Nick Bosa and the 49ers intent on getting back to the Super Bowl
The NFC champion 49ers wanted to get the whole gang back together. They didn't quite do that. But they didn't do badly given their offseason salary cap crunch. The 49ers will return 18 of 22 starters from last year's 13-3 team that had a 10-point lead over the Chiefs midway through the fourth quarter of their 31-20 loss in Super Bowl LIV.
They traded All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts, lost Pro Bowl free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints and lost Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley to retirement. That's quite an exodus of talent. However, they made significant moves to address their three biggest holes. The 49ers replaced Staley by trading for another perennial Pro Bowler, Trent Williams, and used their first-round picks on South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
"I think we can be a better team," GM John Lynch says. "That's really exciting."
Last season, Jimmy Garoppolo endured a bumpy training camp, had a penchant for throwing head-scratching interceptions during the regular season and badly overthrew a potential game-winning deep TD pass to Sanders late in Super Bowl LIV.
Those warts aside, Garoppolo directed the NFL's fourth-ranked offense, and the 49ers view him as still ascending given his relative inexperience (26 career starts). In 2019, he was the only NFL QB to rank among the top five in passing touchdowns, completion percentage and yards per attempt and had the fourth-most passing yards in franchise history.
The addition of Aiyuk will give Garoppolo another receiver who excels in racking up yards after the catch. Shanahan is adept at scheming players open, and the 49ers have a trio — Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and All-Pro tight end George Kittle — who make defenders miss. Last year, Aiyuk led the nation in average yards after catch (11.1). Kittle and Samuel ranked third and 13th in the NFL, respectively, in total yards gained after receptions.
The 49ers don't have much proven depth among their receivers. Samuel and Kendrick Bourne are the only returning wideouts who had more than 30 receptions. Samuel broke his foot during a mid-June workout but the team is optimistic he will be ready to go for the start of the regular season. At tight end, Kittle's primary backup will either be Ross Dwelley, a former undrafted free agent with limitations, or Jordan Reed, who has been productive when he's been able to stay on the field. Reed has missed three or more games in five of his six seasons, all of which were with Washington, and has a well-documented history of concussions and hamstring injuries.
Running back depth wasn't a problem: Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida each had more than 500 rushing yards as they joined "Million Dollar Backfield" members Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson and Hugh McElhenny (1954) as the only trio in franchise history to accomplish the feat in a season. But the 49ers traded Breida to the Dolphins, and there's not a clear No. 3. The good news is that the 49ers could have a full season with Mostert as their lead back. The journeyman took over the role in December, and his speed and quick decision-making made him a monster in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Mostert led NFL running backs in yards per carry (5.6) and rushed for 715 yards and 11 TDs in his final eight games, including the playoffs. Mostert's agent went public in early July with his client's desire to be paid like a running back or traded and the parties finalized a restructured contract right before the scheduled start of training camp. So it does appear that Mostert is ticketed for a large role in the offense this season.
On the offensive line, it's borderline sacrilegious to say, given Staley's brilliant 13-season career, but the 49ers might have upgraded with Williams. The seven-time Pro Bowler spent his first four seasons with Shanahan in Washington, and like Staley, his athleticism makes him ideally suited for a system that prioritizes movement skills in its linemen. The 49ers return three stalwarts in right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Laken Tomlinson and center Weston Richburg, who sustained a torn patellar tendon in December. They have an opening at right guard after releasing Mike Person in March. The leading candidate to assume the spot is Daniel Brunskill, who will have competition from free-agent addition Tom Compton.
The 49ers' second-ranked defense was headlined by a relentless front that included four first-round picks: Buckner, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. The 49ers tied for fifth in sacks, and they pointed to their ability to consistently harass passers as the biggest reason for their nine-win improvement. "One of the most tangible reasons we were in a Super Bowl last year," Lynch says, "was because when we were healthy, we overwhelmed people from a defensive-line perspective."
It was a surprise when they traded Buckner, a move they made because of finances. But the deal helped them retain two other key defensive starters, as Armstead and free safety Jimmie Ward were signed to lucrative contract extensions.
A key to the season could be how quickly Kinlaw develops. His size, strength and explosiveness made him the No. 14 pick, but he's unpolished, and his list of medical issues includes knee tendinitis that sidelined him at the Scouting Combine.
The second level in the 4-3 system is manned by Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw, fast and undersized linebackers who excel in pass coverage. They were the primary reason the 49ers allowed the fewest receiving yards to tight ends (552) last season. There are concerns about Alexander's availability after he missed the final eight regular-season games with a torn pectoral. Their top backup could be Azeez Al-Shaair, an undrafted free agent who played sparingly as a rookie.
Last year, the 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards since the 2009 Jets. A major reason for that was cornerback Richard Sherman, who recaptured his All-Pro form after returning from surgery on both Achilles in 2018. However, the 49ers' pass rush certainly played a role, and if there's a dropoff without Buckner, it's possible that weaknesses in the back end could be exposed. The soft spot might be at right cornerback, where Ahkello Witherspoon has endured multiple benchings. He was capably replaced by Emmanuel Moseley, but the 2018 undrafted free agent has made just nine career starts and ended his strong season on a sour note: His fourth-quarter coverage gaffe in the Super Bowl led to a 44-yard reception by Tyreek Hill that was the catalyst for Kansas City's comeback. K'Waun Williams returns for his fourth season as one of the league's top slot corners.
The back end is in good hands with Ward and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt — if they can stay healthy. They have combined to miss 44 games due to injuries over the past four seasons. Their presumptive backups, free safety Tarvarius Moore and strong safety Marcell Harris, both earned mixed reviews in fill-in roles in 2019.
Last year, Robbie Gould had a 74.2 field-goal percentage, the worst of his decorated 15-year career. However, his early-season struggles were partly tied to the rotating cast of long snappers the 49ers used while Kyle Nelson served a suspension. Gould made his final 17 attempts, including the playoffs, shortly after Nelson returned. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky, a fourth-round pick, had a slightly disappointing rookie season given his draft position: He ranked 14th in the NFL in net average (41.6 yards) and 22nd in punts inside the 20-yard line (23). Richie James Jr. ranked eighth in the NFL on punt returns (8.0) and 15th on kickoffs among qualified players (21.4).
The 49ers couldn't afford to bring everyone back, but they kept their core largely intact. Their 2020 edition still boasts elite talent: Bosa, Sherman, Kittle and Williams are among the NFL's best at their positions, and Warner and McGlinchey could soon join them. If Garoppolo can make a leap into the league's elite QBs, that could easily compensate for what's been lost elsewhere with Buckner and Sanders. Shanahan, the offensive coordinator when the Falcons lost a 25-point lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, has endured two crushing Super Bowl losses in the past four seasons. This roster will give him another chance to appear in the NFL's biggest game.