1. Dante Pettis will have more than 400 yards receiving with at least four touchdown receptions.
I don’t expect Dante Pettis to set the world aflame with his 2020 campaign. But I at least expect him to return to his rookie numbers (27 receptions, 467 yards, 5 TD). It remains to be seen whether the early signs of a mentality shift and acceptance of the physicality of the NFL game will bare fruit, but Pettis has already admitted his missteps and taken the blame for his downtrodden 2019 campaign in which he took Kyle Shanahan’s coaching the wrong way and lost confidence in himself. He’s clearly regained that in some sense and more crucially than anything, is attacking the ball with his hands in close windows. If he maintains a willingness to be physical, at least on a semi-regular basis, he’ll be a rotational guy rather than the outcast he became down the stretch of last year’s season.
2. Jeff Wilson Jr. will catch a touchdown pass on a Texas route
Wilson might be the best pass-catching running back on this roster and the man from Texas, who grew up on Adrian Peterson and has a bit of that bully running style in him, is damn near perfect at running the aptly-named Texas route (a sharp angle route in which the running back begins running at a 45 degree angle to the sideline, before sharply cutting into the middle of the field). He beat the Cardinals with it in Week 11 last year and he had a catch with one in the Super Bowl. He will run it to perfection and for a touchdown this year.
3. D.J. Jones will have at least five sacks (if he plays 13 games) and will play semi-frequently on third downs
The only impediment to D.J. Jones’ success is his health. He is a physically domineering human being. The benefits of his frame, which maximizes force via his shocking speed and burst for his stoutness, also tends to give him injury problems. But he’s improved immensely as a pass rusher and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Thursday he could be used on third downs this season:
“For him, it’s cool because he’s not a one-dimensional football player anymore,” Saleh said. “He does have versatility to him. For the organization, that’s cool because you’ve got an extra person to be able to send out there on third down so we can have waves of personnel coming at offensive lines on game day. That’s always been the philosophy. We’re trying to roll them all in constantly, but yeah, to eliminate him from a role on third down would be silly.”
4. The Los Angeles Rams will have the worst record in the division; the 49ers will win it.
“The Rams suck.”
That’s not true, but you’ll hear a lot of that this season, and it will hold more validity than in prior years. The Rams are saddled with the remnants of albatross contracts and a roster revolving around Jared Goff, which just doesn’t work. Rams general manager Les Snead might not actually be the wunderkind GM he was made out to be. In a division in which the 49ers are the reigning kings, with every reason to believe they’ll retain their crown, the always odd Seattle Seahawks will be a playoff team, and the Arizona Cardinals are the maverick, unpredictable upstart with dynamic talent, it’s hard to see how the Rams finish better than third, with fourth seeming the most likely turn of events.
While the 49ers’ wide receiver and interior offensive line (and potential interior defensive line on third down) situations are worrisome, there’s far too much continuity, talent, and brilliant coaching for them to regress. Not with a quarterback who improved down the stretch and who has a full year under his belt for the first time, without an ACL injury to worry about.
5. The 49ers will use dime and big nickel packages far more than in past seasons, meaning a lot Moore, Tarvarius
Get ready for a lot more looks that the 49ers used against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, especially against a spread-it-out offense like the Cardinals employ (they used four wide receiver sets a league-leading 31 percent of the time). That type of college-similar offense is becoming more mainstream, and the versatility and dynamism of the 49ers’ safety group will leave them, as Saleh said earlier this season, looking for ways to get Tarvarius Moore on the field.
Big nickel means having three safeties on the field as opposed to three corners, which I see being less common than dime looks. Still, the confusion of having two versatile, rangey free safeties on the field provides confusion to the offense, so I think new defensive backs coach Tony Oden and Saleh experiment with both.
