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49ers Mailbag: Is Shanahan really on the hot seat?

© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Well, this has not quite gone according to script for the 49ers. They’ve dropped three games in a row, the last two of which have been against division opponents. What’s going wrong? Is Kyle Shanahan on the hot seat? These are some of the many questions in this week’s mailbag.

Danny E. asks via Twitter: Jake, first time, long time. You’re starting a team from scratch, how many tight ends would you take over Kittle? I’ll hang up and listen

In terms of across-the-board ability, I’d take Kittle over any tight end in the NFL. I’m not sure anyone is a better blocker, and he’s at least a top-five receiver at the position.

But just talking about ability is an unrealistic way to approach this. Kittle has been oft-injured the last few seasons because he’s so valuable as a blocker and the 49ers employ him in so many different blocking situations. They also throw him screens where he’s left exposed if — and when — receivers miss their blocks. 

He also loves contact, and has talked many times about how he’s encouraged to run through people. It’s an incredible gladiator mentality, but it means the war of attrition that he’s fighting is a monumentally tougher one than the one for the Travis Kelces and Darren Wallers of the world. Those two are used in straight receiving situations more than Kittle is.

Kittle also has a (deservedly) league-leading contract at the position. If we can ignore contracts entirely, then I’d take Kelce — who has missed two games since 2015 — first, followed by Kittle, Waller, then Kyle Pitts.

If I’m starting a team from scratch and considering the cap, which seems like the logical way to approach this question, I’d go with Darren Waller first. He’s 29, making $6.38 million this year, and $6.75 million in each of the next two seasons. Kittle raved about what he learned from Waller as a receiver at their TE University summit over the summer, and Waller’s a better blocker than he’s traditionally given credit for. The age (29) and cost advantage puts him over the next guy in this list.

After Waller, I’d take Kelce. His contract is more expensive, but there is no one better in the league at sitting down in open spots in zone coverage, and despite the recognition of what he is as a receiving target, he still gets his numbers regularly. Despite his contract having $58.6 million left over the next four years, he doesn’t have too much guaranteed money after next season, when he’ll make $8.9 million.

Following Kelce, I’ll take Kyle Pitts given that he’s 21, and just breaking in the tread on his proverbial tires. Despite his contract being sizable for a rookie, it’s still way more manageable than Kittle’s, and he doesn’t have anywhere near the mileage Kittle has. The Falcons are terrible, but that’s not his fault. He’s got the goods, and like Waller, is no slouch as a blocker. You can afford to add another mid-level veteran tight end next to him while still being cheaper than Kittle alone.

I’d take Kittle fourth. That probably won’t sit well with some 49ers fans, but again, this is a factor of availability and contract status. In 2022, Kittle has a $16.1 million cap hit. That’s about $10 million more than Waller, about $7 million more than Kelce, and $8.5 million more than Pitts. Kittle’s also got around $30 million in fully guaranteed money remaining, which is significantly more than Kelce.

Without that cap consideration, and Kittle’s injury issues over the last two seasons, he’d be first. But he basically plays a different position from all three of the guys above, who are closer to being receivers than than in-line tight ends. Kittle plays both. Hell, he even takes one-on-one pass sets against elite defensive ends and wins.

The 49ers, though, have done him few favors with their tight end depth in Ross Dwelley (who is a decent receiving tight end, and not much else) and Charlie Woerner (who has some potential as a blocker, but is still unproven). Both made some egregious mistakes that cost the 49ers crucial conversions and yardage against Arizona.

There’s too much on Kittle’s shoulders, and if I were building a team, I’d bring in more depth at that position to complement him and ease his burden, but that also means I’m spending more at that position, when he’s by far the most costly of the four tight ends mentioned. For those reasons, he’s my fourth pick.

Xavier D. asks via Twitter: Will the 49ers regret not having a first round pick next year?

