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Causes for optimism, pessimism and everywhere in between as 49ers enter 2020 season


The NFL runners-up are almost exactly two months away from training camp, assuming the 49ers have a training camp in Santa Clara, and it’s on time. None of that is guaranteed, but a season is likely, and when it does take place, there are a fair few causes for optimism and pessimism.

Optimism

Jimmy Garoppolo

I understand the appeal of letting hot takes fly when it comes to Jimmy Garoppolo. It is among the more languorous and easily accessible hot-take debates in the current sports zeitgeist.

Is Garoppolo terrible? The next GOAT? Only above average because of Kyle Shanahan?

If you watched Garoppolo from the preseason through the end of last season, you saw a pretty predictable series of events.

A quarterback, entering his first full season, coming off a season-ending knee injury and still working to master one of the more complicated offenses in the NFL, performed poorly, consistent only in his inconsistency — at his best, appearing like a franchise quarterback, at his worst, the guy who threw five horrendous interceptions in a training camp practice — through most of the first half of the season (the first seven games).

Then, on Halloween, like he spooked himself into excellence, Garoppolo decimated the Arizona Cardinals for 317 yards and four touchdowns. He finished out the season as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, and was limited to being a glorified hand-off man in the playoffs. He looked jittery, but in the Super Bowl, was almost on his way to being the game’s MVP. Then, he failed, overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders by a lot, and the “Garoppolo is terrible” camp was reinvigorated.

The obvious truth is, he’s a very good quarterback, and if he continues to progress, as he should, he’ll be great. There’s almost no reason to believe that in his second full year, with nothing to rehab from, that he will be worse than the year before.

Special teams

If you can’t get excited about a punt inside the five, there is no hope for you. Mitch Wishnowsky demonstrated in year one that he’s not exactly going to flip the field on every punt, but he ranked ninth in the NFL with 44.2 percent of his punts being downed inside the 20-yard line. Expect that number to improve in year two, and expect the 49ers to make use of Wishnowsky’s elite-for-a-punter athleticism on a trick play or two.

Also… the 49ers will have their choice of Brandon Aiyuk, Travis Benjamin, D.J. Reed or Richie James Jr on punt and kick returns. Leaving Aiyuk out of punt return duties would probably be a mistake, but if it does happen, it would be out of an abundance of caution for his long-term health by Kyle Shanahan. Travis Benjamin is a veteran option who’s likely to be much more reliable than James was last season. Reed is also a genuine option who thrived in college with burner speed.

While special teams isn’t the No. 1 thing on anyone’s mind, don’t underestimate the fact that the 49ers got just about the career worst of Robbie Gould last year, a rookie Wishnowsky, and an unreliable return man, and were still one of the best special teams units in the NFL. They might just jump into the upper echelon of special teams rankings this year, which could be devastating if they jump on teams early, or need a spark to change the momentum.

Offensive line

Drafting Colton McKivitz in the fifth round is still a move that puzzles, in that there were at least five exciting corner options on the board (including Harrison Hand, Kindle Vildor and Bryce Hall), and it’s not clear if McKivitz would have been taken by anyone that high. He’s also more of a guard than a tackle fit, but could project to play both. That’s part of the reason why there’s optimism here.

The 49ers, after losing both their starting tackles for substantial portions of the season and having lost Joe Staley to retirement, upgraded on the left with a younger, year-fresher Trent Williams alongside Laken Tomlinson. The great question mark is Weston Richburg, who has failed to stay healthy for most of his career, and had each of the last two seasons end on injured reserve. But behind him is Ben Garland, who’s a lovely, cheap safety valve.

Then there’s Daniel Brunskill, who figures to start at right guard, but will compete with Tom Compton and Garland and McKivitiz, and can play literally anywhere on the offensive line. And Mike McGlinchey enters his third season at right tackle, where he should be poised to break out.

McKivitz, Garland, Compton (who can play center), Brunskill and the two swing tackle options of Justin Skule and Shon Coleman provide a sense of relief and above average replaceability at their respective positions. If the 49ers are dealt a bevy of offensive line injuries, they’re well-equipped to deal with them.

