Things change quickly in the NFL. By mid-November the San Francisco 49ers were 0-9, fearing the worst. So it comes as a surprise to many that the 49ers are not-so dark horses for the 2018/19 play-offs.
It is impossible to talk about the Niners without mentioning their great hope, Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo is undefeated as a starter, not just for his current team but in his whole career. Although, critics may point out Garoppolo’s suspicious 7-5 TD:INT ratio, it is important to remember that sport is far more than just analytics. Just by observing the team under Garoppolo it is clear to see the effect the QB had on not only the offence, but the entire roster. As seen in their impressive end to the season, including a game-winning field goal drive against the Tennessee Titans, a trouncing of the best defence in league putting up 44 points against Jacksonville and beating NFC West rivals the Rams 34-13 on the last day of the regular season.
Before Garoppolo burst on to the scene in early December the 49ers were 1-9. There’s an old cliché in the NFL – you are what your record says you are. The 49ers were a lot better than their 1-9 record suggested.
Between weeks 2 and 6, the 49ers lost five games by a combined total of 14 points. These games included back to back losses in overtime and a 39-41 shootout against the LA Rams. If Garoppolo is steering the ship instead of an inept Brian Hoyer and an unprepared C.J. Beatherd maybe the Niners would have achieved a Wildcard place.
When bringing up the 49ers, 99% of the offseason chatter is focused on Garoppolo. But there is talent dotted all around this roster.
GM starlet John Lynch hit it out of the park in his first draft class. Solomon Thomas flashed his potential, Reuben Foster, despite some offseason trouble, looks like a future All-Pro, while George Kittle, Adrian Colbert and Trent Taylor proved to be late-round steals.
Deforest Buckner is primed to break out and announce himself on the big stage. In 2017, Buckner led the league in QB hits with 19. Three more than Leonard Williams who is in second place with 16. If Buckner can turn these hits into sacks, then he will join the elite of the NFL.
Lynch looks to make it two successful drafts in two years. Mike McGlinchey appears to be a responsible and smart pick in an awkward first-round for any team not after a quarter-back. A productive 2nd and 3rd round followed for Lynch as he selected wide receiver Dante Pettis, an explosive return man capable of achieving extreme separation, and Fred Warner, a solid line-backer capable of playing off the ball.
In free agency, the Niners signed halfback Jerick McKinnon. News recently broke that McKinnon will miss the entire season with an ACL tear. It was clear to see that Shanahan was attempting to emulate the Falcons’ backfield of the 2016/17 season. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman prospered thanks to Shanahan’s zone stretch run scheme. All finesse, no power. McKinnion was set to become a fantasy star this season.
Despite McKinnon’s injury, the Niners backfield still looks promising. Shanahan was reunited with veteran running back Alfred Morris this preseason. Morris became a household name under Shanahan in the 2012 season with the Washington Redskins. In the two seasons Morris spent with Shanahan, the running back rushed for over a thousand yards both seasons and scored 20 touchdowns. Many Niner fans hope that this reunion will prove successful in the upcoming season.
Last season, Matt ‘the cheetah’ Breida rose from 5th round draft pick to specialist running back. Breida, for all intents and purposes, is Jerick McKinnon lite and now the young scat back has the chance to prove that he’s the real deal. With the one-two punch of the physical Alfred Morris and the elusive Matt Breida, the best fullback in the NFL, Kyle Juszczyk, returning, the 49ers boast a more than capable backfield.
Centre Weston Richburg was a much-needed edition as well, although a history of concussions is something to be weary of for Niner fans.
Up and downs of Sherman
Perhaps the most notable offseason move in the entire league was Richard Sherman‘s switch from the Seattle Seahawks to the San Francisco 49ers. At first glance this is a move that should excite any Niner fan, however upon closer inspection this isn’t the Richard Sherman of years past. Sherman is coming off an Achilles tear and is the wrong side of 30. However, the All-Pro corner can bring much experience and coaching wisdom to this young Niner defence.
A prominent issue in San Francisco’s roster is pass rushers. In an age where players like Von Miller can singlehandedly win you Super Bowls, pass rushers are key to any contending team. Recently retired Elvis Dumervil led the Niners defence last season with 6.5 sacks. Any one of Soloman Thomas, DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead will look to at least double that figure this season.
Bright future in the Bay
The future looks bright for the San Francisco 49ers, head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch are acting perfectly in tandem as they enter the second year of their five-year contracts. Although, Lynch can be a bit loose with the Niners salary cap at times. Lynch just cut pass rusher Jeremy Attaochu $3 million in guaranteed money only to get cut. This combined with the large money given to Malcolm Smith, who did not play a down for the Niners last season, and the Jerick McKinnon injury could raise a few eyebrows over Lynch’s work as GM.
The project is not yet complete, and the NFL will see that. As much as Niner fans don’t want to believe this – Garoppolo’s perfect record as a starter will come to an end and the Niners may not make the playoffs. However, Shanahan’s offensive genius, Robert Salah’s underestimated cover 3 defence and the young starlets dotted around the roster will catch the attention of many.
Prediction: The Niners will finish 9-7 and miss the play offs. However, they will cement themselves as one of the most promising and dangerous teams in the NFL.