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Grading 49ers’ 2018 season by position group

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The anticipation of the 2018 season quickly soured when franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. The 49ers went on to finish 4-12, tied for the league’s second-worst record, giving them the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. It was yet another season that didn’t end in the playoffs, but there was considerable value in developing a young roster for 2019 and beyond, when the 49ers are expected to playing meaningful football.

Let’s review the 2018 season and grade the position groups.

Coaching: B

The 49ers were dealt a tough hand with Garoppolo’s and Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending knee injuries. The defensive secondary was decimated with injuries. And Reuben Foster, one of the team’s most promising youngsters, was kicked off the team in Week 11.

Yet the 49ers were competitive in all but four games — both losses to the Rams, an 18-point loss to the Bucs, and a 27-point loss to the Seahawks. These 49ers, operating with young and inexperienced players, were better than their 4-12 record suggests, which is largely a testament to the coaching staff.

Shanahan proved again why he’s one of the top offensive minds in the NFL. The first time Nick Mullens, Jeff Wilson, and Dante Pettis paced the 49ers offensive attack was in the second halves of preseason games. Fast forward to the second half of the regular season, and the 49ers had to rely on those players to win them meaningful games.

Shanahan helped Mullens achieve historic marks in his first eight starts. Four different 49ers running backs, none of them named McKinnon, rushed for at least 80 yards in a game this season. Kittle posted the best season ever for a tight end largely because Shanahan schemed him open so frequently.

Shanahan and the 49ers need to improve in the fourth quarter, where they scored fewer points than anyone in the league, and the red zone, where they converted touchdowns at the lowest rate in the league. But Shanahan’s season was a master class in offensive coaching.

Robert Saleh, conversely, is still trying to build his reputation as a top defensive mind. Ask 49ers fans their thoughts at the midway point, and most probably weren’t pleased with Saleh’s performance. He was the convenient scapegoat for the bouts of miscommunication and missed tackling.

Slowly, however, those issues subsided when the 49ers defense built some continuity. They held the Seahawks and Bears, two playoff teams, to 23 and 14 points, respectively, in Weeks 15 and 16. Saleh deserves credit.

Overall, the defensive numbers were solid. The 49ers finished 13th in yards allowed, at 346.6 per game. They allowed 27.2 points per game, though that was also a reflection of the 49ers offense’s 32 giveaways.

The one egregious statistic that summarizes the 49ers defense’s need for playmaking: they forced seven turnovers and two interceptions, both of which are the lowest marks in NFL history. Saleh can probably help that, but that’s more a reflection on the talent.

Shanahan said Monday that the 49ers coaching staff will remain intact in 2019.

Quarterback: B-

This one is threefold.

Garoppolo played 11 quarters before his first full season as a starter ended, stripping the 49ers’ playoff hopes and storing them away for 2019. Garoppolo played well, but he wasn’t as magnificent as he was during the five-game winning streak he engineered to close the 2018 season. Garoppolo went 1-2 this year. Even in his lone win, he was fortunate that a late interception was wiped away due to a questionable defensive holding penalty. We never saw peak Garoppolo, but we saw glimpses.

In just fewer than three games this year, Garoppolo’s statistics read as follows: five touchdowns, three interceptions, 239.3 yards per game, and 7.7 yards per attempt. His most impressive stretch came in the second half of Week 3 at Kansas City, just before he got hurt. The 49ers cut a 28-point deficit to 14 behind Garoppolo. Then, he tore his ACL in the fourth quarter. And that’s may have been the most gut-wrenching part: right when it appeared Garoppolo had hit his groove, his season was over.

It seemed the only other competent NFL quarterback on the 49ers roster was C.J. Beathard, who started five games with Garoppolo out. But Beathard was inconsistent and erratic. In Week 4, he played well enough for the 49ers to beat the Chargers, now a 12-win team, but dropped passes, tackling miscues, and untimely turnovers gave the Chargers a 29-27 win. The following week, Beathard regressed, considerably, against an inferior Arizona defense. Beathard turned the ball over four times, and the 49ers lost by 10 points, at home, to the team picking No. 1 in the 2019 NFL Draft. Beathard never found a multi-game groove. His statistics read as follows: eight touchdowns, seven interceptions, 208.7 yards per game, and 6.5 yards per attempt. The most telling result: He lost all five starts, two of which came against Arizona.