6. Javon Kinlaw won’t have more than three sacks, but he’ll become invaluable by the playoffs if he stays healthy
Kinlaw was always going to be a project player. The reason he was a top-15 selection is due to the fact that he had the second-best get off (see: Chase Young) in the entire defensive line class with behemoth-type size. What he lacked was, well, everything else. There was/is concern about his long-term knee health, having dealt with tendinitis which kept him from performing at the NFL Combine, and his technical skills are totally unrefined. This was always going to be the case, but Kinlaw didn’t get the luxury of rookie minicamp or OTA’s, which Nick Bosa, who was already an exponentially more polished player (maybe the most polished EDGE prospect ever coming out of college), did get to experience, despite missing the majority of training camp.
Kinlaw has shown flashes of that raw power, but his pad level gets too high and he’s inconsistent with his pass rushing approach, as if he’s not sure what move he wants to use, if he has one in mind at all. By the time the playoffs come around, though, he’ll have a far superior understanding of technique and the scheme of the defense from the start of the season. He won’t be DeForest Buckner by any stretch, but he’ll be able to take on double teams and create pressure on at least a slightly more consistent basis. He needs to maintain discipline in the run game, too; he struggled to track the running back in college. Regardless of his flaws, though, he will eat up space.
7. Dee Ford will double his snap count from the 2019 season
A player with a cap hit just shy of $16 million will play more than 22 percent of his team’s snaps. Bold prediction, right? Dee Ford struggled through quad/knee tendinitis last year, which was a result of returning from a torn ACL at Auburn University too soon, and not something which is normally addressed via surgery. But Ford did undergo the knife this offseason for “extensive” knee surgery to clean up the issue. He’s likely to be cut after this year, when most of his money is not guaranteed, so the 49ers are going to let him go; and he’ll want the same. Last season’s 226 snaps were the fewest in his career since his rookie year in Kansas City. Bet on him to get to the 450 mark, being used on second downs and sometimes first downs, rather than as a specialty player only in on third downs. They may be careful with him early, but he’ll see substantially more time on the field this year.
8. Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead will combine for at least 30 sacks
This is just talking about the regular season, when Nick Bosa had nine sacks and Arik Armstead had 10. Armstead looks as dominant as ever in camp and Bosa has worked to add a cross chop and a spin move. Both will improve this year and be well into the teens in their sack numbers. That should result in reaching the 30 sack threshold. It could be 40 combined with Dee Ford.
9. The 49ers will sign Mohamed Sanu after roster cuts are made
It will be February of 2021 and the 49ers won’t have signed Mohamed Sanu, and yet I’ll still be telling you they’re going to sign him tomorrow. Before the team acquired Emmanuel Sanders last year, they were trying to acquire Sanu. Then the price got too steep and the New England Patriots, now trying to save money by cutting Sanu, acquired him for a second-round pick. The 49ers may not have Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk available in Week 1 and even if they do, they have no true veteran, leader wide receiver in the room. Sanu knows Kyle Shanahan’s system. He doesn’t cost anything other than the opportunity cost of signing him. It makes too much sense not to happen at the weakest position on the roster, with a player the 49ers are verified to like.
10. Kentavius Street will be the 49ers’ most worthy Comeback Player of the Year candidate
Street nearly missed the entirety of his first two seasons with a torn ACL ending his rookie campaign and complications from recovery sending him back to injured reserve last year. He played three games last season before returning to the list, and this year, he’s made a monumental leap. He’s playing at end, 3-technique and at nose, with equal levels of effectiveness. He’s using a speed-to-power rush, swim and rip moves and even pulled out a spin once or twice.
As D.J. Jones, a fellow low-center-of-gravity, super-rapid get-off guy, said, Street has made greater strides than anyone on the 49ers’ defensive line. That’s some lofty, but evidently valid praise.
