Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The 49ers took some productive steps in their 14-9 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday. Over the last half of the season the fan base has been split on winning games or tanking for draft picks. With a competitive loss to the NFC North champs, the 49ers showed that when things are clicking this team is closer to the top half of the league then the bottom. We’ll take a look at some of the factors to keep your eyes on for Week 17 and the offseason.
Rookies and second-year players taking strides
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have caught some heat recently on the internet for their 2017 draft, some of it is warranted and some may be for clicks. We can point to their selection of Reuben Foster and cast doubt on their decision makings, but don’t forget that Foster was on the phone with Sean Payton when Lynch came calling, and that Foster was considered a top-five talent in the draft and fell due to off-field concerns.
Due to injuries, and the desire of the coaching staff to develop their young talent, rookies and sophomores are seeing significant playing time for the 49ers. Leading the class is right tackle Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey had his worst game as a pro against the Bears, but what would you expect? Even with his poor showing Pro Football Focus still has him rated as the 21st best tackle (74.1) and second-best run blocking tackle (78.5).
Rookies Marcell Harris and D.J. Reed continue to impress in the secondary. After missing the 2017 season due to a torn Achilles, it was expected that Harris would take 2018 as a "redshirt" season, but injuries in the secondary forced the coaching staff’s hand, and Harris has run with the opportunity. Jaquiski Tartt was entrenched as the starting strong safety coming into 2018, but with Harris’ play there’s surely going to be competition next training camp.
Tarvarius Moore has been unceremoniously picked on since replacing Ahkello Witherspoon, who went down with a season-ending knee sprain. But like a lot of this rookie class he’s shown flashes of what he can be. He played excellent coverage at the end of the Seattle win, and last week, after being beat by Allen Robinson on a play that could have sealed the game for the Bears, Moore made a heads-up play by punching the ball out and giving the offense one more chance.
After a rookie season that showed his potential, George Kittle has exploded on the NFL. Kittle is second among tight ends in yards, first in yards after the catch, and is having the best season by a tight end since Pro Football Focus starting rating players. Kittle was the 49ers highest rated player against the Bears (78.2) and is now the highest rated tight end in football (88.4).
Solomon Thomas has strung together strong performances in back-to-back games. Thomas lead all defensive starters with a 76.4 PFF grade, against the Bears he recorded four tackles and two pressures, over the last two weeks Thomas has a 77.9 PFF grade, good for 15th in the NFL over that span.
Winning while losing
Oscar Aparicio from the Better Rivals podcast coined the term “elegant tank,” loosely defined as playing just well enough to lose. That was Sunday in a nutshell. The 49ers have shown over the last three weeks that they deserve a spot at the table, as a team that can boast only 10 wins over the last two seasons that has taken multiple playoff bound teams to the brink and also beaten their fair share. Among the victims the last two seasons are the Jaguars, Titans, Seahawks, Texans, and Bears, teams that they’ve taken down to the wire over that same span include the Packers, Rams, Chiefs and Chargers. It’s easy for a coaching staff to lose a locker room during a losing season, but players on the roster have bought into what Shanahan and company are selling.
Shanahan and the coaching staff have four more quarters to evaluate the talent currently on the roster. The offense is clearly more set than the defense, but holes are present on both sides of the ball. This week against the Rams and the upcoming offseason are paramount for the 49ers if they hope to return to the playoffs next season. Luckily for the 49ers the position of greatest need, edge rusher, is expected to be especially deep in both free agency and the draft. The rebuild may have seemed farther along than it really was following the 2017 season, but barring the injuries the team has dealt with, I’d imagine it’s actually right on schedule.
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