There were many needs. How well were they met?
Witnessing the 2017 San Francisco 49ers finish the season with a five-game winning streak – after the inglorious 1-10 start – was a welcome jolt to the nerves of a fan base that perhaps was wondering whether the Lynch and Shanahan Show would become Seinfeld or Friends, or go the way of Muddling Through or the ill-fated Knight Rider reboot. By all appearances, the former seems far more likely now than it did early on. Unfortunately – and I hate to be Debbie Downer but don’t shoot the messenger – the strong finish obscured one important truth: the roster still had some holes that needed plugging if the momentum is to carry into 2018 and beyond. The fast finish indicates that the 49ers can no longer sneak up on the rest of the league, so improving the roster as much as possible in short order is imperative.
What follows, in no particular order, are the more pressing roster needs, with a discussion of whether or not the deficiencies were adequately addressed during the offseason.
Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and hard-hitting safeties often make the highlight shows for their feats of indomitable skill and strength, but football games are won in the trenches, the least sexy aspects of the game (this was never more evident in recent Niners lore than during the Harbaugh years). On the offensive side, you need guys who can protect the quarterback. For defense, it’s important to have a player on the field who can harass the other team’s quarterback. Sacks are nice; they represent the best-case scenario, but at a minimum, you need someone who can consistently squeeze through or around the opposing front and force their QB to vacate the pocket and fire the ball away at a time and place that he didn’t intend to. You want him to be so dominant that even when he fails to penetrate, his mere presence is permanently imprinted in the quarterback’s cerebral cortex.
In order to present some sort of challenge to opposing quarterbacks, the 49ers re-signed defensive end Cassius Marsh, who served admirably in six games for San Francisco after he was picked up off the waiver wire on November 22. However, linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, signed as a free agent on March 15, and who was coming off an injury-marred 2017 campaign with the Los Angeles Chargers but had enjoyed a six-sack season as recently as 2015, failed to impress the 49ers’ brass during preseason games and was cut on September 1 (subsequently picked up by the New York Jets).
Instead, San Francisco will resort to an in-house candidate to help shore up the outside pass rush. Since joining the 49ers in 2016 as a first-round pick out of the University of Oregon, DeForest Buckner has played both the tackle and end positions of the defensive line. This year, the 6’7” behemoth will see time as a 5-technique (lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) defensive end in obvious passing situations who will be responsible for generating pressure on the quarterback. “I think it’s pretty cool the coaches are experimenting with me on the edge,” Buckner told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “It changes the game up a little bit and shows my versatility. I’m just trying to affect the game.”
New to the coaching staff is Chris Kiffin. The son of Monte Kiffin, Chris, 36, will serve as San Francisco’s pass rush specialist. He had previously been the defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic University and a defensive line coach at Arkansas State and at Ole Miss.
The 2018 draft was bereft of quality edge-rushing defenders outside of Bradley Chubb, who went fifth overall to the Denver Broncos. Kentavius Street, selected by the Niners in the fourth round, can play either defensive tackle or defensive end, but does not project as a rusher in the pros. An ACL tear sustained during a pre-draft workout with the New York Giants means he won’t suit up at all in 2018.
The 2019 draft class figures to be a good one for edge rushers, so expect the Niners to make a push then.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do superb cover-corners make the pass rushers’ job easier, or does a good pass rush make the cornerbacks’ job easier? Those are questions that can and will spark ad nauseam debate until contempt boils over and blows are exchanged.
Regardless of your chosen dogma, cornerback was clearly a position of need going into the offseason. Dontae Johnson, not particularly effective to begin with, was allowed to walk into free agency (subsequently signed by the Seahawks). Ahkello Witherspoon, a rookie to whom Pro Football Focus assigned an 81.1 overall grade for his solid work, has one boundary job secured. Who would be tasked with defending the other sideline?