After suffering a minor ankle injury in Week 8, his absence paved the way for one of the most pleasant surprises of the season: Mullens.

No one could have expected Mullens — a second-year practice squad quarterback with little name recognition or elite physical skills — to play as well as he did. But, beginning with his first NFL game in Week 9, he quickly showed he was the better option over Beathard. The 49ers steamrolled the Raiders, 34-3, and Mullens authored one of the best quarterbacking debuts in NFL history. The 49ers offense ran smoother. Mullens took better care of the ball and surveyed his progressions quicker than Beathard, who seemed to lock in on his first read and improvise when it wasn’t there.

Mullens went 3-5 in eight starts. His statistics read as follows: 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 284.6 yards per game and 8.3 yards per attempt. His 2,277 passing yards are the fourth-most for any quarterback in his first eight games in NFL history. He wasn’t perfect, but he exceeded expectations and gives the 49ers a reliable backup behind Garoppolo next year and beyond.

Backfield: B+

Aside from a certain record-breaking tight end, the 49ers’ backfield was the offense’s most consistent unit this season. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. Only 11 running backs played more of their offense’s snaps than Juszczyk, who is used more creatively and liberally than any other fullback in the league.

The running back room, too, took a hit when McKinnon tore his ACL about a week before the season. That appointed Matt Breida as the starter, and he resembled every bit of one. Breida led the league in yards per carry for the majority of the NFL year, until he suffered an ankle injury that hampered him throughout the second half of the season. Through his first 11 games, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and 81.5 total yards per game. He missed two of the final five games, preventing a 1,000-yard campaign in his second NFL season. He finished with 153 rushes for 814 yards and three touchdowns. He added 261 receiving yards, which is where he showed notable improvement from his rookie year.

Even when Breida was unavailable, the 49ers rushing attack still hummed. Raheem Mostert, who had seven career NFL carries entering 2018, ran 12 times for 87 yards in Week 6. When Mostert broke his arm three games later, Wilson, who had served the majority of the season on the practice squad, stepped in. In his first start, he ran 23 times for 90 yards. (He did, however, fumble three times on just 66 carries this year.) Fast forward to last Sunday, and veteran Alfred Morris rushed 16 times for 111 carries.

This is among the 49ers’ deepest position groups entering 2019.

Receiver: D-

At the beginning of the year, the 49ers’ starting wide receiving corps projected to be Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and Trent Taylor. Injuries prevented them from sharing the field together much at all in 2018. Even when they were individually healthy, they were, at best, inconsistent. The only of those players to eclipse more than 70 yards in a single game was Goodwin, and that happened just once.

Their combined 2018 production: 83 catches for 896 yards.

All three players were limited due to injuries. Goodwin dealt with hamstring, quad, and calf issues. Garcon missed the final eight games with a knee injury. Taylor endured back troubles all year after having bone spurs removed this past offseason.

The unavailability of those three players created opportunity for others in waiting. Pettis is the one who took most advantage.

The 49ers traded up 15 picks to draft Pettis No. 44 overall in April’s draft. His rookie season was somewhat of a roller coaster, yet encouraging. He scored San Francisco’s only touchdown in Week 1 with an impressive toe-tapping grab. In Week 4, he injured his knee, which sidelined him for four games. Slowly, he regained full health, and he started to shine. He entered Week 16 riding a four-game stretch with averages of 4.3 catches, 84.5 yards, and one touchdown per game. Then Pettis suffered an MCL sprain last Sunday, which ended his season with one game remaining. In the seven complete games he played this year, Pettis compiled 24 catches for 446 yards and five touchdowns.

Kendrick Bourne could potentially become Garcon’s successor, should the 49ers part ways with the 32-year-old this offseason. They play the same “Z” position. Bourne played all 16 games and led 49ers receivers with 487 yards this year. He wasn’t prolific (he had one game with more than 70 yards), but he caught at least two passes in each of the final eight games.

The 49ers did not get much production elsewhere. Rookie Richie James had nine catches for 130 yards on the season. He will compete with Taylor in the slot next season.

The bottomline: the 49ers receiving corps lacked consistent playmaking this year. Bourne’s team-leading receiving production ranked tied for No. 97 in the NFL.

The 49ers receivers combined for 2,251 yards this season. Atlanta’s Julio Jones had 1,677 yards single-handedly.

