowsky, Taybor Pepper
With the same kicking duo from their Super Bowl run, the 49ers are surely hoping Gould and Wishnowsky can lead a rejuvenated special teams unit this season. Wishnowsky was a rookie in 2019 and has quietly been very consistent over the past few years. Interestingly enough, 2019 was actually the worst season of Gould’s career, with his field-goal percentage rebounding over the past two seasons. Still, Gould will be 40 in December, so the Niners are banking on him holding onto his abilities for at least another year.