As the clock wound down on Super Bowl LIV, George Kittle was seen on the sideline vowing, “I will be back here. I will be back here, and I will be back with a motherf—ing vengeance.” And so began the San Francisco 49ers’ 2020 revenge tour.
Seven months, and a global pandemic later, the 49ers on the eve of commencing their quest for their sixth Lombardi. However, with an injury-plagued training camp, combined with a ruthless NFC West, the 49ers would do well to take nothing for granted in 2020.
Despite having the best offensive play-caller in the NFL at the helm, there are still lingering doubts hovering over the 49ers offence in 2020. Every day in training camp it seemed a wide receiver was going down with an injury. Richie James Jr. and Deebo Samuel had their ailments before camp even began. Then Jalen Hurd went down with an ACL tear. Next, 2020 first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk strained his hamstring and Tavon Austin is on IR with a knee injury.
With this in mind, Deebo, Richie James Jr. and Aiyuk all seem in contention to play Week One. However, a lack of a real training camp for Deebo and James Jr. will be tough to overcome for the two young receivers.
After receiver, the next biggest question mark for the Niners comes at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first full season as a starter. However, a poor performance in the Super Bowl, accompanied by a covert performance in the NFC Divisional and Championship games, made Garoppolo a victim of recency bias.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Garoppolo was a top ten quarterback in 2019 when it came to completion percentage (69.1), yards per attempt (8.4), touchdowns (27) and on-target percentage (73.9). While Garoppolo can be guilty of playing in a ‘between the numbers’ passing system expertly coached by Kyle Shanahan, he has proved time and time again that he is just not another Jared Goff. In 2019, Garoppolo led four game-winning drives. That’s the fourth-best total in the league. Moreover, the Niners are 4-20 without Jimmy Garoppolo.
As far as the eye test goes, Garoppolo passed it time and time again last season. Whether it was leading his injury-depleted roster to victory against the Cardinals or duelling it out with Drew Brees in New Orleans. Garoppolo has the ‘it’ factor and is more than capable of leading this 49ers team to the postseason.
Elsewhere on the offence, Jerick McKinnon returns at running back – expect him to be dynamite for the 49ers this season. Raheem Mostert also returns after restructuring his contract over the summer. The offensive line lost Joe Staley in the offseason but replaced him with another future Hall of Famer in Trent Williams. Although there is a question mark at the centre position with Weston Richburg on the PUP list. And finally, George Kittle’s is ready to play vanguard on the 49ers revenge tour after signing a lucrative long-term extension prior to camp.
On the whole, there are deserved question marks surrounding areas of the 49ers offence. However, when healthy, there are very few defences in the league that can stop this Kyle Shanahan led offence. Especially with the return of Jerik McKinnon and the addition of Brandon Aiyuk.
Breakout Star: Jerick McKinnon
Biggest concern: Centre/ Depth at Receiver
Star Player: George Kittle
Last year, the 49ers defence ranked second overall in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. However, as fearsome as their front four was, the Niners were somewhat weak against the run. Ranking middle of the pack in run defence. After trading away star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and replacing him with Javon Kinlaw, the 49ers defensive line is looking to become stouter in stopping the run.
At linebacker expect to see a heavy dose of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw. The competition between Alexander and Greenlaw for starting linebacker alongside Fred Warner in Nickel coverages will be interesting. Alexander brings tremendous pass coverage but is susceptible to the run – being known for missing the most tackles on the team. While Greenlaw is not as athletic as Alexander, he is certainly no slouch and is a fan favourite after the ‘clinch by an inch’ stop last year.
Next to receiver, the secondary is the second biggest question mark surrounding the Niners ahead of 2020. The cornerback number two spot alongside Richard Sherman is up for grabs between veteran Jason Verrett and youngster Emmanual Mosley. Although raw, Mosley impressed last season but Verrett has enjoyed a fantastic camp by all accounts. Moreover, there are some doubts over Richard Sherman’s ability to keep playing corner at an elite level. Sherman has struggled matching up against speed lately and needs safety help more often than not. If this is the case in 2020, expect that CB2 spot to become even more vital as they will see the most targets.
Breakout Star: Expect Fred Warner to solidify his position as one of the top two linebackers in the NFL this season.
Biggest Concern: Cornerback.
Star Player: Nick Bosa.
There are legitimate concerns over the possibility of a ‘Super Bowl hangover’. Yet this group of players and coaches seem more determined than ever to return to the big game. This team is young, hungry, refreshed and under the tutelage of the best offensive mind in football.
Both Robert Saleh and Kyle Shanahan continue their stewardship over the defence and offence. However, the 49ers did lose secondary coach Joe Woods to Cleveland. This loss only adds to the unpredictability over the Niners secondary. On the defensive side, it will be interesting to see if Rob Saleh can continue from where he left off in 2019.
The cover 3 scheme, that San Francisco lives in, originates from the Pete Carroll school of defence. This ‘bend don’t break’ defensive system is entirely dependent on talent. For example, when the Niners were devoid of talent in 2018, the defence was historically – and comically – bad. Flash forward to 2020 and suddenly it’s the best defence in football. Drastic shifts in play should be approached with an ere of caution. The talent drop off has been kind to Saleh in that, other than Buckner, no starters were lost in the offseason. Nonetheless, it will be a tall order for the Niners defence to replicate its form from 2019 to 2020.
Injury and schedule do pose a threat to destroying the 49ers Super Bowl dreams as the NFC West is the NFL’s equivalent to ‘the group of death’. Nevertheless, this 49er team has been through a gauntlet before and proven they’re capable of winning when it matters (i.e. Seattle away in Week Seventeen and New Orleans away in Week Fourteen).
Predicted Record: 12-4
Chances of Making the Playoffs: Guaranteed.
Final Finish: Super Bowl Berth.