Photo Credit: Chris Mezzavilla
In less than 24 hours, the 49ers’ season begins, and there are few seasons in recent memory that come with more anticipation. Kyle Shanahan built a team which is undeniably ready to win now, and then broke the draft bank to bring in his quarterback of the future in Trey Lance. The clear question is, how does Shanahan manage that situation, and when will Lance be ready?
Below are some various predictions and context for the 49ers season that might be helpful, deranged or both.
A brief season overview
Offensively, you have as much skill as you’ve probably ever had, and for all the concern about depth in the wide receiver room, it actually seems like the 49ers might be alright there, assuming Trent Sherfield still looks like the player he was for the entirety of training camp, and Mohamed Sanu — and maybe even Jauan Jennings — can provide some value in the slot.
George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel are coming off mostly full training camps, with Aiyuk (hamstring) the only one to be sidelined for any stretch, and never more than a few days.
Meanwhile, the running back room has never been deeper. Unlike in past seasons, when Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon were liabilities — not to lose the ball, but to fail to do anything productive with it — every single back the 49ers have rostered is explosive, and there’s even a possibility that Jeff Wilson Jr. could return later in the year.
With that stable of runners in the backfield, multiple receivers who can take direct handoffs or shovel handoffs, Kyle Juszczyk carving out angles and opening gaps, and Samuel who can operate as a quasi running back, this team was already going to be elite in the rushing department.
You add Trey Lance to the mix, and this potentially becomes the best rushing offense in the NFL, given the brutal rash of injuries the Ravens have sustained.
The depth behind Kittle, in a three-man room, is actually alright, but Ross Dwelley is a fantastic receiver and dismal blocker. Charlie Woerner is much improved in both respects, but he actually lost weight this offseason and isn’t all that well-positioned to be an in-line blocker, which could present itself as an issue given how much this team will run the ball. He’s improved significantly as a blocker in space, so Shanahan will likely be cognizant of that.
The loss of MyCole Pruitt was an expensive one and discernibly something only I’m concerned about, but he was brought in as a veteran blocker who can operate in line, just like Levine Toilolo did in 2019. At some point, I suspect this team will need to find another tight end who can run block consistently, if only to stash on the practice squad, given the likelihood of injuries at that position, unless Woerner turns a corner.
It’s going to take some time for Lance, and anyone pretending like they know exactly when he’ll start is lying. It could be by Week 7, by Week 11 (my prediction below), or not at all this season. If Garoppolo is stellar and Lance still looks like a 21-year-old who missed a year of football and only has one year of college football in the Missouri Valley Conference under his belt by season’s end, well, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Garoppolo to remain the starter.
It would be a major disappointment and concerning given the 49ers’ investment in Lance, but it’s not out of the question. He’s absolutely going to contribute in significant ways this season, and while I don’t expect him to be used in as rapid-fire a fashion as when the 49ers shifted him and Garoppolo out of the lineup against the Raiders, I do think he’ll play significant reps and make a massive impact on this run game before he gets the starting job.
For Lance, it’s a question of, when does he look comfortable pre-snap and identifying what defenses may be trying to do to him? Can he execute the most straightforward plays on time, and without launching a missile at his receivers on short patterns? There are nuances that must be amended, and that’s going to take some time; the question is just how much.
As far as the offensive line, well, few teams ever have tremendous depth. But the starting unit of Williams-Tomlinson-Mack-Brunskill-McGlinchey? That should be a top-10 group in the league, assuming McGlinchey stacks the progress he made this offseason and stays confident in pass protection. Brunskill is a key piece here given that he’s also the depth/glue guy at every other position. You would have liked to see much more out of Aaron Banks, who was injured for most of camp, and looked shaky at the very start.
But they’ve stacked depth at center with Jake Brendel, who had a rough start to camp but came on strong down the stretch, added Tom Compton, I suppose, to be McGlinchey’s backup at right tackle (where Compton did not look impressive) and maybe at right guard until Banks gets up to speed. Then there’s Jaylon Moore, who might well be the left side backup on this offensive line, and did have a solid camp. It’s not eye-popping depth, but that doesn’t often happen on the offensive line. There’s a clear plan for injuries, and that’s being as proactive as you could hope.
This could be the best defense in the NFL. Barring cataclysmic injuries, I believe it will be. The defensive line is stacked at every spot and will be able to get home to the quarterback with four pass rushers for the first time since the start of 2020.
Fred Warner was the best linebacker in the NFL last season and the way DeMeco Ryans has him consistently flash in the A-gaps makes him a menace as a potential blitzer who must be accounted for.
