One of the few pitfalls of possessing a roster as talented as the one the 49ers have is how difficult it is to distribute playing time to all those deserving. The blue chip players are always going to find a way to get their touches, but what about the invaluable depth behind them?
There is only one football to go around and only so many snaps you can divvy up on the defensive side of the ball. Which unfortunately leaves a handful of players who are deserving of a larger role even if their current workload doesn’t reflect it.
So, which players on the 49ers fit the bill based on their 2022 production? I picked two from each side of the ball.
It’s always going to be difficult to generate touches as a rookie in a Kyle Shanahan offense. The 49ers head coach has made it clear it takes a bit of time to establish the requisite level of trust to be placed into a first year player in this scheme, which is far more reflective of his own philosophy than it is an indictment on any one particular player.
Mason’s path to a share of the 49ers backfield work took an even bigger hit when the team made a blockbuster deal to acquire a superstar in Christian McCaffrey. Despite these factors at play, Mason was able to work his way into a closer role of sorts as the season went on, putting the finishing touches on a couple of signature wins down the stretch.
In this role that saw him deliver the knockout punch to worn down opponents, Mason thrived to the tune of six yards per carry. He averaged an astounding 4.22 yards after contact, while also generating explosive plays at a high rate. 16 percent of Mason’s carries went for over 10 yards, which was the highest rate of anyone on the team.
There is plenty of evidence to support why an increased workload for Mason will improve the production of the backfield as a whole. But more importantly in the bigger picture, he has shown flashes of being a big time player in this league, and as such, has earned the right to a more significant role entering his second year.
There was plenty of buzz when the 49ers signed McCloud in the 2022 offseason, in large part due to the high ceiling he brought to the special teams unit as a returner. While he certainly gave the 49ers the needed boost they were searching for in the third phase of the game, he also presented them with a dynamic weapon on offense that is capable of being a home run threat every time he touches the football.
Among the 49ers players who recorded double-digit targets in 2022, McCloud ranked first in both yards per reception, and average depth of target. That big play potential wasn’t limited to passing plays only, with McCloud’s 71 yard rushing touchdown against the Commanders in Week 16 being one of the signature plays of the 49ers season.
There are plenty of mouths to feed on this 49ers offense, so expectations must remain realistic. However, McCloud recording just 21 targets and four rushing attempts is simply not enough for a player who has shown that kind of game breaking ability. Double-digit rushing attempts and an increase in targets in the passing game would benefit everyone involved in 2023.
It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when you are in the same linebacker room as Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair. San Francisco boasted the deepest and most talented group of players at the position in the league last year, and a large part of that had to do with Burks.
Many looked at Burks as a special teams ace of sorts when the 49ers signed him in the 2022 offseason, a testament to how valuable he was to the Packers during his time in Green Bay. However, he found his way into a considerable number of snaps and was extremely effective with the work he was given.
Burks finished the year with an 82.2 run defense grade, which ranked among the top five of all 49ers defenders in 2022. He also posted an extremely impressive missed tackle rate of just 3.2 percent, which was the lowest among all 49ers linebackers and the third lowest of any defender on the team in any position.
With the departure of Azeez Al-Shaair in free agency this offseason, Burks gives the 49ers a viable in-house replacement to step in and take over the starting strong side linebacker position. At 28 years old, he brings years worth of experience, while still remaining in what is typically the athletic prime, a combination that gives the 49ers
McGill quietly had one of the most impressive individual storylines on the 49ers last season. Signed to San Francisco’s practice squad just ahead of his 30th birthday, McGill came into the organization with less than 1000 career snaps after bouncing around between six different teams since entering the league in 2015.
In a year when the depth on the interior defensive line was devastated with injuries, McGill stepped in and helped keep the team afloat. His contributions week after week may have gone unnoticed in the grand scheme of things, but it’s safe to say the season could have taken a turn for the worse without his ability to step in and stabilize the interior of the defensive line.
He was extremely effective at getting after opposing quarterbacks as well, posting a nine percent pressure rate on the 126 pass rushing snaps he recorded. With Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave leading the way in 2023, McGill could yet again prove to be an indispensable cog in a defensive line rotation that is poised to be the heart and soul of a team with championship aspirations.