• Reggie Cires

Five Positions the 49ers Cannot Afford to Lose to Injuries

Image Credit: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

What positions lack depth and will cause troubles for the team should they get injured?

The 49ers lost nine straight games in 2017 under the new-look management helmed by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers also became the first team to lose five straight games by three points or fewer.

Injuries had a huge impact. The 49ers consistently had more players on injury reserve than any other team, including notable starters in Pierre Garçon, Jaquiski Tartt, Arik Armstead, and Jimmie Ward.

Here are the positions that mustn’t sustain injuries in the upcoming season if the 49ers want to make a run at the playoffs:

#1: Edge Rusher

A question that continues to creep from the 2017 season into 2018 is the 49ers pass rush – particularly their edge rushers. The 49ers invested in this spot during the offseason by re-signing Cassius March to a two-year $7.7 million extension and signing former Chargers second-round draft pick Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year $3 million contract in free agency.

If either player were to succumb to injury, the 49ers would have to rely on linebacker Eli Harold, who has had five sacks over the previous three seasons, or Pita Taumoepenu, who did not play a snap on defense last year.

While Harold nursed a knee contusion in camp, players such as Taumoepenu and Dekoda Watson have been true benefactors as they have been able to take more reps at the “Sam” linebacker position against the 1s and 2s. Luckily for the 49ers, Taumoepenu, according to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, “has come a long way and he’s been getting better every day.”

Fortunately, the 49ers could also force inside players like Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead to move outside full time. Or, they can re-sign veteran Elvis Dumervil, 34, whom the team decided not to re-sign after having 6.5 sacks last season.

However, as of now, the 49ers lack true depth at the edge rush position and will face many difficulties in creating pressure against other offenses if one of them were to be injured.

#2: Offensive Tackle

The Batman to his Robin, The Drake to his Josh, a Tango and Cash duo-tandem in Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are no doubt a heavy asset of the 49ers offense. Assuming that McGlinchey, the ninth selection in the draft, lives up to expectations, an injury to either side of the line would be fatal for both the offense and team morale.

Their backup would be tackle Garry Gilliam, who has made 20 starts during his first three seasons in Seattle before joining the 49ers in 2017. The same Garry Gilliam that allowed 101 total quarterback pressures during 2015 and 2016 and is the same tackle that stepped in for injured Trent Brown and ended up getting hurt himself.

Do you see where I am getting at? An injury to 49ers tackles would create a mass-panic in the Bay Area. Gilliam’s performance indicates that there would be a massive drop in the protection of Jimmy Garoppolo and even if the 49ers moved guards Erik Magnuson or Mike Person to the outside, there would be a lack of performance needed to both facilitate the ground game and pass game if either one was injured.

#3: Tight Ends

During the first game of the 2018 preseason, Garoppolo dropped back, spotted George Kittle, and threw a spiral down the middle. Kittle smade an awkward dive against three defendersl, which caused him to cough up the ball and land on his shoulder, injuring it in the process. Fortunately for the 49ers, they dodged a bullet as Kittle’s injury was minor and he is expected to be cleared for Week 1 of the regular season.

Kittle was the ninth rookie tight end over the last decade to log more than 500 yards receiving, according to Pro Football Focus, and showed tremendous promise on the field when Garoppolo stepped in. After being the 146th overall selection (fifth round) of the 2017 draft, Kittle is a young star and will be crucial for the 49ers as they look to make improvements in the red zone.

Additionally, Garret Celek’s performance played a big role in Shanahan’s signature offense as he led receivers with four touchdown catches last season. Celek will also enter his second year in mentoring George Kittle and helping the offense develop a dual tight end threat for Garoppolo.

Unfortunately, San Francisco lacks viable options behind their top two tight ends. Unproven players like Cole Hikutini, Cole Wick, and Ross Dwelley stand at the bottom of the depth chart.

An injury to either Kittle or Celek will only restrict Shanahan’s play-calling and cause him to use his receivers more, risking fatigue and their health.

#4: Running Backs

After declining to re-sign Carlos Hyde, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s eyes lit up like a Japanese firecracker when he saw Jerick McKinnon up for grabs in free agency.

When he watched how McKinnon can blow right past open seams with his agility and make big runs after the catch, Shanahan knew that he was his guy. Shanahan and Lynch then proceeded by making McKinnon the third-highest paid running back in the NFL when he signed his four-year, $30 million contract this spring.

After witnessing Shanahan’s time in Atlanta with his two-headed monster in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield, it is certain that McKinnon will be paired with Matt Breida in the backfield come time of the regular season.

The 49ers have displayed their concerns about the position’s integrity when Matt Breida faced a minor shoulder injury in the first game of preseason and Jerick McKinnon then faced a knee injury a few days later in camp.

The good news was that McKinnon suffered nothing more than a calf strain and will be re-evaluated in a week. The bad news is that reality of injuries has set in like a grain of salt on the 49ers’ expectations.

The 49ers realized the deficit at the position and have signed veteran running back Alfred Morris, pending a physical. Morris is most notable for his four-year tenure with the Washington Redskins, in which he served under Kyle Shanahan’s system during his time as their offensive coordinator.

Assuming that he officially signs soon, the healthy backfield would compose of Morris, Raheem Mostert, Joe Williams, and former Buccaneer Jeremy McNichols.

Given that the best years of Morris’ career were in Kyle Shanahan’s system, Morris could maybe carve himself out as a RB3 if the 49ers find a replacement for Mostert on special teams, or if Williams does not perform to their expectations in preseason.

An injury in the backfield has and will be chaotic for the 49ers. With McKinnon and Breida nursing current injuries, you can never predict timetables without accounting for aggravations or re-injuries.

And as it hurts me to say, if one or the other is injured, you would be asking a lot out of the other to take on 20 touches per game to keep the offense balanced without sustainable depth.

#5: Quarterback

This one is obvious, isn’t it? Jimmy tGaroppolo is the new face of the 49ers after he signed a five-year $137.5 million contract back in February. He shifted the 49ers paradigm and his play helped them become the first team in NFL history to finish a season with six wins after losing the first nine games.

Behind Garoppolo, the 49ers have C.J. Beathard, who showed signs of proficiency as a rookie, recording a 69.2 passer rating comparable to Garoppolo’s at 96.2, which would have ranked eighth in the NFL over the whole season.

At the third quarterback spot is Nick Mullens. Sure, he secured a win for the 49ers as he made a game-winning drive against the 3s and 4s of the Cowboys in the first week of preseason, but it is still not clear that Mullens will be to hold his own against first-string defenses. While we have seen Beathard last season perform at a sufficient level when forced into the field, we cannot count Mullens out of taking up the number-two spot if Beathard continues his lackluster performance in preseason.

If Garoppolo were to get injured on the field and not in bed, the panic button will be soundly hit, and it will cause a major drop in the overall performance of the team.

Without Garoppolo, the offense failed to move the ball, leading to less time of possession and more on-field time for the defense, fatiguing them to a point where they couldn’t perform at sufficient levels..


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