Image Credit: The Chronicle
At the NFL scouting combine, held three weeks after Super Bowl LIV, reporters asked Kyle Shanahan to compare his team’s loss with the one he suffered as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Shanahan explained, “I think this one is harder than the last one … I just thought we were a better team. The hardest thing for me is I thought we were the best team in the NFL.”
A coach telling his team that he believes they are the best in the league is not uncommon, but it appears that the brain trust inside the team facility (or rather, quarantined at home) truly believes that they were the best team and are determined to prove it.
The defending NFC champions return eighteen of twenty-two starters from last season’s Super Bowl team: nine on offense, nine on defense. In addition to the starters, the 49ers are also returning twenty-five of the thirty-one non-starters and inactives from the season’s final game.
As good as the 2019 team was, the object is to get better every year, and unlike in years past, the Niners have limited salary cap space, so adding through free agency will have to be done on the fringes of the roster, which leaves the draft.
Which players could wind up being replaced by draft picks?
The 2020 draft has the deepest wide receiver class in at least a decade, and the 49ers will no doubt look to upgrade the position. On paper, the Niners’ wide receiver room is chock-full of possibilities, but the on-field production has yet to match those possibilities. As of now, the 49ers have nine wide receivers on the roster and despite the fact that only six, possibly seven will make the final roster, the team could add another two to take advantage of the depth in this draft class.
Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Richie James will likely be playing elsewhere when the final roster decisions are made.
Goodwin looked for all the world like he was on his way to becoming a bonafide number two receiver after signing with San Francisco in 2017; he developed instant chemistry with the newly-acquired Jimmy Garoppolo and nearly topped 1,000 yards receiving. The two seasons since have been marred by both injuries and personal tragedy; both Goodwin and the Niners would benefit from a fresh start.
Dante Pettis also looked like he was on track to become at least a high-level number two wide receiver on an ascending team after a strong finish to his rookie season; his 2019 season did not go the way Pettis, or the 49ers had envisioned. Pettis quickly descended into Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse and he was never able to work his way out, leading to questions about his mental toughness and focus. Pettis has shown legitimate NFL ability, so it may be too early to give up on him yet, but a hungry, hard-nosed, late-round draft pick could take Pettis’ roster spot.
Richie James is a fan favorite, at least on 49ers Twitter, because of his penchant for highlight-reel plays. James’ 27.5 yards per reception speaks to how dynamic he can be when he touches the football. Another Richie James stat that speaks volumes is his 19 percent snap count. James was only on the field for 19 percent of the team’s offensive plays despite the fact that two wide receivers (Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor) missed the entire season with injuries, a third (Goodwin) was limited to just nine games and another (Pettis) was buried so deeply on the bench that it was difficult to tell if he was still on the team. James did a little bit of everything in college at Middle Tennessee State, which put him on Kyle Shanahan’s radar and in the upcoming draft there are several players who fit that mold and could pique Shanahan’s interest.
Most of the 49ers’ draft capital this year comes in the fifth round or later, which is where the scouting department has found some value the last couple of drafts, but some of the recent late-round picks could be forced off of the roster by a new batch. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is a project who flashed during the pre-season but did not play well in his limited regular season snaps, so he could be someone who finds himself needing to fend off a rookie challenger. Strong safety Marcell Harris could also find himself in a real roster battle should the 49ers look to add depth to a secondary in which three-fourths of the starters are scheduled for free agency after 2020.
The strong position the 49ers are in with so many returning from a Super Bowl team, along with getting back several key contributors who were on injured reserve before the playoff run, allowed John Lynch to pull off the most unexpected move of the offseason thus far: sending DeForest Buckner to the Colts for the thirteenth overall pick in the draft, putting the 49ers squarely in position to get one of this draft’s premium prospects and upgrade another position on an already strong roster.
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