Coming off a heartbreaking loss in the 2021 NFC Championship game, the 49ers have retooled and reloaded. After a flurry of offseason moves and a change at the quarterback position, the 49ers head into this season equipped with one of the best rosters in football, with their sights set on another deep playoff run.
I’m going to provide a quick overview of each position group, and my overall outlook for the team heading into the 2022 season. I’ll start with the most important position in the sport, where the 49ers have a new quarterback starting Week 1 for the first time since 2017.
The Trey Lance era has officially begun, as the 49ers have made it as clear as can be they are handing the reins over to the 22-year-old quarterback that they moved mountains to acquire last season.
Throughout training camp, Lance has shown off his big arm and mobility, but the thing that impressed me the most was his ability to work through his progressions and identify the coverage being presented by the defense.
Lance’s physical traits are off the charts, but his greatest skill is the mental acumen he possesses. The more comfortable he gets, the more those physical gifts will have an opportunity to shine in an organic way.
While there is a lot to be excited about in regards to Lance, it is important to remember that he is only 22, and will likely need some time before he really starts to hit his stride at the NFL level. Have patience during the early growing pains, because the long term dividends are going to be well worth the wait.
In a move that stunned absolutely everyone, former starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo agreed to return to San Francisco on a restructured deal under the stipulation that he would be serving as Lance’s back up.
The 49ers gave themselves a premium insurance policy at the position, having arguably the best backup quarterback in the league ready to step in should Lance miss any time during the season. While the outside noise will stir up controversy, head coach Kyle Shanahan has made it clear this is Lance’s team and that he will be the starting quarterback going into week 1.
Rounding out the quarterback room is rookie Brock Purdy, who was selected with the final pick of the 2022 draft. Purdy impressed during the preseason and the 49ers were enamored enough with his progress that they kept him on the roster at the expense of depth elsewhere.
After setting the franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie, second year back Eli Mitchell appears to have a firm grip on the top spot in the 49ers backfield. Despite the impressive start to Mitchell’s career, I still expect a running back by committee approach, with a handful of players sharing the load over the course of the season.
Jeff Wilson Jr. is the veteran of the running back group, and I expect he will be someone head coach Kyle Shanahan leans on heavily in high leverage situations due to his track record as someone who can be trusted in big moments. And of course Kyle Juszczyk remains the best fullback in football, and will continue to provide tremendous versatility as one of the most unique offensive weapons in the game.
Wide receivers (and tight ends)
It all starts at the top, with the newly-extended Deebo Samuel, who is coming off a historic 2021 season that saw him get a first team All-Pro selection. The passing attack will lean heavily on Samuel and his ability to create after the catch, but this is a deep group that has some serious star power across the board.
George Kittle remains firmly in the discussion as the best tight end in the sport, and he figures to play a prominent role in the pass game while doubling as an invaluable asset in the run game with his ability as a blocker. Like Samuel, Kittle is in his own tier when it comes to creating after the catch, and expect him to serve as safety blanket of sorts as Lance gets his feet under him in this offense.
Beyond the aforementioned All-Pro selections, the 49ers have some serious firepower, starting with third year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who is coming off of one of the more impressive training camps in recent memory. Aiyuk is winning off the line, at the catch point, and everywhere in between, and his rapport with Lance is clear after the two spent an abundance of time working out together in the offseason.
Then you have speedster Danny Gray, who scored a 76-yard touchdown in his first ever NFL game to open up the preseason. Gray and his 4.3 speed will stretch the offense vertically as well as horizontally, and he adds an elite speed element that hasn’t been there in recent years for this offense.
Finally you have veterans like Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud. Jennings is one of the better blocking wide receivers in the sport, and provides a reliable target out of the big slot role Shanahan is so fond of. McCloud has already shown his ability to stress out defenses in a 49ers uniform, cashing in on a touchdown on a deep post that had the defender in coverage fall to the ground after biting on McCloud’s double move.
This is the most talented group of skill position players Shanahan has had in years, and it is going to be a treat watching them wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
Trent Williams is coming off the most impressive season I have ever seen from an offensive lineman. If you ask me, Williams is the best player in the entire NFL right now. He is also the only real certainty on this 49ers offensive line, given they are currently slated to have three new starters, and incumbent starter Mike McGlinchey is making a return from a serious injury that cut his 2021 season short.
Rookie right guard Spencer Burford has shined so far, and 2020 2nd round pick Aaron Banks looks much improved at the other guard spot, but realistically we have no idea how that will pan out going forward. Same goes for the projected starter at center Jake Brendel, who has NFL experience, just a limited sample size to work off.
While there is a degree of uncertainty, I would be cautiously optimistic about this group as a whole. The further into training camp we got, the more they were able to gel and it was reflected in their performance as well.
