Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are 11 days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Without further ado, let’s highlight wide receiver Pierre Garcon, our 11th-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Pierre Garcon
In March of 2017, Garcon signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract as he and Kyle Shanahan re-established a successful partnership started in Washington.
His debut season with the 49ers was cut short when he suffered a broken bone in his neck, sidelining him from Week 9 and on. In eight games, he produced 40 catches for 500 yards on 67 targets. Garcon was the only proven commodity among a young, unheralded receiving corps, while Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard split starting duties in Shanahan’s first season as a head coach. The 49ers also faced the league’s toughest pass defense schedule. Despite all of those circumstances, Garcon was on pace for another 1,000-yard season before he was put on injured reserve.
All systems go in Garcon’s second year with San Francisco. He participated during mini-camp and is expected to enter training camp fully healthy. Part of the allure of the upcoming 49ers season lies in the unknowns, a consequence of all the moving parts entering 2018, which includes just how well Garcon will bounce back and the kind of relationship he forms with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Without Garcon, the 49ers were one of the most productive passing offenses in the league throughout the final five games, all of which were wins. That does not discount Garcon’s value entering 2018, considering his familiarity with Shanahan and forming a potentially dynamite connection with Garoppolo.
From a style perspective, the Garcon-Garoppolo partnership is a match made in Heaven. Garoppolo’s quick release and accuracy on short-to-intermediate throws complements Garcon’s skill-set, who uses precise route-running and leverage close to the line of scrimmage. He fits perfectly in Shanahan’s West Coast offense that emphasizes quick passes.
Part of Shanahan’s acumen is building productive offenses with varying personnel. But his best units have typically highlighted a No. 1 receiver.
In 2013, Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions and compiled 1,346 yards under Shanahan in Washington. He was targeted 181 times, 47 more than any of his other nine seasons. Shanahan left to take the Browns offensive coordinator role in 2014, and he morphed obscure players including Andrew Hawkins (824 yards) and Taylor Gabriel (621 yards) into legitimate threats in one season.
After one year, Shanahan moved to Atlanta, where he cemented his reputation as one of the NFL’s top offensive minds. In 2015, Julio Jones amassed a career-high 1,871 yards — the second-most ever in a single season— with 136 receptions on 203 targets. The next most productive Falcons receiver was tight end Jacob Tamme, who finished with 657 yards. Fast forward another year, and Jones produced 1,409 yards, 756 yards more than the next closest Falcons receiver.
That is not to compare the 49ers receiving corps with any of those units because they are all differently constructed. Garoppolo will surely spread the ball around with a greater knowledge of the playbook’s nuances. But past history proves Shanahan maximizes his No. 1 receivers, just as he did with Marquise Goodwin, who produced a terrific second half in 2017 with Garcon sidelined. Garcon is expected to reassume that No. 1 role.
Garcon is the only 49ers receiver who has produced over an extended scale. There is major excitement surrounding this offense entering 2018, but it needs to prove it can sustain results over the course of a 16-game season. And with three first-team All-Pro cornerbacks on opposing NFC West teams (Patrick Peterson, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters), Garcon holds a key role within a young offense.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Mike LaFleur, wide receivers coach/passing game specialist
Similar to some of his 49ers coaching colleagues, LaFleur is a Shanahan disciple with NFL roots. His brother, Matt LaFleur, is the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans and formerly coached alongside Shanahan with the Redskins.
LaFleur’s NFL coaching career began as intern during Shanahan’s lone season with the Browns in 2014. Shanahan brought LaFleur with him to Atlanta the following year to coach tight ends. He helped Tamme enjoy a career year in 2015. LaFleur switched to work with the Falcons receivers in 2016. They produced the third-best passing offense in the league, and Jones finished second in the NFL with 1,409 receiving yards.
LaFleur, just 38 years old, enters his second season as San Francisco’s wide receivers coach and passing game specialist. In his first year, the 49ers underwent a drastic transformation in the final five weeks of the 2017 season. Their 321.7 yards per game from Weeks 1-12 (21st-best) improved to 410 yards (third-best) from Weeks 13-17. Their 17 points per game (28th-best) improved to 28.8 (fifth-best). Their 221.8 pass yards per game (17th-best) improved to 297 (third-best). And their total quarterback rating improved from 32.4 (28th-best) to 80 (first).
Under LaFleur, Goodwin achieved career highs in catches (56) and yards (962). Fifth-round rookie Trent Taylor became a third-down machine, catching 63 percent of his passes on third down.
The 49ers added Dante Pettis in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, giving them another dynamic playmaker who can line up all over the field. The 2018 season is a prove-it campaign for this 49ers receiving corps devoid of upper echelon receivers but are expected to produce in Garoppolo’s first full season as the starter.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the current rankings below.