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Saying the 2018 season did not go according to plan for the San Francisco 49ers is akin to beating a dead horse for the thousandth time this offseason. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL in Week 3 set the team on a course from which it would never recover. However, that was far from the only hurdle the 49ers failed to clear. Other injuries mounted, the front office failed to address key needs and many players that showed promise during the five-game winning streak to close out 2017 did not live up to the hype. What would have been different if this year’s roster had played last season’s games?
A Clean Bill of Health
The number of players in key roles that suffered injuries last season was astronomical. On top of Garoppolo’s knee, head coach Kyle Shanahan saw running back Jerick McKinnon, a pair of wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and Dante Pettis) and a trio of safeties (Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward) finish the season on the injured reserve. WR Marquise Goodwin also had to step aside from the team to get his head correct following yet another personal tragedy. Plenty of other players missed significant time throughout the season, resulting in a hodgepodge lineup on both sides of the ball.
With training camp set to kick off on July 26, safety Jimmie Ward is the only player scheduled to miss a substantial portion of the practices. Having Jimmy Garoppolo healthy alone would be the difference between 4-12 and 8-8 against last year’s schedule. Three of the five losses immediately following his injury, all started by C.J. Beathard, were one possession games. It is not difficult to envision Garoppolo being the deciding factor during those contests. A healthy secondary would also have paired very nicely with an improved pass rush.
Pass Rush Finally Addressed
Fans do not need to be reminded about the infamous quote from Kyle Shanahan about how good someone had to be to beat out former defensive lineman Cassius Marsh so it definitely will not be linked here. Throughout the year, the pass rush fell squarely on the shoulders of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. To his credit, Buckner put forth a career year despite the lack of nearly any pressure off the edge; his 12 sacks were more than Marsh and Ronald Blair, the pair who tied for second on the team, combined.
After choosing to ignore the position for the first two years of his tenure, general manager John Lynch finally got it into gear with the acquisitions of Dee Ford via trade and Nick Bosa in the draft. The two most important ways to win are to keep your quarterback upright and knock the opposing quarterback to the ground. The combination of Buckner, Ford and Bosa would have wreaked havoc against any offensive line they faced last season. The addition of the edge pressure might have even been enough to thrust Buckner into the national spotlight, an accolade he has yet to receive.
Weapons, Weapons Everywhere
Tight end George Kittle was the obvious breakout star in 2018 while racking up the most receiving yards in a single season by any TE in NFL history. Matt Breida also proved to be the perfect running back for Shanahan’s outside zone run scheme but struggled with staying healthy through much of the year. Breida was forced to play week in and week out despite not being fully healthy due to the lack of depth behind him. The struggles of health for the receiving corps meant that undrafted sophomore player Kendrick Bourne was the leader in catches, yards and touchdowns for the position group.
Now, possibly for the first time in his coaching career, Kyle Shanahan has playmakers at every level of his offense. The running back group is one of the fastest in the league with dual threats McKinnon and newly acquired Tevin Coleman adding a new wrinkle to the game plan. WRs Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd are all great at separating from defenders and are dynamic after the catch. And George Kittle returns as the most dangerous weapon for Garoppolo. After the barren wasteland that was the skill position group last season, this collection would have made the lives of defensive coordinators in 2018 a living hell. The 49ers’ offense was already putting up decent numbers but these additions would have pushed them completely over the top.
The 2019 49ers are far and away the most talented roster Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have fielded since taking over. If this roster were to play last season’s games it is not hard to envision a 10-6 finish. Having Jimmy Garoppolo healthy and a potent pass rush alone would have been the difference in many a game. For now, 49ers fans have real reason for optimism in 2019.
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