Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers look to take a major step forward
In 2017, the 49ers went 6–10, but their subpar record was excused because then-first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch had inherited a 2–14 mess. In 2018, the 49ers dipped to 4–12, but that was largely excused because running back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL before the season opener and franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered the same injury in Week 3.
In 2019? It's fair to say that no excuses will be tolerated as Shanahan and Lynch enter the third year of a down-to-the-studs rebuild.
The encouraging news is that the 49ers clearly improved their talent in the offseason. And improved health in key positions could mean that they meet last season's expectations, when many thought they would reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.
The 49ers were the definition of mediocre in 2018, ranking 16th in the NFL in total offense. But there's reason to believe they could jump from average to outstanding. Consider: In '18, their leading passer (Nick Mullens), rusher (Matt Breida) and wide receiver (Kendrick Bourne) were largely anonymous 2017 undrafted free agents who were forced into larger roles because of injuries.
The 49ers' decent performance despite the attrition was a reflection of Shanahan's play-calling ability and George Kittle's breakout second season in which the former fifth-round pick set an NFL record for receiving yards (1,377) by a tight end.
Now, the 49ers will bring back Garoppolo, and the backfield will be boosted by the return of McKinnon and the addition of free agent Tevin Coleman, who flourished when Shanahan was Atlanta's offensive coordinator in 2015-16. McKinnon, Coleman and Breida give the 49ers three fleet backs with pass-catching ability, and the competition for snaps will be one of the storylines of training camp. Breida, perhaps the most unheralded of the trio, quietly ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.3) last year.
Garoppolo has to be thrilled with the makeover the 49ers gave their wide receiver corps. Last year, Bourne led the group with 487 yards, which ranked 99th in the NFL. The 49ers didn't pick up the option on the contract of Pierre GarÃ§on, 32, their most accomplished wideout, whose injury-marred two-season tenure included just one touchdown.
In free agency, they added Jordan Matthews — hoping he can recapture his early-career form — before going heavy at the position in the draft. In the second round, they made South Carolina's Deebo Samuel the third wide receiver selected before adding Baylor's Jalen Hurd in the third round. In Samuel, the 49ers believe they have a young Garcon, a sturdy and passionate pass catcher who runs angry after the catch. Hurd, a former running back, figures to have a more limited role as a rookie given his one season of experience at the position. His size (6'5", 226) could make an attractive target near the goal line, which is a weapon the 49ers have lacked.
Samuel figures to earn a starting spot opposite Dante Pettis, last year's second-round pick whose injury-plagued rookie season included notable flashes of promise. Trent Taylor is the favorite to have the primary role in the slot, provided he's now fully recovered after offseason back surgery limited him last year. Kittle emerged as one of the NFL's best tight ends late in the season.
Garoppolo could be protected by a cohesive and athletic offensive line that's well suited for Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. The 49ers could line up the same five starters who combined to miss just one start last year. The unit is headlined by the tackles. Left tackle Joe Staley is now in his 13th season and showed no signs of age last year. And right tackle Mike McGlinchey, last year's first-round pick, made a seamless transition to the NFL. The 49ers are expecting improvement from center Weston Richburg, a big-money free agent signing in 2018 who was hobbled for most of his debut season before having offseason surgeries on his knee and quadriceps.
Shanahan repeatedly said the 49ers needed "closers" during a season in which they set some embarrassing NFL defensive records and lost four games in which they squandered fourth-quarter leads. On defense, he meant that the 49ers needed players who could provide sack-ending drives and pressure QBs into mistakes, which rarely happened during a season in which the 49ers set league records for fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two). In response, the 49ers invested a 2020 second-round pick to acquire Pro Bowl pass rusher Dee Ford from the Chiefs before using the No. 2 pick on Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa. They are expected to provide much-needed disruption for a defense that hasn't had an edge rusher post more than 6.5 sacks since 2014 while ranking 28th in the NFL in sacks over that span.
The additions of Ford and Bosa could result in a dominant D-line. They join rising-star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and two other former first-round picks: Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, who, to varying degrees, have to yet to fully realize draft-day expectations. The anticipated added pressure from the outside figures to lessen the double teams Buckner saw last year and allow him to build on his career-best 12-sack season.
The 49ers had a sturdy run defense last year but had to replace inside linebacker Reuben Foster, a 2017 first-round pick who was released in November following his third arrest in a 10-month span. That prompted the team to give Kwon Alexander a big-money contract to play alongside Fred Warner in the middle. Alexander and Warner, a 2018 third-rounder, give the 49ers a young, speedy duo that excels in pass coverage.
The 49ers hope that an improved pass rush benefits the secondary after they allowed the second-most passing touchdowns (35) and second-highest passer rating last year.
Cornerback Richard Sherman locked down the left side, and the 49ers expect the perennial Pro Bowler to be even better in 2019 because he's more than a year removed from surgeries on both Achilles. The 49ers are betting that two talented former first-round picks — newly signed cornerback Jason Verrett and re-signed free safety Jimmie Ward — can stay healthy. Verrett has played more than six games once in his five-year career, while Ward has finished four of his first five seasons on injured reserve. In 2017 and '18, the 49ers invested five draft picks on defensive backs, all of whom remain on the roster. The 49ers are hoping cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Adrian Colbert can recapture the promise they flashed as rookies in 2017.
The 49ers rebuffed placekicker Robbie Gould's request for a trade and instead signed him to a four-year, $19 million contract extension ($10.5 million guaranteed) right before the deadline to come to terms with franchise-tagged players. A 14-year veteran, Gould is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history, and he's only improving with age: He's made 89 of his past 92 attempts dating to 2015.
The 49ers used a fourth-round pick on Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky after Bradley Pinion signed with the Buccaneers. Wishnowsky, a native of Australia, is the only three-time finalist for the Ray Guy Award in college football history.
With Garoppolo returning to health and the additions of Ford and Bosa, the 49ers enter 2019 with the two most important ingredients for success in the NFL: a franchise quarterback and players who can harass the opponent's quarterback. There is less buzz surrounding them than last year, when their Garoppolo-led 5–0 finish in 2017 sent expectations soaring, but they have an improved roster. It should translate into their first non-losing season since 2014, but the presence of the Rams and Seahawks in the NFC West is a reason they'll be scrapping for a playoff spot.