Pessimism

Depth at tight end, defensive end, linebacker

Outside of George Kittle, there’s Ross Dwelley, who hasn’t proven himself consistent enough to be a reliable No. 2, and Charlie Woerner, who will probably take Dwelley’s job, based on his athleticism, blocking prowess and projectable receiving ability.

And then there’s… well, Jalen Hurd? He should and could be viewed as a tight end, but do the 49ers really want to put him in a position prone to wear and tear after his rookie season was lost to an attrition-related back stress fracture? Outside of Kittle, Dwelley and Woerner, there’s only practice squad candidate Daniel Helm and undrafted rookie Chase Harrell. The depth there is iffy.

The same goes for defensive end, where Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford are the key three, with Ronald Blair III as the rotational option. In theory, that would be enough, but Ford failed to stay healthy last season, and is at this point, almost solely a third-down guy, and Blair is coming off a torn ACL. The only other option there is Kerry Hyder, who’s reuniting with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, but who’s been injury-riddled and hasn’t had a productive season since 2016 (though he did play a full 16 games with the Cowboys last year).

At linebacker, if there’s an injury to two of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw and there are only two other linebackers on the roster, the names are limited. Mark Nzeocha? Joe Walker? Azeez Al-Shaair? Undrafted rookie Jonas Griffith? There are more questions than answers there.

Future of assistant coaches

There were two departures from the 49ers’ coaching staff this offseason, both from the defense, both to join Kevin Stefanski’s staff in Cleveland: defensive backs coach Joe Woods and pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin, who Nick Bosa told KNBR was the “brains” behind the 49ers’ pass rush.

That trend will likely continue this offseason. It’s more likely than not that if the defense remains as staunch as it was last season, and the NFL can get over its repugnant aversion to hiring coaches of color, that Robert Saleh will become an NFL head coach next season.

Based on the NFL’s rule changes as it pertains to coaching interviews, that could be the case for Mike McDaniel or Mike LaFleur, too, if they are offered an offensive coordinator position elsewhere. The 49ers have to prepare for coach poaching.

Rookie performance

This is a scary year for rookies, given the very high chance the offseason becomes even more abbreviated and disjointed than the coronavirus has already made it. Rookie minicamps were canceled, and OTAs are being conducted virtually.

If minicamps can’t happen, and training camp is pushed back or shortened, it’s very likely there will be a steep learning curve for NFL rookies. That goes for Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, who are replacing, in effect, DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders. That has to worry the 49ers, no matter how high they are on the two.

Both

Wide receivers

With Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings, there’s added youth. In Travis Benjamin, there’s veteran speed on the outside. Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James Jr. are a year more experienced. Dante Pettis will be forced into perform-or-be-cut mode and maybe Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd will be healthy.

But as exciting as all those names are, Emmanuel Sanders is gone. He fundamentally transformed the receiving corps from sub-par to excellent last season, and it’s unclear who will step up with him gone. Aiyuk is exciting and is likely to be a successful NFL player and Jennings has a high upside, too, but both are rookies. It’s impossible to rely on the health of Taylor and Hurd, Pettis played skittish, and for some reason, the 49ers seem to not value Richie James Jr. as a wide receiver. Outside of Samuel and Bourne, there aren’t any sure performers in the group.

Secondary

This year, there isn’t all that much cause for concern, though Richard Sherman is now 32 and struggled with speedier receivers at times. Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon should improve, and if Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward and K’Waun Williams stay healthy, there’s every reason to believe the group will perform as well as it did last season. Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed remain speedy options waiting in the wings.

But, there was no acquisition of youth in the offseason. Sherman, Tartt, Witherspoon, Williams and Moseley (restricted free agent) all have expiring contracts. The 49ers seem to be very high on Tim Harris, but that might be a rose-tinted view. In the long-term, there is much cause for concern about retaining talent and remaining youthful.

 

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