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49ers Mailbag: Breakout player predictions, two tight end sets, and another Jimmy Garoppolo pancake?

Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

It’s game week, folks. The NFL season officially starts on Thursday. Aside from the apocalyptic skies and wildfires across northern California, the global pandemic still raging and the lack of fans in Levi’s Stadium, well, everything should feel just about normal. Here’s a look at answering some of your questions before this bizarre season begins.

Clint B. asks via Instagram: Can we use plays designed for Hurd for Reed?

I don’t have access to the 49ers’ playbook and Jalen Hurd has yet to play an NFL down, so I’m not going to presume to know exactly what Kyle Shanahan’s plans were from him. In terms of a Hurd/Jordan Reed comparison, there are some similarities in their size and athleticism, but Reed is a far more polished route runner and probably won’t be used in end arounds, motions and outside blocking roles the same way Hurd would have.

Zach H. asks via Instagram: Will Kyle Shanahan lean more to double tight end schemes due to the injury-plagued WR corps?

I think the 49ers would have used two tight-end sets at a fairly high clip regardless of wide receiver injuries, but I don’t expect a cosmic shift from what worked so well last year, which was 21 personnel (2 RBs 2 WRs), which they used more than any other team. They used 22 (2 RBs, 2 TEs) personnel the second-most, about 11 percent of the time. In total, they used two or more tight ends roughly 31 percent of the time. I would expect that the usage of 12 and 22 personnel increase if Jordan Reed is healthy. The key is having Kyle Juszczyk on the field; Shanahan will evolve and play to his team’s strengths, but he’s not going to fall into a pattern of predictability by having Reed and Kittle constantly on the field together.

Caroline W. asks via Instagram: Will there be any fans allowed in the stadium this year? Even a small percentage?

I doubt it. It’s up to Santa Clara County, and unless the numbers in California drop significantly, or we get a vaccine, I don’t see the County, which already has a tempestuous relationship with the 49ers, allowing fans.

Ryan L. asks via Instagram: Who scores the first Niners TD of the season?

Kendrick Bourne.

Paul J. asks via Instagram: How many snaps do you think we will see McKinnon get on Sunday? Is he the 2 or 3 back?

McKinnon is listed as No. 3 in the unofficial depth chart and that’s where I see him. Raheem Mostert is the clear starter and Tevin Coleman is the reliable back Kyle Shanahan loves. I’d expect he operates largely as a pass catcher and with some delayed handoffs to flip that expectation, something like five carries and a couple targets as a receiver.

Matt C. asks via Instagram: Likelihood of our two first-round rookies having a big impact early in the season?

I see Brandon Aiyuk having a substantial early impact. He looked a much better route runner than expected, especially on shorter patterns, despite being billed as a deep threat (that’s what was on film). Javon Kinlaw’s natural size and strength will allow him to basically be a serviceable nose tackle/3-technique, but he has a long way to go in terms of pass rushing technique. He’ll make improvements by the playoffs. 

Ivan R. asks via Instagram: Will Jimmy Garoppolo get another pancake this year?

Yes, but it’ll be in the form of an illegal blindside block.

Jeff H. asks via Instagram: Will Aiyuk and Deebo be ready for Week 1?

I truly do not know and the coaching staff may not either. If they don’t practice, it would seem doubtful. Practicing on Thursday and Friday would be a positive sign.

Cosmic Dude asks via Instagram: How much of a role do you see Trent Taylor having this year?

A fairly significant one, but Kendrick Bourne is the go-to third down threat and has better size, and they play the same position. I’d expect he gets something like 25-30 percent of the snaps.

Brian D. asks via Instagram: How’s Jimmy G’s knee? Will he look to run more this season?

He hasn’t seemed like he’s thought about it since the very early part of last season. Let’s hope he doesn’t run more; that’s a bad sign for the offensive line.

Tim L. asks via Instagram: Who is the frontrunner to be the 4th WR right now?

I don’t really know how to answer this because there’s not a clear fourth wide receiver role. I think Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor will sort of operate in a hottest hand situation, with Bourne getting snaps outside of the slot, too. Dante Pettis probably best fits what you’re talking about because he can (in theory, at least, given he’s struggled from the outside before this camp) play all three positions better than anyone else.

Elias B. asks via Instagram: How many turnovers will the 49ers’ defense force on Sunday?

