Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Few things have been consistent during Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons as head coach of the 49ers, but one of the consistencies has been at least one breakout offensive player.
Prior to joining the 49ers, Marquise Goodwin was known as a track star who played football but was coming off his most productive season in catching 29 passes for 431 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 2017, Goodwin would more than double his career high in yards, finishing with 962 and nearly doubling his career high in receptions with 56, as he became the number-one receiving option for Jimmy Garoppolo during the five-game win streak to end the 2017 season. Injuries to Goodwin and others would make it impossible for him to build on his breakout season but another player would pick up the slack and then some.
The 2018 season took an early dour turn from which it was never able to recover, but there were some bright spots from an individual-performance perspective. Matt Breida, an undrafted rookie in 2017, showed potential as a rookie posting by 465 yards on just 105 carries for a very respectable 4.4 yards per carry. In his second season, however, Breida had a breakout season posting 814 yards on only 153 attempts for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Breida’s numbers were all the more impressive considering that he battled ankle injuries for most of the season and was seldom, if ever, fully healthy.
As impressive as Breida’s season was the biggest breakout star for the 49ers was tight end George Kittle. The fifth-round selection in 2017 out of Iowa battled through some injuries in his rookie season but closed out his rookie campaign with a 4-catch, 100-yard performance against the Rams in Week 17 that in hindsight was just a preview of what was to come. In 2018, Kittle set an NFL record for single season receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377. Kittle caught 88 passes and 5 touchdowns in his record-setting season.
Which offensive player is best situated to have a breakout performance in 2019 for the 49ers?
Dante Pettis appears poised to be the next breakout player on offense for the 49ers after the flashes he showed in 2018. If Pettis were to break out in 2019, he would be following a path similar to the one George Kittle took on his way to a breakout season in 2018. Like Kittle, Pettis struggled with nagging injuries in his rookie season, but his play improved towards the end of the season peaking with his 129-yard, 2-touchdown performance at Seattle and despite Pettis finishing the season on injured reserve there were positive developments to take forward into 2019. Dante Pettis went on the “49ers Insider” podcast with Matt Maiocco and talked about how he prepared for his sophomore season, in part, by adding ten pounds to his frame. The added weight should help Pettis withstand the rigors of an NFL season and hopefully will not compromise any of the unique flexibility that made Kyle Shanahan trade up in the second round of the draft to select him.
Just as they did in 2018 draft, the 49ers used a second-round pick on a wide receiver, selecting Deebo Samuel. Samuel has a good chance to earn the starting “Z” receiver role after the 49ers cut ties with Pierre Garçon, but what does a rookie need to do to be considered a breakout player when anything he does this season will set career highs? Samuel could have a breakout season if he outperforms his draft slot. From 2014 to 2018 there were 22 wide receivers taken in the second round of the draft and those receivers posted a combined rookie season output of 863 receptions for 10,859 yards and 77 touchdowns, producing an average season of 39.23 receptions, 493.6 yards and 3.5 touchdowns. A 40-percent increase over those numbers would produce a stat line of 55 receptions, 691 yards, and 5 touchdowns. If Samuel could approach those numbers, it would rightly be considered a breakout season considering those numbers would have led all 49ers wide receivers in each category last season. Samuel’s ability to create yards after the catch is tailor-made for Kyle Shanahan’s offense and with George Kittle drawing the defense’s attention Samuel could be poised to start his career with a breakout year.
McKinnon is a real dark-horse when it comes to handicapping the potential breakout players on offense for the 49ers given the variables at play. First is McKinnon’s recovery from a torn ACL. Second is the division of labor in the crowded 49ers backfield. McKinnon tore his ACL last September and missed the entire season and whether he is in uniform when training camp starts will be the first real indication of how his recovery is progressing. Even when he is healthy, McKinnon will have plenty of competition for snaps with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, both of whom amassed 800 yards rushing last year. McKinnon was set to play a major role in the 49ers offense with Kyle Shanahan deploying him all over the field as a chess piece, but it all had to be put on hold due to the injury. McKinnon has never rushed for more than 570 yards in a season and doesn’t figure to eclipse that number in 2019, but where he could have a breakout year is as a receiver out of the backfield. If he is fully healthy, McKinnon could easily surpass his career high of 421 receiving yards and five total touchdowns from 2018.
The 49ers will be happy to get breakout seasons from any of the players on offense but the one player they need to have a breakout year above all others is Garoppolo. In 2017, the 49ers and their fans were treated to an extended preview of what a breakout season from Garoppolo might look like as he led an under matched squad on a five-game win streak. An ACL injury cut short Garoppolo’s 2018 season before three games were finished, and so his breakout season would have to wait. Garoppolo’s recovery appears to be ahead of schedule as he was a full-participant in the team’s 7-on-7 drills in organized team activities and was held out of 11-on-11 as a precaution. Jimmy Garoppolo has started just ten games in the NFL and has left two of them with injuries and he must prove to himself more than anyone that he can stay healthy, and if he can, he will absolutely have a breakout season.
With the slightest bit of luck on the injury front, the 49ers should expect to have multiple breakout players on offense in 2019. Kyle Shanahan has the most talented offensive unit he has had in his tenure here and has lots of options for moving the pieces around the board.
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