Tight end: A+

You break an NFL record, you earn an A+. Even with Garrett Celek’s major dip in production (five catches for 90 yards), George Kittle’s preeminent season more than made up for it.

The single-season yardage record for a tight end now belongs to Kittle, who had 1,377 yards this season. He broke Travis Kelce’s momentary record on a 43-yard touchdown scamper with just two minutes left in the season.

Kittle had a knack for the incredible all year long. You could point to his 210-yard performance, four yards shy of the single-game yardage mark by a tight end, which Kittle achieved in the first half of Week 14 alone. You could point to his one-handed grab-and-run for 82 yards, one of the best plays of the NFL season. You could point to his 85-yard touchdown run, or another 71-yard gain.

Perhaps the most impressive part of his receiving feats: his production never plateaued despite working with three different quarterbacks.

Kittle, who also had a tremendous blocking season, is the most positive breakthrough of the 49ers’ season — by a long shot. He is arguably the best tight end in football.

Offensive line: B-

The collective play of this unit improved from 2017 to 2018. The 49ers added center Weston Richburg, right guard Mike Person, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who was selected with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Those players joined incumbent starters left guard Laken Tomlinson and left tackle Joe Staley.

The productive running game largely reflected the gaping running holes the offensive line produced. San Francisco finished No. 13 in the NFL with 118.9 yards per game. Those numbers were achieved despite the 49ers lack of mobile quarterbacks, an inexperienced running back corps, and consistently playing from behind.

The pass protection, however, was spotty. Whenever a marquee defensive lineman opposed the 49ers, they had issues. Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones were each awarded NFC Defensive Player of the Week awards for their dominant performances against the 49ers. The 49ers allowed 48 sacks this season, the ninth-most in the league.

All things considered, 2018 was an encouraging step for an offensive line playing in its first year together. Staley’s play improved from 2018, when he was named to his sixth Pro Bowl. McGlinchey is a foundational piece who figures to replace Staley when he retires in the near future. Person, who signed a one-year deal last offseason, was an above-average starting right guard. Until Tomlinson tore his MCL in the season finale, he was reliable, having played every snap this year. Richburg is the one who seemed to disappoint, although Shanahan said last week the center was “very good” this year.

Person is the only offensive lineman out of this group who will hit free agency this offseason. Expect him to be re-signed. If he is, the 49ers will return the same offensive line, an important step in building an elite offense.

Defensive line: C

The 49ers front office has drilled this position group throughout the past four years. They spent first-round picks in three consecutive years on defensive linemen (Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas), and the overwhelming consensus is that they should do the same in 2019. That infers those three players have disappointed, and that holds true a bit. In reality, adding an elite edge rusher would simply elevate this defensive line, anchored by its interior, into one of the most formidable in the NFL.

Buckner already has that individual tag. After two promising seasons to start his career, he exploded in 2018, compiling 12 sacks, the second-most for any defensive tackle. He’s the one 49ers defensive lineman opposing offenses fear.

Armstead doesn’t have those same pass-rushing capabilities, but he was the 49ers’ best run defender, posting a team-best 78.3 run grade from Pro Football Focus. The 6-foot-8 Armstead finally showed what he was capable of in a full season after missing 18 games the previous two years. He and Buckner anchored the 49ers front-seven that allowed just two 100-yard rushers and 4.1 yards per attempt, the seventh-fewest in the league.

Thomas simply hasn’t validated his No. 3 overall draft pick. You’d expect double-digit sack numbers out of players with that draft standing, at that position. But it seems the 49ers have finally found out how to best use Thomas, on the interior, where he dominated throughout his Stanford career.

As for the edge rushers, well, there’s a reason that’s atop of the offseason priority list. Cassius Marsh had 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits, the best numbers of his career. But he rarely stood out. Ronald Blair (5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits) is a solid rotational piece. And second-year nose tackle D.J. Jones played well down the stretch of the season, when he played ahead of Earl Mitchell.

But it’s clear that athletic edge rusher, who can force the turnovers that severely lacked this year, is needed. The 49ers yielded just 13 sacks from the position this season.

Linebackers: C

The tremendous season-long play of Fred Warner, the team’s third-round pick out of BYU, explains the average grade. From Week 1 and on, Warner handled the MIKE linebacker duties with little issue. He led the 49ers with 124 tackles. Buckner had the next-most, with 67. Warner had 11 games with seven-plus tackles and five games with double-digit tackles. His athleticism stood out in pass coverage. As the season progressed, he improved in run defense.

