Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Why you should continue to watch on Sundays
It feels like watching 49ers games this season has turned into a chore. Outside of the Raiders game and even the Lions game to a degree every week has played out in a similar fashion, which ends up resulting in a loss. Injuries, mental errors, youth, inexperience & talent deficiencies have all led to a 2-9 and a likely 2-14 finish. Football Outsiders’ prediction metrics have the 49ers with the best chance of ending up with the #1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, with current odds of 43.7%. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment there has to be a reason why you should continue to watch even as the losses pile up.
Even in a terrible season there are always bright spots and positive signs for the future even if they are hard to see or you are unwilling to see past a team’s current record.
For the 49ers those bright spots are found in the future of the organization.
At almost every level of the team, there is a young promising or ascending player that will be pivotal for the future success of the team. Julius Caesar once said, “Experience is the teacher of all things”. The experiences thats these youngsters have endured will be the core of what the next phase of this team will be.
That core of young players is led by George Kittle, Matt Breida, Mike McGlinchey, Fred Warner and DeForest Buckner. Each has taken their game to the next level. Kittle and Breida are on pace to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards respectively, while Buckner has already surpassed his career high in sacks with seven on the season. Warner and McGlinchey have been the standouts from the 2018 draft class and while there have been periods where both have exhibited the pitfalls of being first year players, both have flashed elite potential. Of the five, Kittle has the best chance at making the Pro Bowl and has an outside chance of making the All-Pro team. Currently he is tied with Travis Kelce with the highest grade of any TE in the league at 85.0
Coming out of Georgia Southern Matt Breida was viewed as one of the premier athletes in the 2017 class. Kent Lee Platte, who writes for the Lions SB Nation site and for Inside The Pylon is the creator of the Relative Athletic Score, or RAS, which is used to pool together athletic testing in order to gauge the athleticism of a prospect. Breida scored a 9.48 out of 10 on the RAS metric, showing he is truly an elite athlete.
With that being said, Breida was a part-time player in his rookie season as Carlos Hyde was the primary running back in 2017. He certainly flashed talent and promise but was not viewed as someone who could be the focal point of the offense. When the 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon early on into free agency, many viewed this as a sign that Breida would continue to be the #2 behind McKinnon.
That all changed the Sunday before the season started.
On an innocuous play during a non-contact play during practice that many would later view as the point where the season would begin to go downhill, Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL and was lost for the season. It was a loss that forced the team to go into scramble mode as the offense had been built around his skillset. While the team believed in Breida they could not foresee him having a breakout year. Currently Breida is right out of the top 10 in terms of rushing yards on the season with 738 yards and has a top 10 receiving grade (8th - 83.4). Breida has forced his way into having a major role going forward.
DeForest Buckner is clearly the best player on the 49ers’ defense. I know many will snicker at that notion but Buckner is the current centerpiece of the defense and while the narrative around the unit is negative right now, Buckner will be a key cog going forward. He had a hot start to the season with 3.5 sacks in the first two weeks of the season but then had a lull in which he just had one sack in the next six weeks of the season. He has rounded back into his early season form with 2.5 sacks in the last 3 games and has a chance at being the first 49ers defender with 10 or more sacks since Aldon Smith in 2012 (19.5)
When evaluating the 2018 49ers rookies, many viewed it as a group that would fall into the “developmental” territory and the dividends would be felt in a couple of seasons. The two that would be depended on to be immediate starters/contributors were Mike McGlinchey and Fred Warner, and man have both been standouts for the team. I have already put the spotlight on McGlinchey and he has continued his strong play. While there will be ups and down for any rookie, especially a tackle, he has proved himself to be a cornerstone player for the team on the offensive line.
Fred Warner is a player that I admittedly was high on from the minute he was drafted. I remember calling him the best LB not named Roquan Smith and while Leighton Vander Esch and Darius Leonard have played at a Pro Bowl level Warner is not far behind. He had a great start to his rookie year, but much like all rookies, opposing teams were able to exploit their inexperience, which was even more evident for Warner who was transitioning from a hybrid position that was essentially a slot defender to being the MIKE LB in the 49ers scheme. Along with having the green dot and the responsibility of calling the defense, a position and role that was foreign to him. Since that mid-season drop he has bounced back very nicely and over the last month has been one of the best ILBs in the entire league. He current has the 4th best run stop % at the position (10.7% - best amongst all rookie LBs) and has the best coverage grade of any ILB from weeks 8 through 12 (88.6)
Other young players have flashed this season, most notably Dante Pettis in week 12. Pettis, who has not lived up to his own expectations, had a breakout game for the 49ers aganst the Buccaneers this past week. According to Kyle Shanahan, the week of practice leading up to the game was the best he had looked all year, and his played showed that. Ted Nguyen of The Athletic put together a great piece on the work that Pettis did, where he shined and where he could improve.
I know the season hasn’t gone the way many have expected and there have been more downs than ups but there are reasons to stick through until the end of the season. The 49ers are slowly building a young core that will be key for the future of the team. With another round of free agent signings, draft class and the return of starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo and starting RB Jerick McKinnon, the 2019 season should hopefully mirror the high expectations so many came into the 2018 season with.
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