On March 10, the 49ers signed Richard Sherman. Wait, that can’t be right, can it? The same Richard Sherman who had been antagonizing the Niners for years as a member of the Seattle Seahawks? Yes, that would be him. The eighth-year pro, now 30, is older and mellower, is coming off a pair of surgeries on each of his Achilles tendons, and had also played with a medial collateral ligament (MCL) strain in his knee (that did not require surgery) during the 2016 season. Sherman signed a three-year contract worth $39 million that is chock full of non-guaranteed money that he will have to earn by staying healthy and playing at his previous high level; he also took some criticism for acting as his own agent and agreeing to such a team-friendly deal.
Now reunited with current 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was a defensive quality-control coach in Seattle and is installing that same defense in Santa Clara, Sherman hopes to perform like he did from 2012 to 2016, during which he was a first-team All Pro three times and a Pro Bowl selection four times. Between him and Witherspoon, the 49ers could have one of the more effective cornerback duos in the NFC.
The 49ers will be moving cornerback-turned-safety Jimmie Ward back to his original position, ostensibly to be the Plan B in the event that Sherman suffers a setback in his recovery, but he will be asked to fill in wherever and whenever a need arises.
In the fifth round of the 2018 draft, San Francisco nabbed D.J. Reed out of Kansas State University. At just 5’9”, Reed is a little guy, but he has long 31 5/8” arms. He put up good numbers in his two years as a Wildcat, breaking up 32 passes and providing solid support in run defense. He also does not lack for confidence, telling reporters after he was drafted, “I’m a lock-down corner first and foremost. I don’t get scored on.” His small size does not fit the template for a Cover-3 boundary cornerback, so expect him to fill a nickel-slot role, and perhaps one day supplant K’Waun Williams, the incumbent.
Two rounds before taking Reed, the Niners selected Tarvarius Moore, a safety from the University of Southern Mississippi whose height (6’2”) and 33-inch-long arms make him a no-brainer for a transition to a cornerback role in Saleh’s Cover-3 scheme.
Adrian Colbert is a stud. Nabbed in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, the converted cornerback was a special-teams participant until injuries to Ward, Eric Reid, and Jaquiski Tartt forced him into action as the Niners’ single-high free safety. Colbert did not disappoint in the six games he played there, dashing effortlessly all over the field and making big hits on unsuspecting targets. Pro Football Focus gave him a 77.6 rating – average, by their metric – but not bad for a late-rounder who was pushed into the mire at midseason. Tartt played both the free and strong safety positions in 2017, and was acquitting himself nicely until a broken arm in Week 9 ended his season prematurely. He will be the starter as a strong safety in 2018, and recently signed a contract extension through 2020.
Outside of Colbert and Tartt, the safety situation for the 49ers is murky. Reid left as a free agent. Ward will be moving back to his natural cornerback position, but could be asked to fill in at safety if needed. He will be playing on his fifth-year option and is slated to be a free agent after 2018.
In the sixth round of the draft, the 49ers took Marcell Harris, a safety out of the University of Florida. Harris is a tackling machine, but a torn Achilles wiped out the entirety of the 2017 season for him and hurt his draft stock. He lacks the speed to be a free safety, but his size (6’1”, 215 pounds) and hitting ability portends a future as a down-low strong safety, or perhaps as an outside linebacker in certain packages.
We are all aware of Reuben Foster’s offseason legal issues, so I won’t rehash them here. The end result was that the NFL handed him a two-game suspension, to be served once the 2018 regular season begins. He is allowed to participate in training camp and preseason games.
With that resolved, the 49ers will have to plug that hole until Foster’s return on September 17. Last season, with Malcolm Smith out with a torn pectoral, Foster played the middle linebacker position; with Smith now healthy, Foster will slide over to the weakside spot where, as head coach Kyle Shanahan put it, he can focus on “running around” and not having to worry about the communication duties that come with playing the middle. With Foster missing the first two games of the campaign, it is yet unknown who will handle the “Will” duties in the meantime. One candidate is Brock Coyle, re-signed to a three-year deal in March.
Korey Toomer, a free-agent pickup from the Chargers, rwas another possibility heading into training camp. Toomer, who played under Saleh in Seattle when the latter was the quality control coach there, knows the system well, and has experience at both the weakside and middle positions. After the fourth and final preseason game, Toomer was deemed expendable and was cut from the roster.