Not if Lance pans out and they’re a playoff team with him this and/or next year. If this team is competing for the playoffs with him as the starter, not much else matters. Now, if he doesn’t pan out, and it turns out the front office made a career-defining miscalculation, well, yeah, I’d assume they’d have some serious regrets. But there likely won’t be a verdict by the time the draft rolls around.

Anthony D. asks via Twitter: 1. Any chance the 49ers trade a mid round (let’s say 6th round) for Marlon Mack? 2. What are the chances Lynch fixes the back end of the defense and trade for a starting caliber CB and not continue bringing in retreads? 3. Any chance the 49ers play spoiler and trade for another big bodied receiver like OBJ?

  1. They should be getting JaMycal Hasty back imminently and probably wouldn’t trade for a running back regardless.
  2. I think the 49ers would have to win their next two games to make a competitive cornerback upgrade and even then I doubt they would, given how little they’ve shown to value that position. 
  3. I would say a trade for a corner — which, again, seems unlikely — is more likely/pressing than a wide receiver, so I don’t suspect adding someone like Odell Beckham Jr., who has more guaranteed money left than Garoppolo, is likely. You’d rather have depth at quarterback than wide receiver, and keeping quarterback depth has been the bedrock of this front office’s approach this year.

Steve A. asks via Facebook: Why don’t we ever have a punt returner that can flip the field? Fair catch or a 15 yard gain is the status quo?

Aiyuk was a fantastic returner in college and he’s the guy they use when they need a decent punt return. They seem to be using Mohamed Sanu when it’s a punt likely to be inside the 10 and the goal is to either call a fair catch or let it go, which might be conservative, but is probably also designed to protect Aiyuk.

Aiyuk has had 10 returns for 81 yards, with a long of 14 yards, and is rarely seeing much space when he catches the ball. I wouldn’t say he’s done poorly by any stretch, but given their struggles elsewhere, I agree they could use a spark from the special teams unit.

Ted Ginn Jr., back in 2011, was the last player to return a punt for a touchdown for the 49ers (he also returned a kick for a touchdown that same season, which Richie James Jr. did most recently in 2018). Aiyuk was one of the best returners in college; I’d give him a chance there. 

That said, Jaydon Mickens just got released from the Buccaneers, and looked explosive as a returner. The Texans also cut former Pro Bowl return specialist Andre Roberts. It might not be a terrible idea to give one of them a shot and cut Travis Benjamin, though given the 15 snaps Benjamin had on offense two weeks ago, that seems doubtful.

James C. asks via Facebook: Why do we always seem to pay good money for players that end up on the IR or out for the season?

It really is baffling how consistently the 49ers are dealt significant injuries, though they have quite a few injury-prone players. Kittle, as mentioned above, deals with a lot of wear and tear. Garoppolo has suffered injuries for most of his career as a starter.

The running back injuries were flukey — especially Jeff Wilson Jr. tearing his meniscus by standing up — but Raheem Mostert had some knee issues in the past. Jason Verrett had one of the most brutal, infamous injury histories of all-time before making his comeback.

At the end of the day, football is a brutal sport, and a lot of the time, the 49ers are just dealing with bad luck, like when their kicker pulled up lame before the start of the Seahawks game. They’ve also bet quite a bit on some injury-prone players.

So far, though, this hasn’t been anywhere near the devastation we witnessed last year. And for those asking, they changed their performance staff before the 2019 season, and there have been myriad changes in that respect throughout the last decade across multiple regimes.

Carlos M. asks via Facebook: Why do we go on for it on every fourth down, our defense has been solid?

The team has actually been extremely conservative in that respect, and the aggressiveness was commendable. Arizona has one of the best offenses in the league, and expecting the defense to hold up that long was an unreasonable expectation.

The decisions to go for it on fourth down were all sound in my opinion, and supported strongly by analytics, as explained here. But a few things went wrong. There was some questionable play-calling, a batted ball at the line of scrimmage, and the most damning of all: the fourth-and-one Juszczyk sneak. 

