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Rams are closing gap on 49ers in NFC West, based on training camp reports

While the L.A. Rams are a work in progress, the 49ers come off as dysfunction and self-destruction

San Francisco 49ers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers won eight more games than the Los Angeles Rams in 2022 and reached the NFC Championship for the third time in the last four years, so there is no question who has the upper hand going into the next season. I expect the 49ers to win more games than the Rams in 2023 because even if both defenses have a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, San Francisco also has five or six other players on that side of the ball who have at least seen play at a Pro Bowl level.

However, do I think that the Niners have been sliding in the wrong direction, that they have some resemblance to L.A.’s collapse last season, and that the gap is closer between the two teams now than it was in January?

This is what I think.

The 49ers don’t know if they have a good quarterback or not

Put starter Brock Purdy aside for a moment and focus on the other two: Trey Lance hasn’t played enough football in his life to play for an NFL team this year unless that team is willing to lose and that’s not a point that most people would argue against anymore. The 49ers have declared that he’s not their starter and it appears inevitable that he’s going to be third string or off the team.

Backup Sam Darnold is a bad quarterback and anyone who says otherwise is either unqualified or a snake oil salesman looking for attention.

The fact that Darnold is all but settled in as San Francisco’s QB2 is enough of an indictment on Lance to guarantee that head coach Kyle Shanahan has given up on 2021’s third overall pick. When you look at every quarterback in the last 20 years to have thrown at least 1,500 pass attempts in his first five seasons, Darnold ranks 37th out of 43 in passer rating, 38th in touchdown rate, 32nd in completion percentage, 37th in yards per attempt, and 38th in adjusted yards per attempt.

That’s also when you give Darnold the benefit of including his first two seasons with the Jets, when he threw 36 of his 61 career touchdowns. In the last three years, playing for the Jets and Panthers (and in the latest season he couldn’t beat out Baker Mayfield or P.J. Walker to be the starter or next-in-line), Darnold has completed 59% of his passes and thrown 25 touchdowns against 27 interceptions over 30 games, posting a passer rating of 75.4 and getting sacked 80 times.

The closest comparisons to Donald in the last two decades would be Alex Smith, David Carr, Mitch Trubisky, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, and Joey Harrington.

Smith is one success story in there, coincidentally one who had his career revived in year seven with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, but the odds are clearly not in Darnold’s favor. And almost nothing come out of training camp has suggested that Darnold has cut down on his mistakes and improved his accuracy like Alex Smith.

The media and Twitter may cut up a throw or two from San Francisco’s preseason and proclaim that Darnold has the ambiguous “talent” label that nobody ever has to defend when the player never materializes into a good starter, but days like Thursday, when Darnold went 1-of-7 in practice, have been fairly common in the last three weeks.

But not once since high school has any questioned if Sam Darnold can throw a pretty football down the field. Darnold was recruited to play at USC. He won the Rose Bowl as a redshirt freshman. He was the third overall pick. There was never a question of talent.

The questions and problems for Darnold have always outweighed the talent, whether that was with Todd Bowles’ Jets, with Adam Gase’s Jets, with Matt Rhule’s Panthers, and with Steve Wilks’s Panthers.

Though Darnold went 4-2 as a starter in Carolina last year, he completed 58% of his passes, took too many sacks, didn’t throw enough touchdowns, fumbled six times, and in the season finale went 5-of-15 for 43 yards with two interceptions and two fumbles against the Saints.

Whereas Baker Mayfield left the Rams and was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be their presumed starter, all 32 teams passed on Darnold being their starter. Only the 49ers decided that he could compete against Trey Lance to be their backup. Same as Baker was clearly ahead of Darnold in 2022, even Baker is still more favored around the league than Darnold in 2023.

So that takes care of the two quarterbacks in camp who have next to zero chance of being any better for Shanahan than Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. Oh and the myth that “Shanahan can win with any quarterback”?

Mullens went 5-11 under Shanahan, while Beathard went 1-10.

Now you’re saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter because Brock Purdy is the starter and nothing could ever happen to take a Kyle Shanahan quarterback out of the game!”

