• Travis Hawkins

High Bar: Which Players are Likely to Take a Step Back from Their 2018 Performances?

Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports

Despite going 4-12 last season there were some 49ers who played at a Pro Bowl level and this year the team added more talent through the draft and free agency and should take a big leap forward, but which 49ers might take a step back from 2019?

The Run Defense:

The 49ers’ opponents had great success throwing the ball against an injury riddled secondary, tallying 35 touchdowns (31st in the NFL) and throwing only 2 interceptions (last in the NFL), but for all the issues the 49ers had on defense last season, the run defense was not one of them. The 49ers gave up just 4.1 yards per carry (tied for 7th in the NFL). The Niners should have a stout run defense after spending three consecutive first-round picks on defensive linemen from 2015 to 2017, and four in five years after adding Nick Bosa this year.

In an attempt to make opposing quarterbacks more uncomfortable and create more turnovers, the team is making the change to a wide-9 alignment along the defensive line. The wide-9 is designed to put pressure on the quarterback and make it difficult for teams to run the outside zone by funneling the running game back inside to the linebackers. As part of the overall philosophical change, the Niners are switching to using off-ball linebackers at all three linebacker spots. The change will now put the onus on the linebackers to be solid tacklers in the running game and that could be an issue for the 49ers.

In his rookie season, Fred Warner struggled with missed tackles, missing on 16 of them according to Pro Football Focus, which was ninth most among linebackers. Warner’s tackling was inconsistent last year, which comes with being a rookie; the real test will be if he can show improvement and consistency in year two.

The newly-acquired Kwon Alexander is just two years older than Warner but is heading into his fifth season and has struggled with missed tackles for his entire career. Alexander missed 8 tackles last year but was limited to just 6 and a half games last season due to an ACL tear. Over his first three seasons, Alexander averaged 23 missed tackles per season according to Pro Football Focus; on the positive side his missed tackles have gone down each year and were on pace to continue the trend last year prior to his injury.

The linebacking unit will have a lot of responsibility placed on their shoulders when it comes to stopping the run this season. The 49ers play seven games against teams ranked in the top six in yards-per-carry average last season (Rams, Seahawks, Ravens, Panthers and Saints).

George Kittle:

George Kittle announced his presence with authority last season by setting an NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season with 1,377. What does he do for an encore? 1,400 yards? 1,500? Probably not. Despite another year in Kyle Shanahan’s tight end friendly system Kittle will be hard pressed to surpass the numbers he put up last season, even with Jimmy Garoppolo under center for 16 games. In the last ten seasons there have been twelve 1,100-yard seasons by a tight end and only once has a tight end been able to do it in back-to-back seasons (Rob Gronkowski in 2014 and 2015). Last season was George Kittle and a band of misfits as the injury bug hollowed out the play makers on offense like termites on wood, but this season will be different with added depth and players returning from injury there are more places for the ball to go, which will mean a smaller share of the targets for Kittle.

Matt Breida:

George Kittle is not the only breakout player on offense who is likely to see his numbers go down from last year. Matt Breida, despite rarely (if ever) being at full strength last season, rushed for 817 yards (a nearly 57 percent increase over the previous season) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Breida had to carry more of the load than expected in 2018 after Jerick McKinnon went down with a torn ACL just before the season started and has a result Breida could never fully recover from an ankle injury that plagued him for most of the year. In response to all of the injuries that befell the running back room last year, the 49ers signed Tevin Coleman as a free agent this offseason. Coleman ran for 800 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry in Atlanta last season and is a favorite of head coach Kyle Shanahan from his time as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Coleman is also the biggest of the 49ers’ running backs, weighing 210 pounds, which coupled with his skills as a receiver could make him a big part of the red zone offense. If McKinnon can return to form, the 49ers will have a three-headed monster in the backfield that could terrorize opposing defenses while not relying too heavily on any one back.

Even though players like Kittle and Breida might not reach the statistical levels they did last year it doesn’t mean that their play won’t improve. Both Kittle and Breida are likely to have much more efficient seasons as the offense looks to hit another gear in 2019.

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