Even more than the plethora of talent on both sides of the ball, the 49ers’ main advantage is their head coach and the excellent staff he has succeeded in putting together during his tenure.
Only a handful of play-callers in the NFL can claim to do as good of a job as Kyle Shanahan at putting offensive players in a position to succeed.
On the defensive side of the ball, Shanahan has consistently got his hires at coordinator correct, with both Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans impressing and going on to head coaching jobs. On top of that, his defensive position coaches have excelled at developing homegrown talent into stars.
As the 49ers prepare for yet another run at the Super Bowl after falling agonizingly short of winning the Lombardi Trophy in three of the last four seasons, there will be intense focus on Shanahan as he navigates what is likely to be Brock Purdy’s first full season as the starting quarterback.
But just as significant as Shanahan’s play-calling acumen to the Niners’ success will be the work done by his position coaches. Those coaches are enjoying time off right now, but will next month be back on the practice field tasked with helping elicit further progress from an ultra-talented roster.
Whose work will have the biggest bearing on the 49ers’ fortunes? Let’s look at the four position coaches who are most important to San Francisco’s 2023 prospects.
Griese has already received praise for his work with the 49ers’ signal-callers in his first season as quarterback coach in 2022.
Jimmy Garoppolo and Purdy both excelled last year, and Griese will be under pressure to continue his good work in the coming campaign.
With all the noises indicating Purdy will be ready for Week 1 following surgery on a torn elbow ligament, Griese will be among those aiming to ensure his 5-0 record as a starter in the regular season was not a flash in the pan.
Griese will hope to help Purdy take the next step and establish himself as the long-term answer at quarterback. His focus cannot just be on the expected QB1, though. Griese has to get Trey Lance and Sam Darnold in a position where the 49ers can be confident in either quarterback starting Week 1.
In essence, Griese’s brief will be to have all their quarterbacks ready to play at any point in the season. For a team that ended the 2022 season on its fourth quarterback, that is a critical assignment.
Purdy may be the anticipated starter, but Griese’s work with Lance could have a huge influence on the future of the franchise. Whether it’s on the field, or in capital recouped via trade, the 49ers must get a return on their investment in Lance. That won’t happen without Griese and the Niners getting some evident development out of the former third overall pick.
One of the most underrated stories of the 2022 season for the 49ers was the progress made by the young players on their offensive line.
There were huge questions about each of the three designated starters on the interior of the O-Line (right guard Spencer Burford split time with Daniel Brunskill).
Those questions are no more. Jake Brendel went from a center with only three starts to his name to one who received a four-year extension. Aaron Banks thrived at left guard and Burford heads into year two as the established starter at right guard.
In 2023, Foerster’s work with new starting right tackle Colton McKivitz will be crucial to their Super Bowl hopes. McKivitz succeeds Mike McGlinchey having started just five games in his career.
McKivitz has impressed in each of his spot starts at left tackle for Trent Williams in the last two seasons. Foerster’s job is to make sure those performances translate to a full season on the opposite side and, in turn, prevent McKivitz from sinking what is otherwise an exciting young line.
The 49ers have invested in veteran depth in the form of Jon Feliciano and Matt Pryor. However, beyond his work with McKivitz, Foerster also has to rise to the challenge of harvesting growth from the likes of Nick Zakelj, Jason Poe, Leroy Watson and potentially even rookie UDFA Joey Fisher. The Niners need McKivitz to hold his own and get some younger backups to a point where they can be trusted. Foerster is key to both ambitions.
Griese aside, Kocurek is the 49ers’ most well-known position coach, having developed a reputation as a stellar defensive line coach.
Kocurek has done an outstanding job of helping the 49ers’ defensive front maintain its position as one of the premier units in the NFL. Not only has he played a key role in Nick Bosa’s development into a player who will soon be the highest-paid edge rusher in the league, but Kocurek has also turned a plethora of low-cost free agents and trade acquisitions into key contributors in the D-Line rotation.
Several of those contributors have departed. Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis all moved on, meaning Kocurek has a new group of backups to mold.
Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are the latest veterans to enter the Kocurek career rehabilitation program. Robert Beal Jr. won’t be under much pressure as a rookie fifth-round pick, but it would be a huge boon to the edge rotation if he can deliver some impactful snaps in year one.
The blockbuster addition of Javon Hargrave should lessen the challenge of reviving an interior defensive line that struggled to create pressure. Bosa, Hargrave and Armstead will be expected to form a formidable pass-rush trio, and Kocurek’s primary task will be to engineer a leap from Drake Jackson to turn that starting group into a fearsome foursome.
Jackson has displayed plenty of promise to suggest he can be a productive NFL pass rusher. If Kocurek can help him realize that potential while turning Ferrell into an effective inside-out rotational player and get some production from Bryant or Beal, his group could end 2023 as the NFL’s undoubted gold standard.
Save for the hiring of Steve Wilks as Ryans’ replacement, Bullocks’ promotion to defensive backs coach represented the most significant coaching move of the offseason for the Niners.
It was a promotion he undoubtedly earned. In his final season as safeties coach, the 49ers got superb production from their starting safeties, Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga, the latter named a first-team All-Pro.
Though Wilks will have a massive influence over the defensive backfield, Bullocks will be integral to maintaining the progress made by the secondary last season.
The 49ers will want to see further growth from Deommodore Lenoir as the starting outside corner across from Charvarius Ward. Isaiah Oliver must rise to expectations that he can slide in and immediately fill the void at nickel and, behind the starters, the Niners need the likes of Ambry Thomas and Samuel Womack III to blossom into reliable depth options who can be trusted to step into the breach.
Bullocks will also have more work to do at the safety position following the selection of Ji’Ayir Brown as the team’s top draft choice. Brown has a versatile skill set that can potentially allow him to contribute as a rookie and eventually take over from Gipson as the starting free safety. Keeping him on an upward trajectory will benefit the 49ers in the coming season and down the road.
Speaking of things that are down the road, Bullocks continuing to impress is important to the 49ers’ future planning. In the likely event the defense is again among the league’s best, Wilks could well be in the mix for a head coaching role.
There is a clear possibility, therefore, that the Niners will again be looking for a new DC next offseason. In that scenario, Bullocks would be a lead in-house candidate, provided the 49ers are satisfied with his work as DBs coach.
It is in the best interests of both Bullocks and the 49ers that he oversees another strong year from the secondary.