That play was an error in which Lance and Eljiah Mitchell were supposed to run a speed option with Trent Williams as a lead blocker. Shanahan said after the game the 49ers didn’t get the look they wanted, and intimated that a mistake was made. That’s the bigger criticism here; that players aren’t understanding or executing play calls.

George L. asks via Facebook: Since the 49ers are done? What is the biggest needs in the draft?

It’s Week 6, so they’re not done, especially not with one of the easiest remaining schedules (Colts, Bears, Jaguars, Falcons, Texans, and Bengals and Titans not looking like premium opponents). 

But here’s a way-too-early draft needs:

Cornerback – This is a priority for obvious reasons. Ambry Thomas is not a viable NFL player at the moment. Maybe it just takes him a year, but it’s not looking promising. Either way, they’re long overdue for real, proactive investment at this position.

Center – Why the 49ers opted to go with Aaron Banks over Creed Humphrey — who could have played at guard before moving back to center — or another center, I’m not quite sure. Shanahan’s extremely picky about his centers, and Alex Mack, who’s 35, looks like his legs are, understandably, weary. They need a long-term replacement.

Tight end – Take the burden off Kittle. Shanahan tried to create a two-tight end system with Kittle and Jordan Reed last year, but they never got on the field at the same time. An early-round investment at tight end would be a massive benefit at that position, both by taking some weight off Kittle’s shoulders, and helping the run game. The Ravens have stacked their tight end room over the last few years, and it’s been a huge benefit to Lamar Jackson; Lance could benefit similarly.

Defensive end – Keep stacking depth here. Samson Ebukam does not look like an effective signing, and you can always get a deeper pass rush rotation.

Wide receiver – The name of the game is speed, and the 49ers could afford to get younger, and much quicker here. Rondale Moore is a prime example of this, but this team has always struggled with receiving depth.

Michael R. asks via Facebook: What’s the status on Greenlaw? Available to come off IR for this upcoming week?

Greenlaw has an “outside chance” to return this week, but didn’t practice Monday, and Shanahan said last week it’s likelier that he’s back one-to-two weeks after the Colts game.

J.H. asks via Instagram: When is Kittle expected back?

The 49ers hope he’s back for the November 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals. There aren’t any other recent updates.

Miggz asks via Instagram: What is the missing piece for a playoff run?

Zach Ertz… wait.

Joe F. asks via Instagram: If the 49ers finish 8-9 or worse, or miss the playoffs, will Shanahan be on the hot seat for 2022?

This, or some variation of it, has been the most persistent question of the week, but this was the most reasonable version of this question.

Shanahan is not currently on the hot seat. Jed York is the man who has the power to fire him and/or John Lynch, and he’s publicly expressed his adoration for that pair, most prominently with this iconic and objectively funny photo.

But, if the 49ers flame out this season, especially if they fail to get Lance meaningful reps, there will be some damning questions to answer. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if Lynch is the odd one out, and he has a fairly easy route back to broadcasting if he wants it. Adam Peters, the vice president of player personnel for the 49ers, would be an easy promotion from within.

If this team struggles this year, Shanahan could be on the hot seat next year. But remember, he just got a six-year contract extension and was one bad Jimmy Garoppolo miss away from winning a Super Bowl. There’s some goodwill there with York, which will likely burn away much slower than it’s burning away with some fans. If this season is a failure, though, and next year is too, and — this is the big one — Lance doesn’t show that he can be the guy, next season could be Shanahan’s last. But it’s still way too early for all of that.

Will M. asks via Instagram: Why do we suck?

Great question, genuinely. On paper, it doesn’t really make sense for this team to be 2-3. What it comes down to — and I’m digging much deeper later this week — is largely a lack of execution (failing to score on key opportunities, penalties, drops, bad quarterback reads, mental mistakes).

Most of that seems to come back to poor coaching and play calling from Kyle Shanahan and the fact that because Garoppolo and Lance’s skillset are so unlike one another, and seem to thrive in different ways, the surrounding offensive players seem caught out and disjointed trying to run an offense that doesn’t truly fit either quarterback.

