To get a better understanding of what we’re facing, I linked up with David Fucillo from Niners Nation, the SB Nation community for Niners fans.
Obviously, the season didn’t go as planned for 49ers fans. How much of that was down to injuries?
Injuries are a big part of it, for sure. When you lose the guy you think might be your franchise quarterback inn Week 3, expectations decrease considerably. Add in losing Jerick McKinnon before the season started, a guy whose loss Kyle Shanahan acknowledged resulted in big changes to the playbook, and the offense was playing behind the eight-ball early on. The team also invested heavily in center Weston Richburg, but a combination of a knee issue and inconsistent play (he only missed one game, so who knows how much the injury impacted his play) hurt the offensive line. Finally, on offense, Pierre Garçon dealt with a knee injury of his own that slowed him all season, and Marquise Goodwin dealt with an assortment of issues. Shanahan has shown what he can do with even middling offensive talent, so injuries were a big part of some of the struggles.
On the defensive side of the ball, injuries were a factor, but there were other issues. Reuben Foster was suspended to open the season, then got arrested at the team hotel in Tampa, resulting in his release. Gone is a guy the team was hoping could be a centerpiece on defense. They went through eight different safeties, so injuries factored in there. Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt were up and down before injuries, so that did not help on the back end. And cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon regressed after a solid rookie season. He was viewed as the starter opposite Richard Sherman, but it was a rocky season for him. Most notably on the defense, the lack of significant additions to the pass rush during the offseason led to an entirely expected underwhelming pass rush. The 49ers likely will invest heavily in the edge rush this offseason.
This was Year 2 for Kyle Shanahan as head coach. What has to happen in Year 3 to avoid talking about a new head coach? Can yall put up another losing season and still bring him back for 2020?
Shanahan’s first year was excused because it was the beginning of a massive rebuild. This season, Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury has excused much of the losing. Prior to Garoppolo’s injury, most fans thought this could be an eight- or nine-win team, even after McKinnon’s injury. The playoffs were viewed as a possibility, but still an uphill climb.
If Garoppolo recovers from his torn ACL, expectations will likely be higher than they were entering this season. Concerns will remain with regard to Garoppolo’s knee, but we’ve seen quite a few players emerge this year. DeForest Buckner broke through as an interior pass rusher, Matt Breida showed he could be a great option to pair with McKinnon, George Kittle is arguably the second or third best tight end in the NFL this season, rookie receiver Dante Pettis broke through late in the season, and the 49ers appear to have shored up their quarterback depth thanks to Nick Mullens’ unexpected emergence. With a top five pick, the 49ers will likely add a Nick Bosa or Josh Allen at edge rusher, and potentially add more help in free agency. Suffice to say, expectations will be high next season.
I don’t know if it’s playoffs or bust for Shanahan, but if everybody is mostly healthy and they don’t win nine games next year, I have to think Shanahan’s seat will be rather hot. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh would likely be on the chopping block if the defense struggles out of the gate, but if the 49ers don’t finish 9-7 or better, I’m curious what team CEO Jed York might do. Shanahan has had very legitimate reasons for the team to struggle these first two seasons. Barring an absurd amount of injuries, that excuse should not be there in 2019.
What’s the outlook for the offseason? What are the major roster needs? Who are the free agents to replace or re-up? And what has to happen to set you guys up for success next season?
Edge rusher, edge rusher, edge rusher. The 49ers did not address their poor pass rush last offseason. DeForest Buckner broke through, turning his QB pressures and hits into sacks, but Cassius Marsh and Co. did not provide a consistent presence off the edge. This year’s draft has some serious pass rush talent, and I would expect the 49ers to dive into it with their first round pick. Additionally, they have enough cap space to potentially go after a Dee Ford or Trey Flowers. I’d love to see Demarcus Lawrence or Jadeveon Clowney in red and gold, but I doubt either hit the open market.
Elsewhere on defense, the unit could use an inside linebacker to compete with Elijah Lee next to Fred Warner following the release of Reuben Foster. The secondary has a lot of intriguing young talent, but was very much inconsistent inn 2018. Conceivably the 49ers could go into 2019 with their current secondary options and maybe some modest depth additions, but how they approach the safety position (and cornerback, to a lesser extent) will tell us a lot about how they view this current group.
On offense, the 49ers could use either a second playmaking tight end to complement Kittle, or they could go for a big option at wide receiver. Pierre Garçon is under contract for 2019, but he is a decent candidate to be released this offseason. They don’t need the cap room necessarily, but it makes sense to move forward with their younger talent. The other question on offense will be on the offensive line, where Mike Person is a free agent, and Joe Staley is nearing the end of his career. Staley will be back in 2019, but the 49ers might start looking for a replacement (either for him, or for Mike McGlinchey if the rookie moves to left tackle after Staley retires).
The team does not really have much in the way of big free agents this year. Defensive back Jimmie Ward is one of the biggest as a versatile cornerback/safety combo, but he has struggled to remain healthy. Kicker Robbie Gould and punter Bradley Pinion are both free agents, but I think we see the 49ers get both extended before or early in free agency.
Oh right, this game. What have you guys been doing recently that has improved your play? What do the Rams need to prepare for?
The 49ers defense has started to come together thanks primarily to the fact that they have been fairly healthy the past couple weeks. Injuries resulted in numerous lineup combinations, but thankfully that has settled down. It has allowed the unit to build some chemistry, and it has given some of the new young starters a chance to get comfortable. Rookie strong safety Marcell Harris has been a big hitting option who does great work with his tackling technique. He’s a guy to watch in space. The Rams will need to be ready for DeForest Buckner coming up the middle. While nobody is Aaron Donald, Buckner is reaching a point where he needs to be double-teamed more consistently a’ la Donald. Containing him is the key to attacking this defense.
On offense, quarterback Nick Mullens has been a revelation. He won’t be taking Jimmy Garoppolo’s job this coming offseason, but nobody would be surprised if the 49ers traded or released C.J. Beathard this offseason or in training camp. Mullens lacks the arm strength of Beathard (and Garoppolo), but he is a decisive quarterback who can work through his progressions. He is a tough guy in terms of taking hits, but he is smart enough to maneuver around and find his open guys. He struggles with consistency on deeper passes, but he’s been an upgrade over Beathard.
In attacking the 49ers offense, center Weston Richburg has been the most inconsistent player in the unit. I pray for his soul against Aaron Donald this Sunday. With wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis both ruled out, I suspect we see the Rams blanket George Kittle and force Mullens to find other options in the passing game. Second-year receiver Kendrick Bourne has emerged as a solid big-bodied option, but he’s not a game-breaker at this point.
Thanks to my man Fooch for the time.