About that.

Is it better if Brock Purdy is hurt and playing poorly or healthy and playing poorly?

Because by the honest accounts, it seems like Purdy is just playing poorly in camp and joint practices.

People have accused SI Fan Nation’s Grant Cohn of being a 49ers troll, and that might be 100% true because even Cohn has embraced the label. But don’t attack the person, attack the information: Cohn says that Purdy is the best quarterback in a group where nobody is better than mediocre and that the only reason he hasn’t thrown multiple interceptions in every practice is because the defense keeps dropping the picks.

Is that really surprising for a quarterback who probably had more interception luck than any other QB at the end of last season?

People are talking about Purdy as if he’s already established and this includes Shanahan, who says that Purdy would have to “meltdown” to lose the job and that he is the “real deal”. I wouldn’t say that people are talking about him like he’s Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but he’s definitely been bookmarked as being a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, or Russell Wilson.

I wouldn’t care if Brock Purdy was the first pick or the last pick—everyone just happens to know that he was the last pick—he’s played in eight full games.

He’s played in eight full games.

You know who won as many playoff games in the last 13 years as Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Josh Allen, and Stafford? Colin Kaepernick. He won four playoff games and he might have the greatest individual playoff effort of any quarterback in the 2010s. Nick Foles has also won four playoff games.

Cam Newton won three playoff games in his career. Philip Rivers won five playoff games.

Is Kaepernick better than Rivers?

It doesn’t amaze me when someone says that they were blown away by Purdy’s rookie season because that makes sense. It doesn’t amaze me when Cohn says that Purdy doesn’t look the same since returning from Tommy John surgery on his elbow because that makes sense. What amazes me is when fans say that they know that Purdy is going to be great after an eight-game sample size and a major arm injury less than 18 months after he was a pick away from going undrafted.

And if you don’t think that Purdy’s draft position plays any part in the evaluation process then you must be ready to say for sure that you’d take him over Trevor Lawrence right now.

That amazes me.

What are the actual odds that Brock Purdy plays a full season?

The number of QBs used by Shanahan during his head coaching tenure:

2017 - 3

2018 - 3

2019 - 1

2020 - 3

2021 - 2

2022 - 4

It’s absurd to assume that San Francisco will use one quarterback all season. Partly because...

The 49ers might have one of the worst offensive lines

Some teams, including the Rams, are famous for their offensive line concerns. The Jets on Hard Knocks are another. But because Trent Williams is considered the best left tackle in the league, people seem to be overlooking the 49ers’ potential disaster along the offensive line.

This season, the 49ers do bring back four offensive line starters from 2022: Williams, left guard Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel, and right guard Spencer Burford.

That’s a positive, to have continuity, but similar to Purdy the issue comes when people start claiming that they know how good or bad most of these players on San Francisco’s line actually are.

Brendel is a 31-year-old journeyman who spent his entire career as a backup until starting 17 games at center last year, one of the most unlikely and uncovered stories in the entire NFL. He had started just three games prior to turning 30.

Burford was a third round rookie.

Banks, a second round pick in 2021, had not started any games as a rookie. So between Brendel, Burford, and Banks, that’s three combined career starts prior to 2022. Are they good continuity? That remains to be seen.

Finally, the 49ers let right tackle Mike McGlinchey leave in free agency after starting 69 games in five years and Shanahan is replacing him with Colton McKivitz, a fifth round pick in 2020 who has started five games.

That means that 80% of the 49ers starting offensive line had started a combined seven games before last season.

“The 49ers went through four quarterbacks last season? You don’t say.”

If that’s not enough, the consensus of San Francisco’s offensive line is that the first-string unit is miles ahead of anyone who isn’t starting and the 49ers could be in even bigger trouble if they lose or have to start shuffling through any of their starters.

Between Stafford’s elbow in 2022 and Purdy’s elbow in 2023, plus L.A.’s offensive line depth problems and San Francisco’s right now, the similarities keep piling up.

They don’t necessarily end there.

Are the 49ers also horrible at drafting without any first or second round picks?