With the 70th overall pick in the 2018 draft, the Niners took speedy BYU inside linebacker Fred Warner, a four-year starter who registered 262 tackles, including 32.5 that went for losses. With the Niners, he could see time at both the middle and weakside linebacker spots, as ably described by our own Jay Moore. Warner played well in the exhibition season, and his performance was one of the reasons Toomer was fungible.
Ha-ha, just kidding. Next….
Erik Pears. Marcus Martin. Jordan Devey. Zane Beadles.
If those names don’t make your hair bristle, then you have a much thicker hide than I do. The post-Harbaugh years, thus far, have foisted upon the beleaguered Faithful some of the most feckless line play this side of Kwame Harris and David Baas.
With any luck, the days of an offensive line resembling a bank of turnstiles may be behind us. In recent seasons, with grizzled veteran Joe Staley and certifiably large human Trent Brown manning the bookends, it was the interior line that had been most problematic. Daniel Kilgore, dispatched to Miami on March 15, was ranked 23rd out of 37 qualified centers by Pro Football Focus, though it’s important to point out that he graded out better in the weeks after Jimmy Garoppolo took over the quarterback reins. The late spike in production prompted the 49ers to re-up Kilgore, but one day after signing ex-Giants center/guard Weston Richburg to a five-year contract they orchestrated the deal with the Dolphins.
Last year, Richburg had suffered a concussion during New York’s Week 4 game at Tampa Bay, then spent the rest of the season on injured reserve and was eventually rendered persona non grata by the Giants since his replacement, CFL-expat Brett Jones, performed exceptionally in his absence for the balance of the campaign. For his part, Richburg had performed solidly for several seasons prior to the injury, and figures to be an upgrade at the center position in Santa Clara. At a spry 300 pounds, Richburg is the ideal size for the Niners’ zone-blocking scheme, whereas he was considered too frail for the Giants’ power-blocking system.
(As a side note, the Giants dispatched Jones to the Minnesota Vikings on August 26 for a 2019 draft pick. New York will now rely on converted guard Jon Halapio to play the position. One wonders how long the Big Blue fans will go before pining for the days of Richburg manning the center spot.)
More than any other sports league amateur draft, the NFL’s annual draft event is the most conducive to fan overreaction. For weeks – months, even – every football pundit on television, radio, and the Internet (not to mention your dear Uncle Lou on Staten Island who thought Joe Namath was overrated) has browbeaten us into believing that our favorite team will take one of these likely four players with the first-round pick. Come draft day, armed with this canon, you wake up absolutely jazzed at the impending inevitability: my team will likely take either this guy or that guy, no doubt. What’s truly inevitable is that, the farther down in the first round your team is, the more likely they will not take even one of the players that the pundits insisted they would.
“With the ninth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the San Francisco Forty-Niners select…”
Derwin James? Harold Landry? Minkah Fitzpatrick? Tremaine Edmunds? Oh, the suspense!
“…Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle, Notre Dame.”
If you were watching the 49ersHub Draft Day live-stream (scroll to around 1:24:30), you saw the guys’ response to the pick. I tweeted out “Meh” when it happened. These were not exactly ringing endorsements of our team’s decision to take an OT in the top ten.
Then Brown was traded to the New England Patriots, and it all made sense. The Large One was good enough on passing plays, but his bulk – he weighed in the neighborhood of 360 pounds – made him a liability in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme. He simply didn’t have the lateral movement needed to seal off the edge.
McGlinchey, who stands at 6’7” and weighs a svelte 291 pounds, looks like the perfect bookend lineman for Shanahan’s system: big enough to be imposing, but nimble enough to execute blocks on the outside. He is expected to be a starter when the curtain rises on the 2018 season, making this pick actually quite a sagacious decision by the Lynch-Shanahan duo.
The 49ers also signed guard Jonathan Cooper to a one-year deal in March. The former Cardinal and Cowboy has experience at both the left- and right-guard spots, but has dealt with injuries over his four-year pro career. He underwent surgery in January for a torn MCL, was slow to recover upon reporting to camp, and was among the September 1 roster cuts after playing in only the final two preseason games. Joshua Garnett, one of the few holdovers from the Trent Baalke regime, rebounded nicely after an early-camp knee injury and could be the starting right guard, if not by Week 1, then by midseason.
