One of the biggest takeaways from the 49ers first preseason game was that their depth at offensive line falls off a cliff without the starters. The quarterbacks were under constant duress as the offensive line surrendered 12 pressures on 31 attempts.
San Francisco enters the 2023 season with a 79.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, and a one in five shot at playing in the Super Bowl. Needless to say, their offensive firepower is expected to carry the workload this year.
ESPN went through each playoff contender to determine their biggest flaws or concerns prior to the regular season. As is the case with the 49ers every year, theirs was health:
Biggest flaw: Health of offensive stars
If the 49ers can stay as healthy around their quarterback as they were on offense during the second half last season, I think so. Asking them to pull that off, though, might be tough. Let’s consider the track record of the key players around Purdy:
McCaffrey missed 23 games between 2020 and 2021 with various injuries.
Deebo Samuel has been sidelined for 15 of his 66 possible pro games with hamstring, ankle and knee ailments.
George Kittle has been out for 15 games over the past four seasons, including half of the 2020 campaign.
Trent Williams hasn’t played a full season since 2013, missing an average of 2½ games per season over that span. (I’m leaving out the 2019 season, when Williams held out to force a trade away from Washington.) While the other players are in their 20s, Williams is 35.
During that brilliant second-half spell from 2022, these players were all present and accounted for outside of Samuel, who missed 3½ games in December. They’re all game-changers when healthy — and San Francisco has another talented playmaker in Brandon Aiyuk — but it would be a surprise if they were all on the field for all 17 regular-season games. If they’re each around for 15 games or so and the absences don’t really overlap, the 49ers will be fine. If McCaffrey misses most of the season or Williams goes down for an extended period of time, well, the team might not seem as plug-and-play as it looked in 2022.
It goes without saying that the 49ers are in trouble if one of their stars misses an extended portion of the season. Jauan Jennings is great in his role, but that’s as a No. 3 wideout where he plays in the middle of the field. We’d likely see a different version of Jennings if he was forced to play on the outside full-time in Aiyuk or Deebo’s absence.
It’s been a rocky three weeks for the tight end group. There’s no replacing the best offensive lineman in the game, and the passing game would look entirely different without No. 23 back there.
Injuries put more pressure on Brock Purdy to perform and create. Last year, Purdy was at his best in play-action, getting the ball out on time, and throwing to the open receiver. All of that becomes more challenging to execute if your top players aren’t out there.
I’d be more worried about the inevitable regression from the offense after not playing a top-10 passing defense during the second half. In fact, the Niners only saw one top-10 unit all season.
Kyle Shanahan is incredible at putting his players in a position to succeed, getting guys open, and staying out of obvious passing downs. What happens when defenses adjust to Purdy’s style of play and take something away from him? That’s what I’m eagerly awaiting to see.
But Purdy, much like Jimmy Garoppolo, ran the offense how Shanahan wanted. Purdy finished in the top-6 in just about every quarterback passing stat that matters, from first downs to early downs without play-action. Even if there’s a ceiling to Purdy’s talent, it’s difficult to imagine him falling off a cliff with the talent around him.