49ers have sights on competing for a playoff spot with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm
The 49ers were 1-10 before quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo moved into the starting lineup last season less than a month after being traded by New England to San Francisco for a second-round draft pick. Garoppolo led the 49ers to five straight wins, and they’ll ride that wave of momentum and optimism into the 2018 campaign, their second under coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch.
The 49ers averaged 28.8 points in their final five games with Garoppolo as their starting QB, beating the Bears, Texans, Titans, Jaguars and Rams. In their first 11 games, they averaged 17.0 points. Shanahan and Lynch received six-year contracts last season, and Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million deal in February.
“Did we finish strong? Absolutely,” Lynch, a former Pro Bowl safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “But I can tell you, in Tampa, when we were trying to turn it around, there were plenty of times when we finished strong, and it didn’t guarantee success the next year. So it’s back to trying to improve our franchise in every way we can, and it’s back to good old-fashioned hard work to make sure that we do carry the momentum we had forward into next year.”
Garoppolo proved to be a quick study and an ideal fit for Shanahan’s offense last season. Coming off the bench for his debut on Nov. 26 in a 24-13 loss to Seattle, Garoppolo completed both of his passes, the second one for a touchdown. His pinpoint accuracy, quick release and skill at reading defenses helped ignite San Francisco’s offense. Garoppolo averaged 308.4 passing yards and completed 67.1 percent of his throws during his five starts. Now that he’ll have an offseason and training camp under Shanahan, the 49ers expect him to take his game to an even higher level.
Garoppolo and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, one of the fastest players in the NFL, developed instant chemistry. Goodwin caught 29 passes for 384 yards and one TD in Garoppolo’s five starts. He finished with 56 catches for 962 yards -- both career highs -- and averaged 17.2 yards per grab. The 49ers rewarded him with a three-year extension.
Wide receiver Pierre Garcon missed the final eight games with a neck injury that required surgery. He’s expected to return to the starting lineup. Garcon caught 113 passes for 1,346 yards and five TDs in 2013 for Washington with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. Slot receiver Trent Taylor had 17 of his 43 catches as a rookie over the final five games last season with Garoppolo. Dante Pettis, a second-round pick from Washington, is another dangerous target. Tight ends George Kittle and Garrett Celek thrived with Garoppolo as the starter, combining to catch 23 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
The 49ers parted ways with running back Carlos Hyde and signed former Viking Jerick McKinnon to a four-year free-agent contract that’s worth up to $36.9 million. McKinnon is undersized at 5'9" and 205 pounds and started only 14 games in four seasons with Minnesota. He comes with plenty of question marks, but Shanahan sees McKinnon as a great fit for his scheme with his ability to both run and catch. He caught 51 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns last season and ran for a career-high 570 yards and three scores on 150 carries. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk earned his second straight Pro Bowl berth in his debut with the 49ers last season, largely on his skill as a receiver. He had 33 catches for 315 yards and a score.
Left tackle Joe Staley, a six-time Pro Bowler, returns for his 12th season and will anchor an unsettled offensive line. The 49ers signed center Weston Richburg to a five-year free-agent deal worth up to $47.5 million and traded incumbent starter Daniel Kilgore to Miami. Shanahan believes Richburg’s athleticism and pass-blocking skills will be an upgrade. Rookie Mike McGlinchey, the No. 9 overall pick, will likely start at right tackle. One day after drafting McGlinchey, the 49ers traded incumbent starter Trent Brown to New England. Left guard Laken Tomlinson, who signed a three-year contract extension in late June, and right guard Joshua Garnett figure to round out the starting five. Free-agent pickup Jonathan Cooper, who has 27 career starts including 13 last season for Dallas, and Erik Magnuson also could be in the mix at either guard spot.
The 49ers made some strides last year under new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who installed his version of Pete Carroll’s aggressive 4-3 scheme. They jumped from last in the NFL in total defense to 24th, last in rushing defense to 22nd and last in points allowed to 25th. The pass defense, however, fell from 14th to 22nd, and the team hopes that the addition of cornerback Richard Sherman helps solve that problem.
The 49ers signed Sherman to a three-year contract on March 12, three days after Seattle released him. If healthy, the 6'3", 195-pound Sherman will be a perfect fit for Saleh’s defense, giving him a big, physical corner on the left edge. Sherman underwent surgeries to repair a torn right Achilles and remove bone spurs from his left Achilles. It’s not known if or when he’ll be fully healthy. Jimmie Ward, who has played both safety and cornerback, worked at cornerback in the spring and could open the season on the left side if Sherman isn’t ready. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a 2017 third-round draft pick, started nine games and intercepted two passes as a rookie last season and will likely hold onto his starting job. K’Waun Williams returns as the nickel back. Moving Ward to corner would open a spot at free safety for hard hitting Adrian Colbert, who started six games last season. Jaquiski Tartt will start at strong safety, replacing Eric Reid, who was not re-signed.
The 49ers have spent first-round capital on defensive linemen and expect to start seeing a bigger return. They chose Arik Armstead (17th) in 2015, DeForest Buckner (seventh) in 2016 and Solomon Thomas (third) in 2017. Armstead missed 18 games with injuries the past two seasons and has six career sacks. Buckner started 31 games his first two NFL seasons and has nine career sacks. Thomas started 12 games and had three sacks as a rookie. It’s still unclear if the 49ers have the weapons to improve their pressure off the edge.
In early July, linebacker Reuben Foster was fined and suspended two games for violating the league's conduct and substance abuse policies. The decision puts an end to Foster's off-field legal problems, which involved separate incidents in California and Alabama. In June, he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge related to possession of an illegal weapon stemming from a Feb. 11 incident in California, while two charges related to domestic violence were dismissed in late May. He also was arrested in Alabama in January for possession of marijuana, but that charge was dismissed in late May after he completed a diversion course and paid a fine. Suspension aside, it remains to be seen what the 49ers will get from Foster, whose NFL career got off to a rough start after failing a drug test at the Scouting Combine before being selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Former Seahawk Brock Coyle, who started 10 games last season for the 49ers, will likely fill in at middle linebacker during Foster's absence. Rookie Fred Warner, a third-round pick from BYU, is another option. Outside linebacker Malcolm Smith, another former Seahawk, is expected to start on the weak side after signing with San Francisco last year but missing the season with a torn pectoral suffered in training camp. Eli Harold started 23 games over the past two seasons and has the inside track on the strong side.
Kicker Robbie Gould was all but automatic in his first season with the 49ers. He made 39-of-41 field goal attempts, including all four from 50 yards or longer and 17-of-18 from 40 to 49 yards. Bradley Pinion returns to handle punts and kickoffs for the fourth straight season since being drafted in the fifth round in 2015. Last year he averaged just 43.4 yards per punt, tied for 29th in the NFL, but his net of 41.3 ranked 11th, and he had 31 punts inside the 20, seventh best. Pettis should add some juice to the punt return game, and rookie corner D.J. Reed could help on kick returns.
If the 49ers’ season-ending five-game winning streak wasn’t a mirage, they could contend for a playoff spot, assuming Garoppolo stays healthy. The 49ers haven’t made the playoffs or had a winning record since going 12-4 and reaching the NFC title game in 2013, former coach Jim Harbaugh’s next-to-last season with the team.