When you used to play Madden and see the huge coverage bubbles for defensive players, that’s basically Warner’s effect in real life; his main impact is basically operating as a no-fly zone. Wherever he is, there’s that imaginary bubble around him, where something like a 15-by-15-yard space is just closed off for offenses. You can’t challenge him there, and if you do sneak one in on Warner, he tends to make you pay the next time you try him.
And when Dre Greenlaw is the *other* linebacker, who is a borderline Pro Bowler, and who I suspect will be rewarded with a handful of sacks this season thanks to the attention Warner is paid, offenses have a major problem going over the middle of the field.
Their depth at linebacker, with Azeez Al-Shaair, the safety-turned-linebacker Marcell Harris, and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, is a young, very fast group. Linebacker is all about speed now, and the 49ers have stacked that.
The secondary may be the only real point of concern, but Josh Norman may be a massive boon if he gets into game shape quickly and looks serviceable. Emmanuel Moseley is going to miss the first game with a knee injury, and the 49ers can’t seem to get through a season with fully healthy corners. Can Ambry Thomas or Deommodore Lenoir become reliable? Lenoir sure as hell showed out this preseason, while Thomas underwhelmed and looked especially tentative at the moment of contact.
If the pass rush is as dominant as it should be, and Verrett is healthy, though, you’d have just one weak spot on this entire defense. That’s manageable, and it might not actually be that weak depending on how Norman and the rookies look.
With Jaquiski Tartt back starting at strong safety, this safety group is seriously impressive. Ward and Tartt are back together, Tavon Wilson looked pretty reliable in both roles before being injured and Talonoa Hufanga is absolutely electric; he’s going to force some turnovers this season, whether it’s on defense or special teams.
Coaching and special teams
Kyle Shanahan and his longtime friend, and newly-promoted offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel finally have a modern quarterback, and will get to live out the best parts of the RGIII experiment without it being forced upon them. That’s worth being excited about.
DeMeco Ryans isn’t changing the scheme. We’ll have to see how he adapts in game situations, like when Robert Saleh made a crucial adjustment against the Rams in 2019 after they ran the ball for a touchdown on a seven-play, rush only drive. But with as talented a defense as he has, the recent game and coaching experience he has, and his likely desire to blitz or at least show blitz more from his linebackers, there are going to be a few more creative wrinkles from the defense this season.
Travis Benjamin may eventually become the team’s go-to punt returner after Week 1, but Brandon Aiyuk will be used in preferred looks, and Mohamed Sanu will be the designated fair-catcher. Elijah Mitchell will impress as a kickoff returner, and Mitch Wishnowsky suddenly becomes a top-10 punter after being below average thus far. He had a stellar preseason.
1. The 49ers will win the Super Bowl
Some context: I am not a positive person. Having an optimistic view for a season is uncomfortable for me, given that I was raised on the dysfunction of the Mets, Jets and Knicks. But the 49ers are a damn good team with damn good coaching, and there is a very short list of teams which have both.
Above is my list of how the season plays out. Lance doesn’t take over until the second half, but when he does, the offense becomes a bit more Ravens-ey, and with a couple of layup games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati, he gets a full chance to iron out some of the more pressing kinks in his game with real game action.
The only team I see as viable contenders with them in the conference are the Buccaneers and Rams. Green Bay and Arizona have spoiler potential, but at that point in the year, they only beat the 49ers if they’re the healthier team. The running game with Trey Lance will be devastatingly dominant.
Then, it’s a matter of which of the Bills or Chiefs make the Super Bowl. I think the 49ers are capable of beating either of those teams, but it’s a coin flip once you get there. They almost did it two years ago without a dual threat quarterback. Yes, Lance is an extremely inexperienced rookie who I don’t even think is ready to start right now. But I believe he’ll get there down the stretch of this season, and the man can throw a deep ball to stretch defenses in ways they’re unaccustomed to from the 49ers.
2. The 49ers will set a franchise rushing record, breaking their previous record of 2,544 yards in 1998
Not sure if this one needs too much explaining. Raheem Mostert is a top-10 back in the NFL when healthy. The running back room is as deep and young as it’s ever been. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle all have rushing potential. Trey Lance exists. Oh, and there’s a 17th game now. The Ravens have rushed for more than 3,000 yards two years straight, and I think the 49ers get to somewhere in the 2,800-yard territory (that’s 164-plus yards per game).
3. George Kittle will finally crack five receiving touchdowns, catching seven (and rushing for one)
The limited touchdown thing for Kittle has been exceedingly odd. He’s also been targeted by defenses as a red zone threat, limiting his opportunities. It feels overdue for him to crack the five-touchdown mark, which he’s inexplicably never exceeded. He’ll rush for his first one, too.
4. Trey Sermon will have 10-plus touchdowns, at least one of which will be receiving
This is a fairly high number for a rookie, but I suspect the 49ers will try to exploit his size, vision and receiving skillset in the red zone, and given how much this team should run the ball, that should result in him scoring fairly often.
5. Jimmie Ward, who has no interceptions since 2016, will have two this season
This is as inexplicable as Kittle’s five-touchdown cap. Ward is in and around the ball constantly, and part of the reason he doesn’t get the respect he deserves is because assessing safety play requires watching film around the league. That can make it tough without the stats to back it up to get widespread credit. Ward’s finally going to break that skid and have two this year.
6. Javon Kinlaw will play 11 games, have fewer sacks than Dre Greenlaw, who will have more sacks than Fred Warner
This is about Kinlaw potentially missing a few games at the start of this year, and the 49ers probably desiring to make sure he’s ready for the playoffs. It’s also about the fact that he’s often dealing with double teams when he’s playing and that I suspect a lot of linebacker blitzes are coming for this team. The reason Greenlaw gets more sacks than both Kinlaw and Warner is because offenses key in more on Warner — with DeMeco Ryans knowing this — and Greenlaw ends up with the preferred look and clearer lane to the passer.
7. Trey Lance will start for the 49ers for the first time in Week 11
He’ll take over for Jimmy Garoppolo in a borderline disastrous performance against the Rams in Week 10. He’ll make a positive impact, but fumble himself and won’t do enough to complete the comeback. With Jacksonville next, Shanahan says it’s time to let Lance get his time in the sun.
8. The 49ers will come second in sacks
I’ll say Pittsburgh comes in first here. The inconsistent health of Javon Kinlaw hurts them a bit. The 49ers finish with 57 sacks, Pittsburgh with 58.
9. Jalen Hurd plays 3 games
He goes on injured reserve for the start of the season, makes his debut with Lance in Jacksonville, gets a few eye-catching snaps, and then has a would-be breakout game against the Vikings the following week before the knee flares up again. He’s inactive for Seattle and Cincinnati, and plays a few snaps before having to come out against the Falcons. It’s not a prediction I take pleasure in, but it’s hard to expect him to get or stay healthy at this point.
10. Aaron Banks doesn’t win the starting job at right guard
Daniel Brunskill impresses and stays healthy. Banks still has to learn a lot, and might end up starting a game or two depending on injuries, but doesn’t outright win the job.
11. Laken Tomlinson makes the Pro Bowl
Tomlinson is severely underrated and coming off a very impressive 2020 campaign in which there weren’t many to be had, and he was one of the lone players to remain healthy. He’s going to bully his way through his Detroit homecoming and their 3-4 scheme.
12. Elijah Mitchell will return a kickoff for a touchdown
He’s fast. Fast guys with vision and a wee bit of patience, plus good blocking can pull this off. That’s about all there is to say.
13. Marcell Harris will be ejected from at least one game, but he’ll also force a fumble on a punt return as a gunner
Harris is a reckless tackler, and I suspect he gets penalized for it and tossed from a game this season. But that recklessness is also what makes him so dynamic, and such an exciting special teams player. He’s going to pop out a punt from someone who doesn’t see him coming on a crunching hit.
14. Mohamed Sanu will throw at least two passes, including a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl
Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower made it a point to credit Sanu for his varied skillset as a receiver, punt returner, passer, and even punter, apparently. Sanu is 7-for-8 in his career with four touchdowns and with each completion going for a first down. Kyle Shanahan’s going to break that out once in the regular season, then keep it in his back pocket until the Super Bowl, where he’ll throw a touchdown to Lance.
— Rutgers Football (@RFootball) November 26, 2017
15. Ambry Thomas won’t play a defensive snap
This is as much about Thomas having an underwhelming camp as it is about Deommodore Lenoir standing out, Josh Norman being around, and Dontae Johnson coming off the best season of his career. Thomas might be last in the pecking order here, which sounds absurd for a third-round pick. His coverage in deep passing situations actually looks solid, but he gives up a lot of free space underneath and on in-cutting routes, and doesn’t look confident as a tackler.
Bonus prediction: Five teams will be capable of making the Super Bowl/here’s my tier list
Imagine Washington in the playoff fringe category. They are unlisted because their image was, uh, their old team logo.
The Ravens get knocked because of their rash of injuries. I’m in on Justin Herbert without Anthony Lynn holding him back. Kliff Kingsbury is the worst coach in the NFC West, but Kyler Murray makes a leap this year, and given their talent, the Cardinals are better than the Seahawks, who finish last in the West with an 11-6 record. Maybe I’m being too harsh on Philadelphia, but I have very little faith in Nick Sirianni. I don’t really care to explain much more than that, other than that the teams in the yellow category, aside from the Bears, who will be mostly bad, have the widest range of possibilities.