Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
In this most unique of offseasons, continuity is going to be extremely important. With no minicamp practices, organized team activities or preseason games and only half the number of training camp practices, the ability to hit the ground running will be key.
After years of constant turnover, the 49ers are among the more stable franchises in the NFL. The Niners avoided having their coaching staff poached by teams hoping to draft off the 49ers’ success. Gone from last year’s staff are defensive backs coach Joe Woods and assistant defensive line/pass rush coach Chris Kiffin, but all the other position coaches and coordinators return.
Between the lines, the 49ers are returning 82.6 percent of the snaps from last season. Per ESPN, the Niners’ defense has the highest percentage of snaps returning, at 88.3 percent, despite trading DeForest Buckner and his 810 snaps to the Indianapolis Colts. Outside of Buckner, the defense returns each starter from last season and that continuity will help Robert Saleh’s unit hit the ground running.
For an example of how continuity, or lack thereof, can affect a defense, fans need only to look back to 2018; the pass defense was atrocious, to put it mildly. The secondary surrendered thirty-five touchdown passes (31st in the NFL) and picked off just two passes. Not coincidentally, the 49ers started seven different safety combinations and the lasting image from 2018 is a defensive back looking around to see where his help was. With a much more stable cast throughout the defense the Niners defense was one of the top units in the league and allowed the fewest passing yards per game (and improved from 31st to 13th in touchdown passes allowed).
Of the twenty-four players on the defensive depth chart, the only players who were not with the team last season are rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and veteran defensive lineman Kerry Hyder. Hyder may be new to the team but he is very well known to defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, as they spent two seasons together in Detroit. They say that defenses are ahead of offenses in the early part of the season and the 49ers, especially, should be able to hit the ground running.
Hitting the ground running is something the 49ers’ offense did often last season on their way to finishing second in the league in rushing yards and leading the league in rushing touchdowns, and while the 49ers look to pick up where they left off what little turnover the team has had, most of it comes on offense. Most notably missing from last year’s Super Bowl team are wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, right guard Mike Person and left tackle Joe Staley.
Replacing multiple starters at key positions is never easy, especially, in the middle of a Super Bowl window, but the 49ers have done as well as could be expected. The Niners used the second of two first-round picks on wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk to offset the loss of Sanders, which is a tall task for a rookie (especially with the unique challenges of this off season). By all accounts Aiyuk has stepped in and looked like anything but a rookie, however, he will not have to carry that load alone.
Replacing the retired Mike Person at right guard is Dan Brunskill, who filled in at both guard and tackle for the 49ers last year; even though they are losing a starter, they are getting an upgrade with experience in the offense.
Replacing a six-time Pro-Bowler and future Hall-of-Fame left tackle is a daunting task that can take years, so getting an upgrade is unheard of. Enter Trent Williams. Not only is Williams an elite left tackle and an upgrade over Joe Staley, Williams has 55 games’ worth of starting experience in Kyle Shanahan’s offense from when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator with Washington.
In addition to adding Williams, the 49ers also added tight end Jordan Reed from Washington who also has experience in a Shanahan-led offense. In short, the 49ers have managed to replace departed players with players who have experience in the offense, which should mitigate the effects of the shortened offseason.
As well as the 49ers have done in keeping the band together and replacing departed players with players who can slot right in, the most important piece of continuity is at quarterback.
Jimmy Garoppolo is coming off his first full season as a starter, and unlike last season he spent the entire offseason working on his game instead of rehabbing his knee. This was Garoppolo’s third offseason under Shanahan and that continuity should lead to a significant jump in play by the signal caller entering his age-29 season. Ultimately it is Garoppolo’s growth and the stability he can provide is what will allow the 49ers to pick up where they left off.
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