49ers GM John Lynch said “f them picks” when he traded up for Trey Lance in 2021, giving up first rounders in 2022 and 2023. He did it again when he traded two day two picks and some day three picks for Christian McCaffrey last season. Because of that, San Francisco didn’t select anyone this year until safety Ji’Ayir Brown at 87th overall.

Then the 49ers picked kicker Jake Moody at 99 and tight end Cameron Latu at 101.

Moody could be fine, but if he misses another kick in the second preseason game like he did in the first, the 49ers might call Robbie Gould back.

Latu was considered a reach during the draft and he’s probably had the worst camp of anyone one on the 49ers, at least in terms of the perspective of his development. Rumors—and they’re only rumors—say that Latu is on the bubble despite his draft status.

Obviously one of the Rams’ biggest problems since 2018 is that the draft isn’t returning talent worthy of a second contract, not even on day two.

Well the 49ers, who’s only first round pick in the last three years has been Lance, aren’t doing much better.

Among day two picks, San Francisco picked Banks, running back Trey Sermon, and cornerback Ambry Thomas in 2021, then defensive end Drake Jackson, running back Tyrion Davis-Price, and receiver Danny Gray in 2022. That’s six draft picks in two years, but nine if you include Brown, Moody, and Latu.

Sermon is on the Eagles. Ambry Thomas entered camp on the roster bubble after two bad seasons but is generating a little optimism that he could have some role on the defense this year. The book is out on Jackson, who has missed too much practice because of injury. Davis-Price averaged 2.9 yards per carry last season and his status remains unclear. Gray had one catch for 10 yards on seven targets over 13 games.

Out of those nine players, ten if you include Lance (which obviously you should), Banks will start, Jackson and Thomas will probably have reserve rotational roles, TDP, Gray, and Latu are on the bubble, Sermon is gone, Brown is safety depth, Moody is a kicker, and Lance is Lance.

If we look at Lynch’s drafts in 2019 and 2020, the 49ers added Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Dre Greenlaw, Brandon Aiyuk, and Javon Kinlaw. In 2017, there was George Kittle and in 2018, Fred Warner.

San Francisco did draft Talanoa Hufanga in 2021 and Purdy in 2022, but by all accounts there hasn’t been a confirmed day one or day two hit in the last three years. That leaves the 49ers very thin behind and around their stars.

Nick Bosa isn’t there yet

I certainly expect the 49ers to extend Bosa before the season. But if they don’t, I do not expect Nick Bosa to play in Week 1. Bosa won’t play without the biggest or second-biggest contract for any defensive player in the NFL. The other being Aaron Donald.

The Rams play the 49ers in Week 2.

Final Verdict: The 49ers remain ahead of the Rams, but it’s closer than it seems

I simply can’t argue that a team that only has one proven starter on defense could be as good as one that has Bosa, Warner, Hufanga, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Dre Greenlaw, Charvarius Ward, Tashaun Gipson, Deommodore Lenoir, and Kinlaw. There could also be some other good players in there with Clelin Ferrell, Drake Jackson, Kevin Givens, Isaiah Oliver, and Brown.

The Rams can’t catch up to that this season.

But offensively, how much worse off are the Rams actually?

I would rather bet on Matthew Stafford than Brock Purdy. I would rather bet on Cooper Kupp than Brandon Aiyuk or Deebo Samuel, but it does help San Francisco that they have two receivers and a tight end.

And though the 49ers have by far the better left tackle, BY FAR, I don’t know how much better the other four players actually are than L.A.’s other four players. Therefore, no matter how talented the 49ers might be at the skill positions, left tackle, running back, and on defense, all it could take to bring San Francisco down to the Rams level—and we’ve seen this happen to Kyle Shanahan more than once—is having the starting quarterback get hurt.

Neither Sam Darnold nor Trey Lance is a quarterback I’d bet on to make the playoffs. Not even Shanahan is doing that actually. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have had to bring back Purdy this early and say that he’s the “real deal” who needs to “meltdown”.

Based on the believable reports coming out of 49ers training camp, that meltdown doesn’t seem too farfetched.