Ex-Colt Mike Person, signed on May 9, can play both center and guard. He also played for Shanahan in Atlanta in 2015, so he has some familiarity with the system, and could be the Week 1 starter at right guard. Laken Tomlinson, acquired just before the start of the 2017 season, played in 15 games and was rewarded with a three-year extension. He is the presumptive starter at left guard.
A Shanahan Man won’t spend a high draft pick on a running back. Both Kyle and Mike were adept at making do with middle-round rusher talent. It’s in their DNA; scientists have discovered as much and have composed extensive dossiers on the subject (okay, I made that part up). The elder Shanahan’s Denver Broncos piled up victories in the late 1990s and early 2000s with mid-draft picks such as Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Reuben Droughns. Shanny the Younger’s buzzsaw 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense featured Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, who were third- and fourth-round picks, respectively.
In 2017, Carlos Hyde put up 938 yards rushing for the Niners, even though as an inside-zone runner he was miscast in Kyle Shanahan’s outside-heavy scheme. After the season, the 49ers elected to let Hyde depart. With backup Matt Breida, an undrafted free agent coming off a strong rookie campaign a lock to make the team, but 2017 fourth-round pick Joe Williams a bubble prospect, the Niners brass knew that they needed to add a running back. On March 14, they did just that, inking free agent Jerick McKinnon, who had spent the previous four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, to a four-year, $30 million contract. McKinnon, 25, a third-round pick of the Vikings in 2014, is exactly what Kyle Shanahan needed. Can he execute the outside runs? Check. Can he catch passes out of the backfield? Holy crap, yes he can. For his career, McKinnon has 984 receiving yards on 142 catches, for a total of 6.9 yards per reception.
Think back to 1994, when Ricky Watters put up nearly 1,600 all-purpose yards for the Super Bowl XXIX champion Niners while rushing and catching the ball. Mike Shanahan was running the offense then. We should expect Kyle Shanahan to get the same type of production out of McKinnon that his father got from Watters. Unfortunately, we will also have to wait until next year to see this come to fruition.
On September 1, during the team’s final preseason practice, McKinnon planted his right foot while making a cut during an 11-on-11 drill and tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). He will miss the entire 2018 season. “The Jet” was returning from a calf injury sustained earlier in camp, an injury that prompted the 49ers to sign seven-year veteran running back Alfred Morris, who went on to compile 89 yards rushing on 19 carries (4.7 yards per carry). Unlike McKinnon, Morris is not much of a receiving threat so that will limit how Shanahan will deploy his backfield in that regard. Morris and Matt Breida are expected to split the workload during the Week 1 tilt in Minneapolis, and perhaps one of them will emerge as the feature back over time.
Time will tell, but on the surface the 49ers nmade an honest attempt at addressing the holes on their roster following the 2017 season, though some of their free-agent signings did not pan out and there are some concerns that still remain.
On defense, edge pressure may still be spotty, but could improve appreciably over the course of the 2018 season under Chris Kiffin and eventually receive a boost from a rich 2019 draft class. Richard Sherman will bring an important veteran presence to the backfield, and the 49ers have addressed the pending absence – however brief it will be – of Reuben Foster, both via the draft and free agency. Safety remains a bit of a concern; the Niners will need Colbert and Tartt to avoid injury, otherwise they may have to press into duty the likes of the rookie Harris or unproven second-year pros Greg Mabin and Tyvis Powell
The offensive side of the ball should feature improved line play, with the additions of Weston Richburg and rookie Mike McGlinchey. Alfred Morris will be a placeholder until Jerick McKinnon’s 2019 return; Morris has compiled thousand-yard rushing seasons in the past, so let’s hope he can at least get close to that this year. That may not be likely if ends up splitting carries for the entire campaign.
According to Football Outsiders, the Niners’ 2017 Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA) on offense was minus-2.8%, which is not good (0.0% is league-average), but when you consider that it was a brutal minus-16.0% through Week 12, right before Garoppolo took over, it should elicit some optimism for the future.
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