Two. One interception from Richard Sherman and one fumbled punt forced by a gunning Azeez Al-Shaair.

Riley G. asks via Instagram: How’s the overall health of the roster going into Week 1?

Fine. Not superb, but given the abbreviated training camp, there are only four current active injury concerns. The main concern is center. Ben Garland was limited in practice on Wednesday. Him being healthy would allow Daniel Brunskill to start at right guard and bolster the line. The wide receivers are obviously a concern, too, but can be managed for a week against a shaky Cardinals defense.

Ryan M. asks via Instagram: Who on the practice squad has the best chance to come up and make a difference?

The players with the best chance to come up right now are veterans needed to fill in in a pinch like Dontae Johnson, Kevin White, Dion Jordan. But the players capable of making a real, long-term difference are Jauan Jennings and JaMycal Hasty. Both could have, and maybe should have made the roster. They’ll get their shots at some point this year.

Nathen G. asks via Instagram: How bad do the 49ers miss Joe Staley right now?

From a personality standpoint? A ton, simply because he was a hilarious, universally loved man-child. A genuinely great dude with invaluable experience and leadership qualities. From a personnel standpoint, though? Not at all. Trent Williams, at this point in his career is better than Staley was last year, though there’s an argument Staley was a better run blocker. Williams added muscle and got a year to rest his body from a taxing position. He’s still maybe the best left tackle in the NFL. From that perspective, Staley won’t be missed.

Craig V. asks via Instagram: Truthfully, will Jimmy Garoppolo take the step forward we need him to?

Truthfully, probably. The abbreviated preseason doesn’t help, but he is coming into this year with confidence he had to develop over the course of last season, both in his ability and in his health. That, coupled with increased familiarity in Kyle Shanahan’s offense makes it difficult to see a path for him to regress. The one area to watch is his deep passing accuracy; he’ll need to show he’s made strides there.

Joseph L. asks via Instagram: At what position are the 49ers the strongest and at which are they weakest?

Strongest: Backfield. They have four active running backs who could all start and a fifth on the practice squad who could, too. There’s even a capable fullback backup for Kyle Juszczyk on the practice squad in Josh Hokit.

Weakest: Wide receiver. There’s youth and a fair dose of questions to be answered. Kendrick Bourne is currently only the healthy, reliable target. Trent Taylor should prove that, too, but he and Bourne play the same position, and Dante Pettis’ stellar camp means nothing if the results don’t come during the season.

Paola asks via Instagram: Chance of the 49ers finally winning their sixth ring this season?

High, if Jordan Reed stays healthy and/or they acquire a wide receiver mid-season (or Brandon Aiyuk is in the conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year). They are still the best team in the NFC, but they need someone to make a leap, or for Reed to remain healthy to have that last offensive weapon to win the Super Bowl.

Arthur S. asks via Instagram: Should we expect to see any of Jauan Jennings soon?

Not soon, but at some point this season, he’ll likely be on the active roster (a practice squad promotion).

Victor C. asks via Instagram: Breakout player for both offense and defense?

  • Offense: Jeff Wilson Jr. I believe he’ll have the No. 2 spot carved out by the conclusion of the season, and established himself as the premier backfield receiving threat. That’s a tough order given Shanahan’s infatuation with Coleman and Jerick McKinnon being back healthy, but I saw more out of Wilson than either of those two.
  • Defense: Kentavius Street. Buy your stock in Street now. He was mauling guys at every position along the defensive line and D.J. Jones described him as making the most significant improvement of any defensive linemen this offseason. Read about his comeback here.

Jesse D. asks via Facebook: How has the ex-Georgia Bulldog Charlie Woerner looked since his arrival?

Woerner improved substantially over the course of camp. He looked understandably shaky as a receiving option given he caught a total of 34 passes in college and had a shortened, no-OTAS, no-minicamp preseason. But George Kittle and Ross Dwelley’s absences (along with some limitations on Jordan Reed) allowed him to receive myriad opportunities in the passing game. He’s probably the third-best all-around tight end on this roster and second-best blocking tight end.

Alvin M. asks via Facebook: Did Jauan Jennings have a bad camp? I really thought he was a steal in the draft.

He had some less than impressive days and too many drops, but I would describe it as an overall positive camp. He showed more capability as a non-slot receiver than I expected and has a really unique skillset with significant red zone upside.


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