The backbone of the team. The engine that makes this whole thing go. Not only is it loaded at the top with star players like Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, top to bottom this is the most talented group that the 49ers have had on the defensive line under Shanahan.
Samson Ebukam finished the 2021 season by contributing to sack in seven of the last eight games to close out the year, and he looks poised to take a big leap in his second year in the system as the starting edge opposite Bosa.
Javon Kinlaw is healthy, and ready to show why he was a top 15 pick back in 2020. Kinlaw has a level of physical ability that is breathtaking, and once he is able to fully develop and refine his game, you are looking at a perennial Pro Bowl ceiling for a player who has proven they are hungry to silence the doubt surrounding them.
Kevin Givens will help absorb the loss of DJ Jones on the inside. Charles Omenihu and Kemoko Turay are exceptional athletes who have an opportunity to take their games to the next level with the best defensive line coach in the game. Jordan Willis and Kerry Hyder Jr. provide excellent depth as versatile pieces that can win from multiple spots and make contributions in a rotational role.
On top of all of this, the 49ers snagged a special athlete when they selected defensive end Drake Jackson in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. While I think it will take Jackson some time before he starts leapfrogging the talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, his physical abilities were on display from day one, and he has the opportunity to develop into a very special player for this defense, while making an immediate contribution in his rookie year as well.
The 49ers have the most talented linebacker trio in the sport, and I’m not sure that anyone else comes close. Fred Warner is the gold standard at the position, doing things on the field that I have never seen a linebacker tasked with doing. Wether it’s fitting run gaps at the line of scrimmage, or taking No. 3 vertically up the seam, Warner does it all, and makes it look easy in the process.
Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair are extremely valuable in their own rights as well, with both having the ability to operate in space and run sideline to sideline with the best of them. Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles have proven to be reliable depth at the position, with both being someone you can count on in a pinch. This group, like a lot of the team, is flat out stacked from top to bottom.
The big splash signing for the 49ers this past offseason was their move to bring in free agent cornerback Charvarius Ward. While Ward has already proven to be an extremely important part of the defense, when we talk about the secondary it all starts with the other Ward. I am, of course, referring to starting safety Jimmie Ward, who is the longest tenured 49ers player on the roster.
Ward is the best coverage safety in the league, and the conductor of the orchestra that is the back end of the 49ers defense. Ward has long been overlooked on a national level, but those close to the team know how important he is to the success of this 49ers squad.
Back to Charvarius, who has shown that he has a ceiling that places him among the best players at his entire position. Ward is coming off a season where he allowed the fewest average yards of separation, and the second lowest completion percentage among defensive backs that were targeted a minimum of 50 times last season.
Ward gives the 49ers a true number one cornerback, that has the capability to travel with opposing teams best receiving options as well. While Ward is a budding star in his own right, the other starting cornerback is no slouch either. Emmanuel Moseley has progressively gotten better year after year, and is one of the more talented second cornerbacks in the entire league.
As of now, the big question marks come at the strong safety position and the nickel cornerback spot. Second year player Talanoa Hufanga appears to be in line to take over the starting safety spot opposite Ward, and has looked good so far through training camp and one preseason game.
The starting nickel spot remains a bit of a mystery, but rookie cornerback Samuel Womack is the clear favorite to win that job following a two interception performance in his NFL debut. Even with the uncertainty at a couple of spots, this group got a massive upgrade with the acquisition of Ward, and the unit as whole can afford to be a bit more aggressive due to the pressure the defensive front will put on opposing quarterbacks.
Hey, they are people too! Robbie Gould remains one of the most reliable kickers in the business, as he showed when he drilled a game winning field goal on the frozen tundra in the divisional round last season.
Mitch Wishnowsky and his knuckle punts will be on display for the fourth season, and the maestro of these special teams snaps is none other than the people’s champ, long snapper Taybor Pepper. At the end of the day, you want these guys to be a group you can count on, and these three have proven they are dependable.
This team is absolutely loaded top to bottom. It’s the best roster they have had in a decade, and the ceiling is that of a championship level squad. Unfortunately, championships aren’t won on paper, and there is always a lot more to it than simply constructing the most talented roster.
I think that as long as they are able to stay healthy, this team should win 10 games in its sleep. In fact, DraftKings Sportsbook officially predicts that they’ll have 10 wins this season (I’d take the over on that!). The Niners are a talented bunch, and match up well with any other team in the league. Even with a young quarterback that is likely to experience some growing pains, the defense and skill position players are so talented that they will be able to overcome that and still be a double digit win team.
Having said that, they still do face a fairly daunting schedule. My record prediction as I type this is 11-6, which by all measures is a very successful season for any NFL franchise.