But all three losses have been close, and it doesn’t seem viable for the 49ers to be so mistake-ridden in key situations for the long haul. So, while they have been decidedly uninspiring results, there should be a regression to the mean, where some of these games result in wins, especially with a favorable, fourth-place schedule. Now, that’s not saying they’re still likely to be a playoff team, but it doesn’t seem viable for this sloppiness to remain the norm… right?

Lance P. asks via Instagram: If the Niners miss the playoffs, should Shanahan be fired?

No. But he should be fired next season if he sticks with Garoppolo for any extended stretch for the remainder of this year, Lance struggles next season, and they don’t make the playoffs then.

Erika Z. asks via Instagram: What is the plan for Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo?

It looks like Garoppolo is still the starter and Lance is the backup, and that’s likely strengthened by Lance having missed Monday’s practice and Garoppolo returning. Unless Garoppolo plays exceedingly well against Indianapolis (regardless of the result), Shanahan should let Lance take over when he’s healthy again. He has not indicated that he’s going to do that, but it doesn’t make sense to play Garoppolo if the 49ers are not winning with him. It already doesn’t make much sense.

Javy M. asks via Instagram: When will Jeff Wilson Jr. come back?

Shanahan’s last update was that Wilson will return some time in late November.

Riley G. asks via Instagram: Are we going to score more than 10 points next week?

Yes.

Ezra B. asks via Instagram: What names do we trade for at the deadline?

The 49ers really need to show something in the next two weeks to be willing to part with their already threadbare draft capital. So far, there’s not been any indication it’s worth betting on this team as a contender, but if they trade for anything, it should be a corner.

Nicolet J. asks via Instagram: When will the O-line step up to protect our QBs?

The offensive line has actually done fairly well in pass protection this season. But they looked out of sorts when Lance took over. That seems a problem created by Shanahan, borne out of a lack of reps for Lance with the first team.

Lance currently has the longest time to throw in the NFL at 3.38 seconds. That’s last… out of 36 quarterbacks (min. 20 percent of league-leading 281 dropbacks).

That’s a very long time to ask an offensive line to hold up, especially when it’s used to blocking for Jimmy Garoppolo, whose average time to throw is 2.51 seconds, which is sixth-quickest in the NFL.

Even Drew Brees and Taysom Hill didn’t have that much of a gap. Drew Brees had a 2.47-second time to throw compared to Hill’s 3.00-second time to throw average last season. That’s a sizable 0.53-second gap compared to the chasmic 0.87-second gap from Garoppolo to Lance.

The small sample size isn’t significant because we’re talking about what the offensive line has experienced over these last two weeks. What they’ve experienced is going from a fuel-efficient, automatic sedan to a Hellcat with a stick-shift.

And this isn’t to say that a long time to throw is an innately positive or negative thing, and scrambling quarterbacks will always have a longer average. But it does indicate that the offensive line is being asked to hold up much longer in pass protection for Lance than for Garoppolo.

That’s a difficult adjustment which can only be eased by reps, both so Lance can get the ball out quicker, and so the offensive line can get used to longer pass sets and Lance’s tendencies without drawing flags.

Tim L. asks via Instagram: Realistic expectations and final record comes season’s end?

It’s so difficult to assess this team without knowing what Shanahan’s plan is at quarterback. In order to actually re-establish themselves as a viable playoff contender, they need to win three of their next four, winning one of the two games against the Cardinals and Rams and beating both the Colts and Bears. 

Given that there are five games against the Colts, Bears, Jaguars, Falcons and Texans, four division games, and three toss-up opponents (who look imposing or pathetic depending on the game) in the Vikings, Bengals and Titans, I’ll say this team should finish 9-8. 

Shane B. asks via Instagram: Will they add any corner depth?

They should, and will likely sign and cut a few more corners before the season is over, but they haven’t shown a proclivity to upgrade their corner position. They were interested in Richard Sherman, but seemingly waited too long and were then usurped by the Buccaneers, who gave him a better offer.

 

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