The 49ers are in some what of a strange position roster-wise.
Trying to have their cake and eat it too, head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are attempting to challenge for a Super Bowl while developing plenty of young talent.
As a result, the 49ers’ roster possesses some unknown players that have the opportunity to make a real impact this season.
Niners player to watch in 2021
From rookies to sophomore sleepers to returning stars, let’s have an early, early look at five 49ers to keep an eye on this preseason.
Trey Lance – Quarterback
Let’s get the big one out of the way first.
The hype surrounding Trey Lance this offseason makes logical sense. The guy is freakishly athletic; built like a linebacker with the speed of a running back and the arm of Josh Allen. However, the biggest draw on Lance comes on the more cerebral side of the ball.
Due to a lack of reps in college, Lance only played one full season at North Dakota State, the term ‘unpolished’ has plagued Lance continually through the pre-draft process and into OTAs.
As a result, expect to see this side of Lance’s game talked about a lot this summer. Especially when you consider the complexity of Kyle Shanahan’s playbook.
When Jimmy Garoppolo was on the eve of returning as the starter ahead of the 2019/20 season after a season-ending ACL injury, Shanahan stressed that Garoppolo had more time to learn and study the playbook. Despite a down 2020/21 season, Garoppolo’s time in the study room certainly paid dividends in 2019 as he was integral to the 49ers making the Super Bowl that year.
On the topic of Lance’s physical gifts, Shanahan is expected to utilise Lance mainly in the red-zone this upcoming season. Lance has the speed to get to the edge on outside zone runs as well as the physicality to run downhill and truck linebackers at the goal-line.
The complexity of Shanahan’s playbook combined with the concerns over accuracy and ‘above the neck’ attributes will probably see Garoppolo start for the 49ers this season. However, if Lance were to push Garoppolo for that starting job, something he can do due to his immense talent, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Nick Bosa – Defensive Line
Speaking to NFL Network’s MJ Acosta-Ruiz, former all-pro, and 49er legend Joe Staley provided an update on Nick Bosa‘s rehabilitation from that season-ending ACL injury Bosa suffered in Week Two of the 2020 season.
Staley said, “I’ve been talking to him this offseason, I know he’s ready, he’s been training incredibly, incredibly hard.” Staley continued, “From day one, I never saw a rookie come in and totally transform a defence like Nick Bosa did for us in my last year there… He was an unbelievable talent, and losing him last year was such a huge loss for that team.”
Bosa is, indeed, a transformative talent. The season prior to Bosa’s debut in San Francisco, the team’s defence was rated one of the worst units in the NFL, even going so far as having a historically bad turnover differential. Fast forward a couple of months and Bosa, as a rookie, led the 49ers defence to a Super Bowl appearance.
The loss of Bosa was one of the main reasons the 49ers’ season derailed so severely last year. 49ers general manager John Lynch as well as former defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, continually stressed the importance of pass-rush in the process of creating a productive defence.
Bosa’s return this season will provide a big boost to a unit that was painfully mediocre last season.
Trey Sermon – Running Back
A few eyebrows were raised when the 49ers traded up to draft power-runner Trey Sermon out of Ohio State.
However, after looking over the 49ers running back room prior to the draft, the need for a consistent, dependable, powerful rusher was obvious.
Prior to the draft, the 49ers running back room read like so: former Giants half-back Wayne Gallman, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson (who is expected to miss a chunk of the regular season with a torn meniscus) and JaMycal Hasty.
Mostert, while a great talent, suffered from the wear and tear of being the 49ers running back one last season, missing multiple games with ankle ailments. Wilson is already injured. Hasty, while a nice runner has not shown the talent to stake a claim as HB1 and Wayne Gallman is a steady hand but faces an uphill battle to make the roster.
While there is some truth in the theory that Shanahan could pick up a guy off the street and make him rush for 976 yards and 10 touchdowns in a season, it is still a gross over-simplification.
As much as analytics would lead you to believe, you still need talent at the position. The ability to read blocks, make the first man miss and hit the second level separate the bad from the good when it comes to tailbacks. Trey Sermon has all three in abundance. It would not come at all as a shock if Sermon were to begin the 2021 season as the 49ers running back one.
Talanoa Hufanga – Safety
“He’s an old-school badass” is how Kyle Shanahan referred to Hufanga when questioned on the safety’s character.
The hype surrounding Hufanga this offseason is increasing by the day. Having fallen to the fifth round due to a combination of a lacklustre 40-yard dash and injury concerns, the 49ers feel like they’ve gotten a steal in the 6’1 Polynesian who, according to Shanahan, “hits like a linebacker”.
With the news of safety Tarvarius Moore going down for the season with a torn Achilles, Hufanga has a real opportunity to not only make the 53-man roster, but make a real impact this season for the Niners.
Jauan Jennings – Wide Receiver
For a litany of reasons, Jauan Jennings failed to live up to the hype last year.
With his 6-foot-3 frame and long strides, Jennings looked to be a diamond in the rough after being drafted in the seventh round by the 49ers in the 2020 draft. However, after Jennings’ debut season was derailed by injury and lacklustre play.
With a fresh start to re-introduce himself, Jennings did not pass up the opportunity at this year’s OTAs. Jennings burned slot cornerback K’Waun Williams for a long touchdown on a seven-on-seven drill.
When Jalen Hurd, the 49ers third-round draft pick in 2019, returns, it will be interesting to see these two physically imposing pass-catchers battle it out. But, until then, the job is seemingly Jennings’ to lose.