© Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
No returning 6-10 team in recent memory had less competition than the 2018 49ers. That, of course, was a byproduct of their 5-0 finish to the 2017 season. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was not the only pleasant surprise; several young defensive players elevated the play on that side of the ball and were effectively handed starting jobs before the 2018 season started.
Back in training camp, the only open competition for a starting job was at right guard, featuring Joshua Garnett, Mike Person, and Jonathan Cooper. Person ultimately won the job and became one of the 49ers’ most consistent players in 2018. Pro Football Focus rated him as the NFL’s No. 18 guard at season’s end.
The rest of the starting lineup was already set.
A quartet of young defensive players — Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert, and Jaquiski Tartt — faced little competition to retain their starting roles, despite their lack of longstanding production. In 2017, Foster started 10 games, Witherspoon started nine, Tartt started eight, and Colbert started six.
It was presumed those players would pick up where they left off. No one seemed to expect the contrary.
Yet that’s what happened. Those four players started slow and continued to make weekly mistakes that were hard to justify, whether blown coverages or missed tackles. Their collective play had regressed from the second half of 2017, a statement Kyle Shanahan did not refute. He noted sophomore slumps, which applied to all but Tartt, in his fourth NFL season, “happen to a lot of people.”
“I think you come in as a rookie, you don’t really know what to expect,” Shanahan said in October. “You’re just wide-eyed and just trying your hardest to make a dream come true, and you don’t even look back. You grind every day trying to get there, and you don’t even know why you got in or what happened. You’re just sitting there trying to survive and not get cut. Then you start to gain some confidence that you can play in this league. Then you come back the next year and you want to take it to the next level. You do a little bit more, you work more, put a little bit more pressure on yourself and try to do extra and you end up forgetting kind of what got you there.”
Remember when Witherspoon attended a Richard Sherman-led cornerback summit, where he trained alongside the NFL’s best? That implied Witherspoon would emerge as the next young star to join that upper echelon.
But his 2018 started nightmarishly. He allowed six touchdowns in the first six games. The worst of came in Week 2, allowing eight catches on 12 targets for 99 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit. He battled an ankle injury, and his play clearly suffered.
He was benched in Week 6 in favor of Jimmie Ward and later Greg Mabin. For the first time since his rookie year, Witherspoon’s starting spot wasn’t guaranteed. Maybe it was the wake-up call he needed, because in the final eight games of the 2018 season, he looked like a different player. He didn’t allow a touchdown during a six-game stretch. Then he sprained his PCL in Week 16, ending his second NFL season.
Witherspoon will face competition at the starting right cornerback spot with Tarvarius Moore in 2019. The rookie showed flashes during the final two games of the season in Witherspoon’s place. Moore’s most memorable play came when he forced a fumble late in Week 16 to give the 49ers offense one more chance to complete a comeback against the Chicago Bears.
“He got an opportunity to go play, and I think he showed some really good things,” John Lynch said about Moore last month. “But I think that’s going to be great competition between he and Ahkello.”
Colbert had a quiet 2018 that ended in Week 8, when he suffered a high ankle sprain that sent him to the injured reserve list. He posted just 32 tackles and one pass defensed in seven games.
Tartt was also given the starting spot at strong safety after the 49ers parted ways with Eric Reid last offseason. But Tartt fought shoulder stingers all season long. He was placed on injured reserve Dec. 21. The hard-hitting safety has played well when he has been available, but he has missed 15 games in the past two seasons.
With Colbert and Tartt — considered the 49ers’ safety duo of the future not too long ago — sidelined throughout the second half of the season, six additional players cycled into the two safety spots. It wasn’t until Week 13 that the 49ers found some continuity, from an unlikely duo: free safety Antone Exum and strong safety Marcell Harris. Harris particularly shined, posting 34 tackles and four for a loss in eight games and five starts as a rookie.
All of those players will compete for the starting jobs at the two safety spots in 2019. The same could not be said last year.
“We had a lot of young guys play in the secondary last year who finished the year strong, and I don’t think they had a ton of competition this offseason right away,” Shanahan said last month. “But this year, we’re finishing this second year with some young guys who are playing strong also, some different young guys. That’s real exciting for our team, just to watch those young guys compete next year, plus the guys we’re going to add in the draft and free agency. The more we can do that, the more guys can’t just look around the room and know, ‘All right, I’m going to be the starter.’ That’s when you know you’re building something the right way and you’ve got a chance to make people better.”
Foster’s 2018 season was a roller coaster that ended in disaster. He was suspended for the first two games of the season for violating the league’s policy on personal conduct and substance abuse. When he returned, he struggled with tackling, perhaps his biggest strength, and fought injuries. Prior to Week 12, he was released after being arrested for alleged domestic violence.
Foster, too, didn’t face competition at the weak-side linebacker spot prior to the season. His successors — including Elijah Lee, Malcolm Smith, and likely a draft pick or free agent yet to be named — certainly will.
Aside from the franchise cornerstones (Garoppolo, Sherman, George Kittle, DeForest Buckner, Joe Staley, and Mike McGlinchey) and several more promising pieces (the rest of the starting offensive line and Fred Warner), there will be competition at just about every starting position when 2019 training camp rolls around.
That doesn’t just feature the defensive side. Receivers Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis will compete at the starting “X” spot. The same goes for Kendrick Bourne and Pierre Garcon, should he be retained, at the “Z” spot. Trent Taylor and Richie James will battle in the slot. And Jerick McKinnon will feel pressure from Matt Breida, who played like an above-average starting running back throughout the first half of the 2018 season.
Competition can’t be fully achieved if there aren’t enough quality players on the roster. It has taken this 49ers brass, which has retained just 12 players from the 2016 team, multiple years to create that. In year No. 3, players will have to earn their playing time based on consistency, not by default.
“I think there’s more competition,” Lynch said. “There will be this offseason, once we get healthy. I think we’re poised to be able to add to that. I think the more we do of that and continue to add good players, the more we’re able to allow guys to compete.”