11. Raheem Mostert will rush for more than 800 yards, 8 touchdowns, with 250 yards receiving and 3 receiving touchdowns.
If Kyle Shanahan does not give Raheem Mostert his first career start this year, fans should have a virtual picket session demanding it. Shanahan said he views the starter as the player who gets the bulk of the carries, which makes sense… so why not start that guy to begin with? Maybe there’s a secret clause in Tevin Coleman’s contract requiring him to get every opening carry of the game (and run straight ahead for three yards). But even with that weirdness, Mostert will get the lion’s share of carries. He’s looked just as dominant as last year, and he looks more comfortable as a receiver out of the backfield. The numbers will come fairly easily for him, especially when they run it to the left side behind Trent Williams, and then leverage that expectation against defenses for deadly counters.
12. The 49ers will split with the Cardinals and Seahawks, but sweep the Rams
Splitting the series with the Seahawks is a given. It’s just going to happen. The Cardinals, though, have gotten even trickier than they were last year, when they nearly beat the 49ers twice, and with Kyler Murray a year older and Deandre Hopkins at his disposal, their offense is only going to get dinkier and dunkier. The addition of Isaiah Simmons through the draft gives the Cardinals a massive, versatile human to cause problems as quasi-linebacker-safety. They’re too talented and a year older, and it catches up with the 49ers, who still win the division. They win the division because they sweep the soon-to-be last place Rams. The Rams aren’t tanking, but as stated above, they’re dealing with a number of bad contracts they still have on the books, and while every other team in the division is evolving, they’re trying to patch the roster together. Regression can sometimes just mean not improving.
13. Mitch Wishnowsky will run a fake punt against Bill Belichick, when the 49ers beat the Patriots in Week 7
There was so much talk about how athletic Mitch Wishnowsky is, and by the end of the season, all we had to show for it was this lovely preseason hit on a kickoff against the Denver Broncos.
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers) March 3, 2020
This year, the 49ers will put that athleticism to use, and there is no opponent more apropos to use special teams trickery against than Bill Belichick. He and Kyle Shanahan have an immense respect for one other, and there will no doubt be some mind games used when the two match up. Shanahan will let special teams coach Richard Hightower break out his secret weapon, if only for the joy of looking across at Belichick’s face after Wishnowsky runs for a first down.
14. Jimmy Garoppolo will have four touchdown passes in that Week 7 game against the Patriots; Belichick will embrace him more closely than NFL guidelines allow for after the game and whisper in his ear, “It doesn’t feel great, baby.”
Back to Belichick and Shanahan: Belichick effectively handed Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers, giving them something of a first right of refusal with a take-it-or-leave-it, second-round-pick-for-Garoppolo swap. He knew Garoppolo was in good hands, and he’ll improve this season. When Garoppolo returns to New England, he will have one of his best performances of the season. That is a prediction in spite of the fact that Belichick knows his tendencies well. The thing is, Shanahan knows that Belichick knows and will keep some wrinkles in his back pocket for that game. As even-keeled as Garoppolo is, he’s going to be amped for that return and deliver. It will provide heaps of Monday morning radio fodder.
15. The 49ers will not win the Super Bowl unless they trade for a wide receiver mid-season, or Jordan Reed is fully healthy through the playoffs
Maybe the weirdest prediction on this list, but Emmanuel Sanders was clearly not a luxury. While Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne improved with him, and will surely continue to improve, and while Brandon Aiyuk will be a better rookie than many rookie wide receivers, this team still don’t have an experienced, elite wide receiving target. When it comes to the Super Bowl, you need a target like that, and it would have paid dividends if Garoppolo connected with Sanders. Maybe Aiyuk gets there, but I cannot place my faith in a rookie and second-year wide receiver in the Super Bowl if I’m Shanahan.
That is true, of course, unless you have a pair of top-10 tight ends catching passes for you. If Jordan Reed (and George Kittle) is healthy, this 49ers offense will glide through the playoffs. It remains to be seen if that can happen, but Reed has looked every bit the astounding route runner he was billed to be in camp. If he and Kittle are on the field together in the Super Bowl, it’s going to Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez 2.0 and a Super Bowl victory, without the off-field stuff.