San Francisco 49ers
2019 Season preview
By Scott Geelan
Last season was chaotic for the San Francisco 49ers. After losing Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback early, the season was in many ways already finished. There were plenty of bright spots to come out of 2018, such as the play of Matt Breida, George Kittle. and Fred Warner.
However, there was also a lot to forget, especially how the defensive unit played as an overall group. They did find out that Nick Mullens should be a more than capable back up, so in some ways getting him plenty of snaps may benefit them in the future.
It was a genuine challenge to establish who was the 49ers’ biggest offseason addition or loss, but for wildly different reasons. That says a lot about the apparent success of the 49ers’ offseason.
For the addition, it was hard to choose between Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. Either one of those players has an excellent shot at being the stud pass rusher the 49ers craved, and the team added both. Sometimes, being terrible has its benefits.
Several of the team’s other additions are almost as exciting. Running back Tevin Coleman shone under Shanahan in Atlanta as a runner and receiver. Rookie wide receivers Jalen Hurd and Deebo Samuel bring vastly different body types but similar threat after the catch. Though arriving in the Bay injured, Jason Verrett and Kwon Alexander both have the ability to play at a high level at crucial positions on the 49ers’ defense when healthy. The 49ers additions, on paper, look good.
On the flip side, it was difficult to decide which departing 49er constituted a big loss. Last year’s top edge rusher Cassius Marsh was released, but that wasn’t particularly significant due to the aforementioned Bosa & Ford additions.
Veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell was also released, but he had already been supplanted by second year player DJ Jones.
Ultimately, the only choice was receiver Pierre Garçon. Whilst the 49ers have plenty of options at the receiver position, none have yet performed with anywhere near the consistency Garçon achieved in his career. Even so, Garçon’s play had clearly dropped off last season and he remains a free agent.
Can third year Head Coach Kyle Shanahan actually be flying under the radar this season? Or is NFL.com just trying to get clicks? Probably the latter, because surely no NFL team will underestimate Shanahan’s offensive mind. Even the team’s struggles on defense are more attributable to injuries and poor recruitment than anything the Head Coach has or hasn’t done.
Most important for Shanahan’s job security though, is the team’s offensive performance. There is no suggestion that he does not remain the offensive genius that made him so desirable in early 2017. Despite a revolving door at many spots on the offense, Shanahan has produced the 12th and 16th best offenses in yards/game in his two seasons as the 49ers’ Head Coach.
Entering 2019, Shanahan has most of the pieces he needs to run the full breadth of his offense. He has stability along the offensive line; a handpicked, versatile group of receivers; a stable of interchangeable running backs, along with Kyle Juszczyk and stud tight end George Kittle. If quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy and decisive, the 49ers should have a top-10 offense. Second year right tackle Mike McGlinchey and Garoppolo are big time breakout candidates who are both capable of becoming upper echelon players at critical positions.
The 49ers’ defense has been their weakness. Nevertheless, that’s not altogether surprising. Their scheme relies on a four man pass rush alongside high level free safety, linebacker and cornerback play. Unfortunately, the 49ers have rarely had any of those things.
That’s largely due to unsuccessful recruitment for the defense. In fact, the two best defensive performers are holdovers from the previous regime: defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and safety Jaquiski Tartt. The latter is another breakout candidate.
However, 2019 may be the year that the 49ers’ defensive recruitment comes good. Richard Sherman is, in theory, fully recovered from the Achilles injury that he was still recuperating from last season. Ahkello Witherspoon was nowhere near as bad as some suggested at the other cornerback spot. The third year player was someone I considered strongly as a breakout candidate. Nevertheless, he will face competition to start from new signing Jason Verrett. Worryingly, Verrett’s injury history is a lengthy one. Ideally though, at least one of those players performs like a number one corner.
Linebacker could still be a slight weakness, but that can be overcome by good play at other positions and creativity with packages. Second year player Fred Warner will be hoping to continue his development alongside new signing Kwon Alexander.
Notwithstanding, the 49ers’ recruitment will be most under the microscope along the defensive front. Solomon Thomas is a year removed from the depression he suffered following his sister’s tragic suicide and has looked promising. Furthermore, the 49ers completely overhauled their edge rushers, trading for Dee Ford and drafting Nick Bosa. These three players’ performances could be the defining aspects of John Lynch’s tenure as General Manager. If two or all of them fire, the entire defense will look better. If they struggle, expect Lynch to be under serious pressure.
In the NFL, the importance of quarterback play, a pass rush and high quality cornerbacks cannot be overstated. In all likelihood, the 49ers should have at least two of those key areas sewn up this season, in addition to having a highly talented supporting cast. The playoffs are the minimum target acceptable at this point and should be achieved.
Record prediction: 10-6
Image Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports