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49ers Mailbag: When will Lance start and what’s the outlook for Trey Sermon?



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It’s regular season time, folks. The 49ers are just days away from their season opener against the Detroit Lions, so we’re here to take a look at some of your burning questions before this thing kicks off. Tom M. asks via Facebook: How do you like Marcell Harris playing linebacker? I like his versatility and pass coverage ability playing there. Agreed. It was pretty clear last year that Harris was out of his depth in any sort of center fielder role, but when he could blitz or play in the box as a quasi-linebacker, he appeared exponentially more comfortable. He doesn’t have to worry about taking long angles to the ball, which was difficult given the sort of reckless way he plays. His coverage isn’t stellar, yet, but it’s definitely improved given that he gets the opportunity to press and stack closer to his matchups going backwards, as opposed to try and field them in front of him, then figure out when to flip his hips and go. He’s also still a menace on special teams.
Mike E. asks via Facebook: Will Lance be brought into this offense sooner or later? How much patience will Kyle have with Jimmy when he knows the athleticism of Lance, as well as the true passing ability is perhaps better? I was asked a question about the importance of Weeks 3-5 for the 49ers, and whether they’ll tell us everything we need to know about the team as a whole. That’s a segue to say those will be the most telling weeks, and potential turning point, not for the team as a whole, but for Jimmy Garoppolo. These first two weeks against the Lions and Eagles, with first-year head coaches and non-elite quarterbacks are games in which the 49ers should roll, and I suspect they will; and they’ll lean on the run game to do so. Even if Emmanuel Moseley and Javon Kinlaw miss out, the defense should be dominant. But against the Packers then Seahawks at home and the Cardinals before the bye week? Those are potentially pivotal games in which the offense will likely need to employ its full arsenal, and need the best out of Garoppolo. If he falters, which I suspect may happen, that provides a bye week and opportunity for Shanahan to really re-evaluate the position, and potentially focus more specifically on getting Lance reps, and preparing a fuller game plan for him. It’s always going to be easier to get Lance an extended run towards the start of the season, and both Detroit and Philadelphia seemed like solid opportunities, but ones in which he won’t start. But if Lance shows more poise during these first five weeks and Garoppolo struggles in that Week 3-5 stretch, it could be Lance’s job by Week 7. I suspect it’s Lance’s job whenever he shows Shanahan that he can be comfortable in the pocket and feel pressure adequately. Week 11 and 12 against the Jaguars and Vikings are fairly easy opportunities to get him extended run, too, if this thing lingers. Colin V. asks via Facebook: Have the Niners decided how the QBs will play in game one? No. Normally you wouldn’t take Kyle Shanahan at his word, but with Lance’s finger issue, they haven’t decided how they’re going to employ him. That said, Shanahan obviously has a plan of what he’d like to do if Lance is a full go. It seems likely that he’d want to get Lance real game reps sooner than later, as long as there are no health concerns. I would not expect the sort of rapid-fire quarterback shifting we saw against the Raiders in Week 1, but if Lance is good to go, it’s likely he’ll play.

Cody M. asks via Twitter: I believe this two QB charade is just a way to get Lance reps without sacrificing wins. Do you agree with that, and if so, how aggressive do you think Shanahan is with giving Trey reps (e.g. they increase week-to-week) as the season goes on and he develops?

I agree with that. I think the danger in this approach is trying to get too clever with it and interrupting the flow of the offense. It could also threaten both quarterbacks’ confidence if, say, Lance comes in, doesn’t look comfortable in his one- or two-off passing opportunities, and Garoppolo returns and struggles too. Maybe that’s stretching a hypothetical, but there’s a clear downside in interrupting the normal flow of the offense.

The likely way around that is by designing simpler, more comfortable throwing opportunities for Lance by booting him out and giving him clear, multi-level progressions on the move, which also gives him a clear visual opportunity to run the ball if nothing’s there or to throw it away.

I’d expect Shanahan to try and get Lance as many reps as possible early in the season, and ironically, he may be needed more in the Week 3-5 stretch. The first two games project as easier, but it’s not unreasonable to think Shanahan may want to keep his rookie under wraps, at least partially, before a slate of games against a conference rival and two division rivals. Those games, despite the tougher competition level, could actually be where we see Lance really increase in usage.

Ron K. and Ryan P. ask via Instagram: Do you think the Niners will use a QB combo this year? What’re the odds a 2QB system will be effective?

As talked about above, yes, I they’ll use some variation of a two quarterback system, but my belief is that Lance will win the job at some point. The most obvious juncture is over the bye week in Week 7, but the Jaguars and Vikings games could provide good leaping points, too.

The two quarterback system will likely be effective because Shanahan will probably keep the playbook limited for Lance in those opportunities. When defenses start to see him largely as a runner and adjust, he’ll open it up further. Eventually the Lance offense supersedes the Garoppolo offense and, to use Joe Staley’s words on KNBR, “the sky’s the limit.”

49ers fan asks via Twitter: Can Hufanga make a push at the starting spot? If Jaquiski Tartt is healthy and playing at his best, probably not. Tartt’s problem, though, is that he has never played a full season. In the last four seasons, he hasn’t played more than the 12 games he played in 2019, and in the other three years, never played more than nine. Based on the odds, Tartt is likely to be injured at some point, and if Hufanga gets to start at that point, I could see him holding onto the job. He’s definitely got some concerns in coverage, but he’s more intelligent and deliberate there than Harris ever was, and has a tangible flow in the way he uses his eye and body positioning to move downhill towards the ball. If he doesn’t win the job outright this year, I would expect he does next year. Craig V. and Chris C. ask via Instagram: Trey Sermon playing time? How will Kyle Shanahan deploy Sermon? We truly don’t know yet, but Sermon is the clear No. 2 running back on the roster behind Raheem Mostert. He got some red zone opportunities in training camp, and given his size, receiving prowess, and lack of Jeff Wilson to run a Texas route, well, you do the math. He could be the red zone guy. Time will tell. Brad C. asks via Instagram: Why is Nick Bosa not getting talked about? He’s Nick Bosa. He was born to play defensive end. What’s there to talk about? The man’s a menace. Aaron A. asks via Instagram: How concerned should we be about CB depth heading into the season? Reasonably concerned. Josh Norman just got picked up off the street and missed all of training camp at age 33. It might take him some time to get his sea legs under him and Emmanuel Moseley has a knee issue… after a hamstring issue… after going on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Jason Verrett has dealt with plantar fasciitis and has a harrowing injury history. So, yeah, when you’re looking at two rookies, Dontae Johnson and a non-camp, aging Norman, there’s some cause for concern. That said, Verrett looks ready to play Week 1, and Johnson is coming off the best season of his career. Ambry Thomas underwhelmed and looked lost as a tackler, but he kept the ball underneath and in front of him, while Deommodore Lenoir punches way above his size and impressed, consistently getting his hands on the ball. Given how strong every other position is on the defense, they can manage if one of their starting corners are out. Remember, they’re going to be able to rush the passer with four again this season. Steve B. asks via Instagram: How worried should we be about the right side of the O-line and O-line depth? Few teams ever have great offensive line depth, but the more I’ve looked at the 49ers’ depth, the less concerned I’ve become. Aaron Banks not having played basically at all in camp is worrisome, given that Daniel Brunskill is the starting right guard and also the glue everywhere else, but they kept Tom Compton who has played guard his whole career, and is a reasonable option there. Jake Brendel also improved as camp went on, and seems like a decent center backup, which would keep Brunskill at guard. Jaylon Moore had a solid camp, but his task of backing up both tackles, or perhaps just Trent Williams, is fairly daunting. The biggest concern here is Banks, having played very little, and not having done too much to impress so far. But on the whole, the starting line is solid, and Alex Mack is an upgrade, especially from a mental standpoint. Jeff H. asks via Instagram: Who the heck is returning punts? Brandon Aiyuk is listed as the starting punt returner with Mohamed Sanu as the No. 2. If Jalen Hurd isn’t placed on injured reserve and Travis Benjamin promoted, it’ll be those two, with Sanu possibly fair-catching the ball more often than not, and Aiyuk used whenever the 49ers feel it’s warranted. Eventually, it’s probably Benjamin’s job and Aiyuk in key situations. Cooper J. asks via Instagram: Who will be the number one running back for the 49ers? It’s Mostert’s job if he’s healthy. He’s the best back on this team by far and Sermon will not surpass him this year. Mostert is a legitimate top-10 running back when healthy and that’s a ridiculous bar to pass. Don’t sleep on either of JaMycal Hasty or Elijah Mitchell, though. They’re both diminutive, but they have unbelievable burst and force in their running style, and both will definitely catch some eyes when given opportunities this year. Carlos O. asks via Instagram: How good is this team? What is their record at the end of the year? I’m saving the record prediction and detailed explanation for another piece, but this team will make the playoffs. Jashwin asks via Instagram: Why did you cut Ha-Ha!?! We need safety help!!  Please stop yelling at me. I’m doing the best I can as a general manager with no front office experience. If you must know, there were too many puns being made about his name and it was distracting from film sessions. (I think the 49ers simply preferred Tavon Wilson and felt like they could rely on his understanding of the scheme more than Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The safety group they have right now is solid.) Raul C. asks via Instagram: Do you think if Trey starts, Jimmy will want to be traded? Jimmy knows the deal. He’s not getting a starting gig elsewhere unless there’s an injury. Shanahan won’t just bench him out of the blue, either; we’ll all have a sense of when it’s time to make a switch. The tough part is if that’s Lance just looking outstanding while Garoppolo performs well. More likely, though, it will happen when Garoppolo struggles. Bryce asks via Instagram: Who will be the starting slot receiver? Mohamed Sanu, but Trent Sherfield is likely to be No. 3 in snaps. He had the best camp out of any player and is poised for a legitimate breakout. TJ Y. asks via Instagram: Will we ever have a real threat like Ted Ginn Jr. at returner again? Why is Travis Benjamin on practice squad? Brandon Aiyuk is a hell of a punt returner, and Elijah Mitchell may be similar on kickoffs. Benjamin didn’t deserve a roster spot with the camp he had, simply put. He’s also a vested veteran who was able to be easily cut and re-signed to the practice squad. When Hurd goes on IR, he may get the bump. Evan L. asks via Instagram: Do you think Shanahan will use Sanu for a passing play or two this season? My favorite question of the day. Yes. There will be a predictions piece later this week with a more specific prediction, but yes, I think Sanu throws at least one pass this season. Nick N. asks via Instagram: Jimmy Garoppolo trade value right now? A fifth? Nothing? The market is dry right now. And I’m talking right now. If by this weekend, some team in contention loses its starting quarterback for the season — let’s say, Pittsburgh — it might jump to a second-round pick overnight. That’s just how it works. No one needs him right now, and his salary is a huge impediment, unless the 49ers eat a chunk of it. But the moment someone does, that price could go from zero to a second (depending on the level of desperation and competitiveness of that team), well, real quick.