Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The San Francisco 49ers’ 2019 season was something special. A franchise who had been swimming in losses and turmoil for the better part of a decade went 13-3 with multiple players playing incredibly important roles at different points in the season. They made it six minutes from a Super Bowl victory, and All-World tight end George Kittle’s sentiment on the sidelines towards the end of the game reminds everyone that the NFL calendar is cyclical. As soon as one season ends, the next one starts.
This is the beginning of a six-part series exploring the 49ers roster and what their options are moving forward. We will take six groups (offensive backfield, receiver/tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, and defensive secondary) and look at the impact they had on the team during the 2019-2020 season, their contract status, and what the position group might look like next season.
For this first installment we’ll take a look at the offensive backfield.
It always starts with the quarterback. After five seasons in a row of multiple quarterbacks starting games, including three quarterbacks each 2017 and 2018, the 49ers had stability at the game’s most important position. Jimmy Garoppolo came back from his ACL injury and had, by all standards, a great season. He threw all but two of the passes on the entire season, and those two passes were completed by wide receivers Dante Pettis and Emmanuel Sanders.
Although drama-fueled pundits would like fans to believe that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are looking to move on from Garoppolo, there is no sign that this is an actual thing. Statistically he did what he was asked to do. He showed passion every game he was out. He showed leadership day in and day out, taking blame when it wasn’t his while quietly improving as the season went on.
Shanahan’s playbook is well known to be difficult for a QB to fully digest, and now that Garoppolo has been in Shanahan’s system for two and a half years, it would be expected for him to take another step in the offense in the 2020 season. His contract numbers are also manageable, with three years left and only $26.6 million against the cap. Were they to trade Garoppolo, who would have a huge market, he would only count $4.2 million in dead money, but a Tom Brady or whoever else you replace him with is going to cost just as much, if not more once the dead money is included.
The team decided to keep two QBs behind Garoppolo all season, with C.J. Beathard a healthy scratch for all sixteen weeks. Beathard is under contract for the 2020 season and Nick Mullens, the QB2 on the depth chart, is an ERFA, which means the 49ers control his destiny. If the team is feeling extremely confident in Beathard being the full time backup next season, they could put second round tender on Mullens and see if a team would be willing to give up their second round pick for him. It would be rather amazing to see the 49ers get a second rounder for Mullens, an UDFA, when they famously only gave up a second round pick to get their franchise quarterback in Garoppolo.
Looking at 2019 and what it means for 2020 will actually probably have more to do with other position groups besides the quarterbacks. Expect all three to be under contract and on the roster Day 1 of Week 1 unless a team is willing to give up a quality draft pick for either Mullens or Beathard.
The running back position for the 49ers was a fluid and ever-changing situation. The first hit was from Jerick McKinnon, once again going down with a season-ending injury without having been on the field for a single meaningful snap. Then Tevin Coleman went down and spent the first few weeks of the season watching the team start undefeated. With those two backs on the sidelines, Matt Breida took the start of the season by storm and was one of the league’s leading rushers over the first quarter of the season with Jeff Wilson Jr. showing that he could be every part of an NFL short-yardage back.
When Coleman returned, he took touches away from Breida, and although it was obvious that it was a committee backfield, it was also obvious that Coleman was the RB1. Coleman, outside of an absolutely unreal game against the Panthers, never really took hold of the offense. He wasn’t the dynamic game-changer that Shanahan had brought him in to be, but Shanahan did have that player on the roster.
The second half of the season should just be dubbed Raheem Mostert’s coming-out party. The team ended the season, both regular and post season, with Mostert as their lead back. Again, there was still committee carries, but Mostert was their man. What does this all mean for 2020?
An epic NFC Championship game and a quality output in the Super Bowl pushes one to assume that Mostert will enter the season as RB1. What happens after that is all up in air. McKinnon, who hasn’t played a single down for the 49ers, was labeled as the perfect back for Shanahan’s offense when signed, but he is also owed $8.55 million for the 2020 season. Breida was securely placed at the bottom of the totem pole by Shanahan by the end of the season, with Wilson getting Super Bowl snaps and Breida not reaching the field. Early during the 2019 season the thought of putting a second-round tender on Breida made sense, hoping a team would give up a second for him, but that seems more like fantasy now.
Wilson will be retained and Coleman is also under contract. It seems that the 49ers will most likely choose two out of the planned three headed attack of McKinnon, Coleman, and Breida. The cheapest would be to tell McKinnon to take a much lower salary for an extended contract and then sign Breida to an original-round tender, and trading or cutting Coleman which would leave no dead money on the table, and a lowered budget at the RB position. That may not make the most football sense though.
One more piece of the puzzle is fullback Kyle Juszczyk. He is in the final year of his four year contract and has to be in-line for an extension, one that will most likely also bring his high cap number down. After the Super Bowl he stated that Shanahan was the “best coach” he has ever played for, and Shanahan’s offense just simply isn’t as good without him. It’s a match made in heaven, and it has to be assumed that “Juice” will finish his career as a 49er.
So the only definite outcome rom this group for next year is that Mostert will be given the chance to prove he’s a legit RB1, Wilson will be retained for a small contract, and Juszczyk will continue to be Shanahan’s Swiss Army knife. What the team does with the logjam between McKinnon, Coleman, and Breida is anyone’s guess. It will be decided by what McKinnon is willing to do with his contract and how far in Shanahan’s dog house Breida really is.
You’ll notice that I included Deebo Samuel in the statistics above. I did this for one specific reason: with Shanahan, predicting who is going to get the carries and who is going to be active will be a forever chess match between him, opposing coaches, fans, and fantasy football players alike. Guessing what that man will do at that position is pointless; it’s just better to sit back and enjoy the show.
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