Our jaunt through the NFC West continues as our 2019 NFL Preview brings us to the San Francisco 49ers, who after yet another lost season, look to finally get themselves back into contention, after years of mediocrity. Now in the third season of the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch regime, the Niners need to start showing some positive results, particularly after the club invested heavily last season only to see so many of their key contributors succumb to injury. One of the great unknown commodities in the league, will we finally see how good this team can be when they’re completely healthy? And speaking of healthy, will Jimmy Garoppolo remain that way long enough for Shanahan & Co. to come to the conclusion as to if he’s their long awaited answer at Quarterback? We’ll tackle that and the other themes that will likely decide this upcoming campaign for the 49ers.
In Jimmy we Trust?
2018 was supposed to serve as the rebirth of the 49ers, with their success largely linked to the play of one Jimmy Garoppolo (59.6%, 718 YDS, 6.09 Y/A, 5 TD, 3 INT, 26.9 QBR), who in just the third game of the season tore his ACL avoiding a hit while scrambling out of bounds, effectively ending his campaign not long after it began. It was as disheartening a turn of events as you could imagine for a franchise that has been starving for a winner after going 13-35 over the previous three terms. There was a wealth of positive momentum around the young Quarterback, who after being acquired via trade midway through the 2017 season, promptly went 5-0 as the Starter, completing 67.4% of his Attempts for an average of 260.0 Yards on 8.08 Net Yards per Attempt, with Seven Touchdowns and Five Interceptions, while sporting a QBR of 80.7. Hype around the 27-Year Old had been growing ever since he emerged in place of a suspended Tom Brady three years ago, with many proclaiming the former East Illinois product the heir to the MVP’s throne in New England. With that said, logic would simply dictate that with a full offseason worth of work with Shanahan would lead to an even better Garoppolo, one that would finally realize the considerable potential that had created his star in the first place. After all, San Francisco certainly thought enough of him to invest $137 Million over five years in him, including $74.1 Million in guarantees, though there is a potential out for the franchise after this season, making it all the more crucial that they find out exactly what they have on their hands. Hopefully, it’s considerably more than what they saw in his brief stint in 2018; Garoppolo wasn’t nearly as effective in those Three Starts last season as he was in the five that preceded them in 2017, completing just 59.6% of his Passes for an average of 239.3 Yards on just 6.09 Net Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns opposed to Three Interceptions, while registering a dismal 26.9 QBR. The time is now for Garoppolo to reveal his true self, otherwise he could find himself out of a job come 2020.
Building a Supporting Cast
Even if Garoppolo stays healthy, he’s going to need plenty of help on both sides of the football, and for the second consecutive offseason, the Niners attacked the Spring, utilizing various avenues such as Free Agency, Trades, and the Draft to improve their roster. By and large, it’s hard to imagine them not being a more competitive football team based solely off of the moves they’ve made. So let’s take a moment to run down the list, shall we? In Free Agency, San Francisco added former Falcons’ Tailback, Tevin Coleman (167 CAR, 800 YDS, 4.8 Y/C, 4 TD), who thrived in Shanahan’s system back in 2016, looking to pair him with Jerick McKinnon, who was one of their big acquisitions last season, though the versatile Tailback unfortunately never got to strut his stuff, tearing his ACL during the Preseason. With both players adept at catching the football out of the Backfield, look for them to be right at home in Shanahan’s Offense. Furthermore, the Defense saw major renovations, with the trade for former Chiefs’ Defensive End, Dee Ford (55 TKL, 13 TFL, 29 QBH, 13.0 SK, 7 FF), coupled with the signing of former Buccaneers’ Linebacker Kwon Alexander (45 TKL, 6 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD), bringing some much-needed range and athleticism to a Front Seven that despite investing some very premium Draft Picks over the past few years, has largely underwhelmed. And speaking of high Draft Picks, the 49ers went to the proverbial well once again when they selected Nick Bosa with the Second Overall Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Expected to start opposite of Ford at Defensive End, look for this Defensive Line to be a vastly-improved group, terrorizing the stellar Quarterbacks that also reside within the Division. While the price that San Francisco paid for some of these additions has served as cause for debate (particularly the contracts doled out to both Ford and Alexander), this is a team that needed to add talent any way they could, for stumbling to another 4-12 finish will spell the end of this regime and many others involved.
On the Hot Seat
Now entering their third year working together, 49ers General Manager, John Lynch, and Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan, need positive results immediately in order to ensure that they’ll be around when their charges finally do begin winning. From the start, this seemed like one of the league’s oddest marriages; Shanahan, who had long emerged as one of the top offensive playcallers in the NFL, had been courted by a slew of teams, ultimately landing with the club who employed his father, Mike, as an Offensive Coordinator in the early 1990s, and Lynch, who despite spending nearly a decade in the Television Booth as an analyst for FOX, was tabbed to be the General Manager, though lacking any scouting experience whatsoever. In their two years together, they’ve witnessed their team go a dreadful 10-22, thanks in large part to a rash of injuries at key positions, most notably to Garoppolo, whom the duo moved heaven and earth to acquire two years ago. While Shanahan has been forced to scheme the hell out of his Offense, Lynch has drawn a wealth of criticism from some sensational misses in the NFL Draft, most notably the 2017 Class, which started out with a pair of eye-popping busts, Solomon Thomas (3rd Overall) and Reuben Foster (31st Overall). Thomas, a local product out of Stanford, was indeed a surprise at No. Three, and has hardly lived up to that billing since, totaling just Four Sacks in Thirty Games. Foster, who has run afoul of the league’s Personnel Conduct Policy seemingly since his entrance into the NFL, was abruptly cut midway through last season after yet another Domestic Violence episode. There were plenty of quality and potentially franchise-changing players available when the Niners were on the Clock the first time around (hello, Patrick Mahomes, anyone?), and in hindsight it’s absolutely egregious that Lynch passed on so many solutions for those two busts. With that said, he has made some solid choices too, most notably Pro Bowl Tight End, George Kittle (88 REC, 1,377 YDS, 15.6 Y/R, 5 TD), who was selected in the Fifth Round of that same Draft, and went on to shatter the single-season record for Receiving Yards for a Tight End in 2018. Now with rumors of friction between the two pillars of the franchise, is their partnership doomed for failure? If their team doesn’t get off to a quick start then one or maybe both could find themselves relieved of their duties…
2019 Forecast: 7-9
We said it earlier and we’ll continue to say it: the San Francisco 49ers are one of the great unknown commodities in the NFL this season. After their 2018 run was absolutely derailed due to injuries, it really makes it difficult to project what this team will do in 2019, even if they remain largely healthy. After that initial stretch immediately following his trade back in 2017, Jimmy Garoppolo has been far from the Franchise Quarterback he was billed (and paid) to be before his season ended with a torn ACL. The jury is still very much out as to whether or not this guy is anything close to as good as he’s been hyped up to be, with the Niners’ fate entwined with him meeting said expectations. IF he’s a Pro-Bowler, than this could very well be a playoff team, but if he’s anything less than that where does that leave them? The overhaul on Defense should keep them in games, but it remains to be seen if Shanahan can scheme his way into the kind of prolific offenses that he’s presided over in his past stints with the Houston Texans (2008-2009) and Atlanta Falcons (2015-2016). The schedule isn’t very forgiving, and the Rams remain the class of the NFC West, though the Seahawks may take a step backward while the Cardinals continue to rebuild. There may indeed be an opportunity for San Francisco to vault themselves up the pecking order, but given their recent run of health, we think that proclaiming them a contender for a Wild Card is a bit premature, though we’d be surprised if they don’t exhibit some form of progress.