Determining the 49ers Ceiling if They Can Stop the Injuries
Image Credit: Stan Szeto/USA Today Sports
An apple a day keeps injured reserve away
At this time last season, the (perceived) ceiling of what was possible for the 49ers was high, maybe too high. The 2017 season was a roller coaster ride like the NFL had ever seen before. The 49ers became the first team in league history to start 0-9 and finish with six wins, including five straight wins to close out the year. The enthusiasm that built up over the final five weeks of 2017 carried over into the 2018 offseason, which saw the 49ers add Richard Sherman and Jerick McKinnon among others in free agency. As the season approached the anticipation built as McKinnon looked to be the Swiss Army knife with which Kyle Shanahan would slice, dice and saw opposing defenses into pieces, but on the final play of the final practice of the preseason McKinnon tore an ACL and would be done for the season; a mighty blow, no doubt, but at least the team had Jimmy Garoppolo to fall back on.
The Niners opened the season by splitting the first two games as the offense looked out sync (Kyle Shanahan admitted to having to re-work the playbook because of the loss of McKinnon). Week 3 in Kansas City saw the 49ers fall behind by a big margin early and just as they began to battle back in the game Jimmy Garoppolo tore the ACL in his left knee and simultaneously ending his season, the team’s chances for a comeback in that game as well as any chance to see what this team was capable of becoming. However, in the ruins of a lost season the 49ers saw the emergence of George Kittle, Mike McGlinchey and Fred Warner, among others, leading to the question: what is this team capable of if it can remain healthy?
In a certain light, perhaps one that is a little rose tinted. The injuries from last year could be seen as a blessing because it allowed the team to be seen without the concealment that a franchise quarterback can provide, plus what was revealed was a team that lacked playmakers on both sides of the ball. Through the draft and free agency, the Niners set out to add players that will help the team cause turnovers, get sacks, score touchdowns in the red zone and be in a better position to withstand injury.
Over the first two seasons of the Shanahan/Lynch regime injuries and the in-season recovery from those injuries became such an issue that the 49ers completely revamped the medical and training staffs, not just in personnel, but also in the way that it functions. They hired Ben Peterson as the Head of Player Health and Performance to oversee and coordinate with new Head Athletic Trainer, Dustin Little, and new Head Strength and Conditioning coach Dustin Perry. How this restructuring manifests itself in terms of player performance remains to be seen, but it has paid dividends in terms of player acquisition.
The 49ers did not shy away from acquiring talented players who were coming off an injury or have had injuries in their past. The signing of linebacker Kwon Alexander to a big money free agent contract made waves because Alexander is coming off of a season-ending torn ACL in October and there are questions of how ready he will be when the season starts. When he is healthy Alexander plays with the speed and violence the 49ers believe will help the defense create more turnovers. The Niners also signed cornerback Jason Verrett, who is the poster child for injury prone. Verrett has played in only thirty-one percent of his team’s games since coming into the NFL in 2014 and did not play at all last year after tearing his Achilles in a conditioning drill. Verrett told Sirius XM radio that one of the reasons he chose to sign with the 49ers was their medical staff. The one year that Verrett played anything close to a full season, 2015 (14 games), he was named to the Pro Bowl.
The 49ers also added Pro Bowl pass rusher Dee Ford via trade this offseason. In 2018, Ford returned from back surgery to have a Pro Bowl season on the strength of a career-high 13 sacks. They also added Nick Bosa with the second pick in this year’s draft to bolster the pass rush off the edge. Bosa was limited to just three games his final year in college due to a core muscle injury, but when healthy Bosa was one of the top pass rushers in college football.
For all the injuries the 49ers suffered on the defensive side of the ball, the offense suffered the two biggest losses in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon. The level to which Garoppolo and McKinnon return will have a great effect on the 49ers’ fortunes this year; so far the news on Garoppolo has been positive as he takes part in Organized Team Activities. For a quarterback, returning from an ACL injury is not as prohibitive as it might be for other positions and I wrote about what could be expected from Garoppolo this season. As far as what to expect from Jerick McKinnon, that is much harder to predict because there is no regular-season film of McKinnon in the 49ers’ offense and coming back from an ACL injury is more difficult for running backs due to the amount of lateral cutting the position requires. McKinnon wasn’t the only running back with injuries last year; Matt Breida hobbled off the field what seemed like multiple times each game, but when Breida was healthy enough to go he showed he could be a big-play threat. As insurance for Breida and McKinnon, the team went out and signed Tevin Coleman, who played for Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta. Coleman has been productive even while splitting carries with Devonta Freeman and should have no issues producing as part of a three-headed backfield with the Niners. At 6-1, 210 pounds, Coleman also gives the 49ers an element of size that was lacking from the running backs last season.
The 49ers also had trouble getting consistent production from the wide receiver position due to injuries. Marquise Goodwin was hurt Week 1 against Minnesota and did not appear to be right at any point after that. Pierre Garçon’s season was halved by injury and rookie Dante Pettis was in and out of the line up due to injury but showed a lot of potential down the stretch. Rather than use a first-round choice or spend top free agent money on a wide receiver, the 49ers used a second-round pick on Deebo Samuel, a third-round choice on Jalen Hurd and added Jordan Matthews in free agency to compete with the players already on the roster. With more NFL caliber players than available roster spots, the wide receiver competition in camp might look a little like Thunderdome and the group that remains will poses a diverse skill set that was missing from last year’s group.
The 49ers have done a good job this offseason at adding depth to the roster at several positions: edge rusher, running back and wide receiver to help protect against injury, and the low-risk, high-reward player in Jason Verrett at a position of need but they failed to add anyone to the safety group, despite having to start eight different combinations there last year. The only move was to re-sign Jimmie Ward, who has only completed one season out of five without injury in career. Ward started the offseason as the first-team free safety and promptly broke his collar bone on the third day of OTAs (I believe this is what the kids call “staying on brand”). Ward’s injury may be a blessing in disguise, however. As a result of the injury to Ward, the team has moved cornerback Tarvarius Moore back to his college position of free safety (my colleague Will Cuberos examines the move here).
All in all, the 49ers have a much stronger roster heading into 2019 then they did a year ago and are in a much better position to weather the injuries that come with a typical NFL season. The team has put the pieces in place to have one of the most disruptive defensive lines in the league with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford coming off the edge and DeForest Buckner up the middle and a fast linebacking corps that should make a lot more plays than the one last year. The improved pass rush alone should help the secondary improve on last season’s performance but improved health from Richard Sherman and adding a Pro Bowl talent in Verrett will also help matters. The 49ers’ defensive unit should be able to take a leap from last year’s unit that caused a league low seven turnovers and ranked 22nd in sacks (and would have ranked 31st if not for an 8-sack game against the Raiders).
The 49ers’ offense will be greatly improved just by getting Jimmy Garoppolo back and adding Tevin Coleman, whatever Jerick McKinnon adds will be a bonus and with increased depth at wide receiver it will be much more difficult for teams to key in on George Kittle. The 49ers have the potential to put together a roster of offensive skill players that could give them unmatched flexibility (my colleague Matt Barr takes a deeper look here).
The NFL schedule makers did not do the 49ers any favors this year with a Week 4 bye (the earliest possible) and the first two games to open the season on the road in the Eastern time zone. Despite having the eleventh toughest schedule, based on last year’s combined records, if the 49ers can shake the injury bug they could top out at 10 wins and make the playoffs, but that is a DeForest Buckner sized “if.”
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