Is The Youth of the 49ers an Advantage?
“Out with the old and in with the new” is what many believe John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have done in their first two years running the 49ers football operations. Shanahan and Lynch are a testament to this idea themselves, being younger than their contemporaries, in a league where the old is often recycled into a new situation and called innovative. These two young bucks have completely reshaped the roster, with Joe Staley as the only starting offensive holdover and Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner the only defensive starting holdovers from before the beginning of the Lynch-Shanahan era.
Does that necessarily mean they have gone on a huge youth movement though? No, not really. In 2017, their average age of starter was only 26 years old, a year older from the average age of their roster two years before. The major additions to the team who are still contributors are all young middle aged by NFL standards; some of them are even considered past their prime (Pierre Garcon, whom I think is still a top 15 wide receiver). When you look at their free-agent signings you will see that they have signed primarily players who are in their third to fifth year of experience and aged between 23 and 28 years old, some even into their thirties (Richard Sherman).
Even when looking at their rookies, the youth isn’t always there, by NFL standards. Reuben Foster, for example, is 24 years old, the same age as Arik Armstead and a year younger than Jeremiah Attaochu, who are going into their fourth and fifth years respectively. George Kittle and Adrian Colbert are also 24 and, like Foster, entering their second season. So although the 49ers have transitioned almost their entire roster in the last season and a quarter, they haven’t gone completely with youth. Shanahan and Lynch have been selective and opportunistic.
Instead of overreaching on a QB in last year’s draft, Lynch and Shanahan were pragmatic and ended up with a franchise quarterback with a second rounder when the opportunity arose. They targeted two free agents this offseason season signing period, and got both Jerick McKinnon and Weston Richburg for contracts all sides were happy with. When Reuben Foster, their third graded player in the draft, dropped into the bottom of the first round, they pounced on the opportunity. They were the first ones to call Richard Sherman when he was cut. This is a front office that has gone after youth and experience to rebuild this roster.
With last year’s 53 man roster averaging around 26 years old, they were younger than all of the recent Super Bowl contenders going back to the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who were the second-youngest Super Bowl participants of all time. When looking at dynasties like the early-1990s Cowboys, we see that having youth locked down and tied in gives you the best chance year in and year out. Recently speaking, Super Bowl teams have averaged around 27 to 29 years old. Following this model the 49ers were a year young last year.
When we look at the plausible offensive starting lineup of: Jimmy Garoppolo (26), Garcon (31), Marquise Goodwin (27), Kyle Juszczyk (27), McKinnon (26), Kittle (24), Joe Staley (33), Richburg (26), Mike McGlinchey (23) and two of the following three – Jonathan Cooper (28), Joshua Garnett (24), and Laken Tomlinson (26), it’s easily understandable why some people are viewing this as the beginning of a young dynasty. With only two players (Staley and Garcon) over thirty, the average age of those twelve players is 26.75 years old. If Garnett and Cooper are at guard, the average drops a little lower for the starting 11 offensive players. With Dante Pettis being groomed to take over Garcon’s role someday, the transition is simple. We would expect the team to continue investing in the offensive line over the next offseason, looking for someone to take over for Staley once he hangs up his HOF-caliber career (yeah, I said it.).
Lynch inherited and built a defensive side with only two starters in their thirties, Sherman and Earl Mitchell, who are both thirty – though if Dekoda Watson (also 30) unseats someone in the linebacker corps, there will be three. Both sides of the ball are built to grow into their roles on the team. They have found young players with experience to create depth in order to mold their rookies into what they need them to be. Whereas last year the 49ers relied on a couple of late-round rookies (Kittle and Colbert), I see Lynch trying to surround his younger players with experienced players who have not reached their ceilings yet.
It’s an interesting combination that has allowed them to fill their roster with quite a few rookie contracts, plus middle of the road veteran contracts for players such as Cassius Marsh ($3.4 million) and Attaochu ($2.8 million), who are both expected to be contributors. Foster could be an All-Pro LB and he is making only $2 million this season. With all of the talent and young depth on the team, the 49ers still have $46.5M in cap space according to OverTheCap.com. They will have the room, especially after McKinnon’s first year balloon salary drops, to re-sign the talent they are grooming.
With their targeted additions in the last two free agency periods being players who were familiar with the Kyle Shanahan brand of offense or played in the Seattle 4-3 under, cover three-scheme style of defense, the Niners then went out and drafted the players who they thought were the best available. Trading here or there to get specific talent. The Kentavious Street pick shows how comfortable the Lynch-Shanahan duo is with the current roster. Street was a possible first-round talent and someone who Lynch must have been comfortable gambling on, and who could be a game changing addition next year, but at his draft position, all players are a gamble.
Can this current make up of players vie for a Super Bowl title? That’s the real question here. Looking at the talent level among the starters on the roster, if all cylinders fire, there is no reason they couldn’t reach the Super Bowl, regardless of Cris Carter’s lack of knowledge. A franchise wins Super Bowls at all levels of the game, on the field, on the sideline, and in the front office. On paper, with Shanahan, Lynch, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh putting together a master plan, the 49ers are excelling in two out of the three. This upcoming season we will see if that translates into the right players, in the right places, making the right plays, and bringing home that six.
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