It seemed the 49ers had found their linebacking duo of the future in Warner and Foster. That, of course, went awry when Foster was arrested, for the second time in seven months, for alleged domestic violence. The 49ers promptly released him, ending his 49ers tenure after 16 total games played.

The 49ers turned to Elijah Lee, a second-year player out of Kansas State, and he played well. In each of the final three games, Lee had double-digit tackles. He played all but one defensive snap in the final four weeks.

Lee’s growing role relegated Malcolm Smith to a backup role. He played sparingly in the final weeks. Smith’s season ended the way it started: battling injuries. At first, it was a hamstring issue, and by the end, it was an Achilles issue. Injuries have defined Smith’s two-year stay with the 49ers. He missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral. It would not be surprising if the 49ers parted ways with the 29-year-old this offseason and gave Lee that weak-side linebacker role.

Ultimately, Foster’s release solidified him as one of 49ers’ the biggest draft busts in recent memory. But the breakthrough of Warner and positives glimpses of Lee spur optimism entering 2019.

Secondary: C-

There were quite a few unknowns about this group entering the season. Would Richard Sherman be the same Richard Sherman? Would Ahkello Witherspoon blossom into a top-tier cornerback? Would safeties Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt form the duo of the future? Would the secondary look better in year No. 2 under Saleh?

One season later, most of those questions remain.

The only that does not is whether Sherman can still play at an elite level, and he showed he can. The three-time first-team All-Pro allowed the fewest targets and receptions in the NFL. Opposing teams shied away from Sherman’s side for games at a time.

That’s clearly a result of Sherman’s skills. But it’s also a matter of inconsistency from the opposing side.

Witherspoon was consistently picked on, particularly early in the season. Each week, it seemed there was an inexcusable blown coverage, which typically came on his side. 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. Witherspoon battled an ankle injury, and his play clearly suffered. Then he was benched in Week 7.

For the first time since his rookie year, Witherspoon had competition. His status as the starter opposite Sherman was effectively preordained from the onset of training camp. Maybe it was the wake-up call Witherspoon needed, because in his final eight games of his season, he looked like a different player. He didn’t allow a touchdown during a six-game stretch. But Witherspoon sprained his PCL in Week 16, and rookie Tarvarius Moore was handed the reins.

Moore, as you’d expect from a safety-converted-cornerback in his first NFL season, showed some rawness in coverage. But he also forced one of the 49ers’ seven turnovers this season — now an all-time low — by forcing a fumble late in Week 16 to give the offense one more shot at the win. Moore and Witherspoon will battle it out for the right cornerback spot opposite Sherman in 2019.

The 49ers cycled through eight different players at the safety positions. It wasn’t until Week 13 that they finally found some continuity, from a duo you wouldn’t have expected at the season’s start: Marcell Harris and Antone Exum. Harris particularly showed promise, so much so that Sherman said the rookie will be in the mix for the starting strong safety role next year with Tartt, who played just eight games this season. Colbert, coming off an encouraging rookie year, was up-and-down during six games. His season ended when he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 7.

Most of the questions entering 2018 have not yet been answered. Aside from Sherman, there isn’t a whole lot of clarity among this group.

Special teams: A

Since joining the 49ers prior to the 2017 season, Robbie Gould made 72 of 75 field goal attempts. That is the most accurate two-year stretch for a kicker in NFL history, with at least 45 attempts, beating Baltimore’s Justin Tucker, who went 72-76 from 2016 to 2017.

Gould has won the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award four times in the past two years. He has made three game-winning field goals. That included San Francisco’s first win over Seattle in 11 matchups, a 26-23 victory in Week 15.

The 36-year-old is also the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history. He’s in line for a well-deserved contract extension this offseason.

Punter Bradley Pinion, by the numbers, was below-average this year. His 43.7 yards-per-punt ranked No. 28, and he had 22 punts land inside the 20, ranked 21st. He did not, however, have a punt blocked or mishandled. And with exception to Kyle Nelson’s 10-game suspension due to PEDs, the 49ers longs nappers were seldom noticed, which is always a good thing.

The 49ers boasted one of the league’s best kickoff return teams. They averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return. In Week 15, James returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the 49ers’ first since 2011.

The 49ers averaged just 5.8 yards per punt return. They cycled through several players, including Pettis, James, and Taylor.

Onto 2019 we go.


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