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At this point there’s little debate that Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system is without rival when it comes to designing plays that get players into space. With that being said, the 49ers relied heavily on their running game during their march to the Super Bowl, averaging 153.5 yards per game, the second highest average in the NFL last year.
There were multiple factors that could account for the slow start to the passing game; Jimmy Garoppolo taking time getting comfortable following his knee injury, an inexperienced wide receiver group, and the success of the running game. Following the mid-season acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos, there was an increase in the frequency in which Shanahan called passing plays. Prior to Sanders’ arrival, Garoppolo dropped back to pass an average of 29.8 times per game, and that number increased to 34.7 over the final 10 games.
During a normal season, defenses are usually ahead of offenses for the first few weeks as players are still getting acquainted to game speed and coaches are finding their offensive rhythms. With no OTAs or preseason, the beginning of 2020 will be unlike any season we’ve ever seen and offenses most likely will be far behind the defenses, so it should be no surprise to see Shanahan lean heavily on the running game while a receiver group with major questions works itself into form. I think we’ll see Garoppolo’s drop backs mirror his 2019 pre-Sanders numbers, so working off that, how will his 30ish drop backs be allocated?
George Kittle (8 targets/26.7%)
This is easy. Kittle is the best tight end in football and the 49ers’ number-one target in the passing game. The two-time All-Pro has set three NFL records in his first three seasons and there’s no reason to think he’s going to slow down. He was Garoppolo’s most reliable target in 2019, and there’s no defender in the league at that handle his playstyle.
Deebo Samuel (6 targets/20%)
The rookie wide receiver came on strong to end 2019. He proved to be a threat with the ball in his hands and was positioned to be in the Super Bowl MVP discussion had the 49ers won it. Unfortunately for Samuel, his offseason was derailed when he suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot and subsequently had surgery. The team seems optimistic that Samuel will be on the field for Week 1 and I would expect him to get between 10 and 12 touches if healthy, but with his versatility he won’t have to depend on passing plays to get the ball.
Brandon Aiyuk (3 targets/10%)
Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area recently said Aiyuk is the best rookie receiver he’s seen in his 26 years of covering the 49ers. That’s high praise for the former ASU Sun Devil, but when you take into account the fact that the team traded up to the 25th pick for select the Pac-12 standout, and Shanahan miming high fives after the pick, you can imagine the team has high hopes. But two things are working against Aiyuk: Shanahan’s offense is notoriously difficult for rookie receivers, and that he strained a hamstring in camp, so it’s fair to assume his availability will be limited for Week 1.
Trent Taylor (7 targets/23.3%)
For the second straight offseason reports from camp suggest that Taylor has been the most impressive receiver on the field. Looking back to 2017, the last time Taylor and Garoppolo were on the field together, it’s easy to see the chemistry the two shared. Taylor is an effective receiver in the middle of the field, the exact place Garoppolo is most comfortable. After missing most of 2018 with a back injury and all of 2019 following complications from a Jones fracture, it’ll be interesting to see if the two are able to pick up where they left off in 2017.
Kendrick Bourne (4 targets/13.3%)
The 49ers brought Bourne back on a one-year, $3.2 million contract. Bourne isn’t the flashiest receiver, but he’s been quietly reliable during his time in San Francisco. In 2019, he emerged as Garoppolo’s most reliable target on third downs and in the red zone. While Bourne hasn’t done anything to warrant less attention in the passing game, he may just be a victim of the depth chart with rookie Aiyuk and a healthy Taylor in front of him.
Jordan Reed (2 targets/7%)
The former Washington tight end was an interesting offseason addition. While his career has marred by injuries of late, he shares may of the same qualities as George Kittle: an adept route-runner, too physical for defensive backs, while too fast for linebackers. Once Reed was cleared for practice, there were multiple reports of him giving linebacker Fred Warner and safety Jaquiski Tartt fits during 1-on-1s.
Much like last season, it should take the passing attack a few weeks to find their rhythm. But I fully expect Garoppolo to build off last year and put up bigger numbers across the board.
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