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San Francisco 49ers: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers

George Kittle and the 49ers are out to prove last season's NFC Championship Game appearance was no fluke, even if there may be a different quarterback at the controls.

Without significant salary cap space and lacking a first-round pick for the first time since 1996, the 49ers didn't appear to improve in the offseason.

They lost three stalwart starters — left guard Laken Tomlinson, nose tackle D.J. Jones and cornerback K'Waun Williams — in free agency, and they don't have proven starters poised to assume those spots. Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, head coach Kyle Shanahan's top lieutenant, became the Dolphins head coach, and four offensive position coaches from a well-respected staff were replaced.

The 49ers did address an area of need in free agency, giving their lone big-money contract to Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward. However, there's another player whose anticipated ascension into the starting lineup could offset what's been lost: quarterback Trey Lance. The 49ers invested three first-round picks in Lance last year because they believed he could eventually replace Jimmy Garoppolo and elevate them at the NFL's most influential position. Garoppolo remained on the roster after the draft, his offseason shoulder surgery stalling trade talks, but Lance's time is now. He is expected to take over a team that reached the NFC Championship Game and still has a ready-to-contend roster.

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Is Lance ready after making two fill-in starts and throwing 71 passes as a rookie? It's worth noting that he ran for the third-most yards (89) by a 49ers quarterback since 1990 in his first start and threw two second-half touchdown passes in his triumphant second start. On the flip side: He had a 58.4 passer rating, and the 49ers scored a season-low 10 points in his first start. For the season, he had a solid 97.3 passer rating — and a subpar 57.7 percent completion rate. In other words, he's hardly a sure thing, but his potential is tantalizing.

He should have ample skill-position support. That group is headlined by two All-Pro pass-catchers, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle, a duo that combined for 2,700 total yards, 148 catches and 20 touchdowns last year. The 49ers didn't grant Samuel's trade request during the draft and expressed optimism they could mend the relationship with their disgruntled dual-threat. Shanahan has no desire to part with the player he's termed the most unique he's ever had: Last year, Samuel became the only player in NFL history to have 1,200 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards in a season. Samuel wasn't the only receiver who played a key role in last year's second-half resurgence: Brandon Aiyuk, a 2020 first-round pick who opened the season in Shanahan's doghouse, had 570 of his 826 receiving yards in the final eight regular-season games.

The backfield is headlined by Elijah Mitchell, last year's sixth-round surprise who broke the franchise rookie rushing record with 963 yards. However, the hard-running, 200-pound Mitchell probably shouldn't serve as a workhorse back, and the 49ers used their second draft pick on LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price. The third-round pick figures to share the carries in a backfield that also includes Trey Sermon, 2020 third-rounder aiming to rebound from last year's 41-carry debut season. Versatile Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk returns as a pass-catching threat whose blocking is instrumental for an offense that ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing in 2021.

The biggest question: Can the offensive line open running holes and protect Lance? All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is a dominant force, but right tackle Mike McGlinchey will be returning from quadriceps surgery, and uncertainty surrounds the interior. Aaron Banks, last year's second-round pick who played five snaps, is expected to replace Tomlinson at left guard, with the other guard spot likely manned by an unspectacular incumbent, Daniel Brunskill, or Jaylon Moore, a 2021 fifth-round pick who struggled in spot duty at tackle. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who will turn 37 in November, retired in June without an obvious heir apparent on the roster.

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Last year, the 49ers ranked third in total defense and allowed the NFL's sixth-fewest passing yards despite ongoing issues in the secondary. They had a league-high 21 pass-interference penalties, the third-fewest pass breakups and the fifth-fewest interceptions while allowing the fifth-highest completion percentage. Given that, it was little surprise that they ponied up for Ward, who vaulted to the top of their depth chart after signing a three-year, $42 million deal with $26.6 million in guarantees.

Their cornerback corps now appears solid with dependable starter Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas, a 2021 third-round pick who rebounded from a bumpy beginning to his rookie season. Free safety Jimmie Ward, perhaps the best player at his position who has never been voted to a Pro Bowl, is back for his ninth season. However, there are openings at slot cornerback and strong safety, and it appears that the top candidates to assume those spots are two 2021 fifth-round picks, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and safety Talanoa Hufanga, who had uneven rookie seasons.

The good news if there are more secondary travails? The 49ers return most of the front-seven pieces that allowed them to overcome last year's back-end deficiencies. That includes Pro Bowl pass rusher Nick Bosa, who ranked fourth in the NFL in sacks (15.5) and expects to be more explosive in his second season removed from a multi-ligament knee injury. The 49ers lacked a disruptive bookend to Bosa — they don't return another player who had more than six sacks — and used their first draft pick, in the second round, on USC edge rusher Drake Jackson. The rookie will join a deep and formidable front that includes Arik Armstead, a veteran who flourished after he was moved inside on a full-time basis, posting eight sacks in his final 13 games (including playoffs). They no longer have Jones, a run-stuffing force, and are betting on Javon Kinlaw to fill the void. That's a risky wager: The 2020 first-round pick has 1.5 sacks and multiple knee procedures in his brief career, mostly recently undergoing ACL reconstruction surgery in November.

The second level features one of the league's best linebacker corps: All-Pro Fred Warner and two other sideline-to-sideline speedsters, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair. They are part of a defense overseen by former Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whose work as a rookie coordinator last year earned him a head-coaching interview with the Vikings.


Robbie Gould, 39, who ranks seventh in NFL history in field-goal percentage, is showing no signs of slowing. Last year, he made 20-of-23 attempts and remained money when it mattered most: He made all six attempts in the playoffs, improving to 21-of-21 in the postseason in his career. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky has not been the special-teams weapons the 49ers envisioned when they invested a fourth-round pick in 2018. In 2021, he ranked 15th in net average and 19th in punts placed inside the 20-yard line. The 49ers signed Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud to provide some pop to their listless return game. McCloud led the NFL in punt-return yards (367) last year and ranked ninth in kickoff-return average (23.1) in 2020.


The 2021 49ers had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. And they return the blue-chip talent that had them so close to the Super Bowl: Williams, Samuel, Kittle, Bosa, Warner and Juszczyk are among the NFL's best at their positions. That elite group also hogs much of their salary cap, and finances are why the middle class of their roster was thinned during the offseason. The 49ers don't look better, at least on paper. But they could be better on the field if Lance plays like a quarterback worthy of such a massive investment.

Prediction: 2nd in NFC West