In about a week’s time, the San Francisco 49ers will kick off a new season. It will be the second under the direction of both head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch (“ShanaLynch”).
Last season, the pair guided the team to a 6-10 finish. But, expectations abound for a more improved record in 2018 after another fruitful draft, forward progress made by the team’s young starters, and the signing of franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
So, which storylines will be the most meaningful to San Francisco’s ability to take a big step forward? Let’s look at several to watch for as the 2018 season starts:
THE ASCENSION OF JIMMY G.
As mentioned, the 49ers signed the 26-year old starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million deal in the off-season, making him one of the highest paid players in the NFL.
It’s no wonder why he got the big pay day. Before Garoppolo was traded to the Niners late last season by the Patriots, San Francisco did not have a difference-maker under center and the team had started 0-9. When Garoppolo was added to the roster, the team went on a 6-1 run and their yards per game and points per game went from some of the league’s worst stats to top five.
All that improvement in such a short period of time was even done without Garoppolo really knowing Shanahan’s playbook. Now that he has had an entire offseason to familiarize himself with the offense, it will be interesting to see if in fact, he will be the virtuoso many think he could be and help this team to better results.
Another interesting note: the young quarterback has never led an offense an entire season in the NFL. Is he up to the challenge of being consistently good the full year? And, can he handle the enormous pressure of carrying a young team on his back into the future?
UNCLE SHERM’S HEALTH & IMPACT
Richard Sherman is a Super Bowl Champion, four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All Pro, former leader of Seattle’s prolific Legion of Boom, and considered one of the best cornerbacks in the history of the NFL.
And, now he is a San Francisco 49er.
It was a surprise move for the eight-year veteran to sign with his career team’s division rival in the off-season on a three-year deal. Whatever his personal reasons, it was a smart move for the Niners to scoop him up.
San Francisco has a very young, talented defense. The need for an experienced, accomplished mentor is vital for their development and success. The Niners are also hungry for a playmaker like Sherman to do some real damage to opposing team’s offenses. Last season, it struggled to move past a middle-of-the-road tier.
The only question mark surrounding Sherman is a mighty big one. How will his Achilles hold up after surgery last season?
In the end, Sherman may not be the same player he once was when he suits up in the red and gold. But, at least he’s on the 49ers sideline now and is sharing all of his passion, swagger and mindfulness with young players who look up to him.
THE STRUGGLING PASS RUSH
One of the major weaknesses for the 49ers defense last season was the lack of ability to harass opposing quarterbacks. As a team, San Francisco had only 30 sacks in 2017 (good for seventh worst in the league) and only one player had more than six sacks.
That player was Elvis Dumervil who was let go in the offseason and has since retired from the league. There were rumors that the 49ers could possibly reach out to him to rejoin the team, but instead the team decided to work on other solutions to correct the deficit.
One was to bring in new rush specialist Chris Kiffin in the offseason (son of Monte Kiffin and brother of Lake Kiffin). He has since come up with the idea of moving away from individual man-to-man battles and focus on design plays to push the pocket as a team. The concept has been experimented with in the preseason with success.
Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner is also expected to pick up the slack and improve upon his three-sack number from last year. The 24-year-old budding star is the player the pass rush will now center around as he has impressed, especially in quarterback hits (in 2017, he had the most amongst interior defenders according to PFF).
THE RUN GAME
The two presumptive running backs expected to start for the Niners this season (Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida) were injured during the first preseason game against the Cowboys on August 9. They were both immediately shut down for the rest of preseason and are now reportedly on the road to recovery.
But the uncertainty of their health provoked San Francisco into signing veteran back Alfred Morris on August 14 and undrafted rookie Ja’Quan Gardner on August 28 to provide more depth for this ailing backfield corps.
Morris looked so dominant during the Niners preseason game against the Colts last week (17 carries, 84 yards), there is a possibility that he gets the start over McKinnon and/or Breida in Week 1 against the Vikings. If anything, he’ll likely be added to the roster for his reliability, size and smash-mouth style of running that Shanahan is familiar with and fond of (he played with the coach in Washington from 2012 to 2013).
The story here is how will the hobbled running backs return without seeing any more playing time before the big show on September 9? Will Morris finally be a featured back and how will Gardner fit into the scheme?
Much of the 49ers running back success hinges on the performance of the team’s offensive line which is in flux at the moment. Injuries and uncertainty of who will start at right guard has created a tension-filled competition between Joshua Garnett, Jonathan Cooper (both recovering from knee surgeries) and Mike Person, who has filled in during their absences in camp.
At this point, it appears Person will get the starting job and Cooper will be moved to backup left guard. Still, how the entire offensive line will gel together with the experimental moves, the additions of rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey and free-agent center Weston Richburg, has yet to be determined.
Luckily, the 49ers have tackle Joe Staley to hold the crew together during the adjustment period. He has spent his entire twelve-year career with the Niners and his experience will be invaluable.
As PFF pointed out this summer, the 49ers O-Line talent exudes “some of the best potential” of all the teams on their list. The question remains: can they fulfill this potential and help the 49ers improve?
WILL REUBEN FOSTER BE A “GREAT REDEMPTION STORY”?
When I wrote about Reuben Foster on August 10, I mentioned the “topsy-turvy” start the young sophomore already had in 2017 when he faced multiple injuries and major off-the-field legal troubles that caused him a two-game suspension to start 2018.
In a sense, Foster has the new season as a second chance to show the world, himself and the 49ers that he can remain healthy, keep out of trouble and harness his brilliant on the field talent. But, there’s always the issue if he can actually do these things.
Foster has so much promise to be an elite linebacker. If not for himself, I hope he thinks of how much of an impact he can bring to the 49ers and the league in general. The sky really is the limit when it comes to his prowess, talent and potential. Now the waiting game begins…
ALL THE POTENTIAL
The word potential has come up a lot in this article and in many others’ writings about the new-look ShanaLynch 49ers. Perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, it relies upon the promise of its young stars due to a lack of elite play-makers in critical positions.
More than ever, as the team builds its roster and gets better each coming year, every 49er needs to prove they belong in Santa Clara, because the future is coming fast.
And, in a tough division where the Rams upgraded their roster in the offseason and the Seahawks and Cardinals will likely still remain competitive despite big changes, there is a sense of urgency to get back to greatness.
I can’t wait to see how the young 49ers discover what they’re capable of and watch how the new season unfolds.
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