Football is here. We’ve made it. Now, let’s talk about how we expect the season to play out.
What an offseason it was for the 49ers. There wasn’t a quarterback available that wasn’t linked to the team. Once the dust settled, Jimmy Garoppolo remained the starting quarterback while Trey Lance awaits his turn.
For as much focus on the quarterback position as there was, the Niners went through several changes on both sides of the ball. Alex Mack, 35, will take some of the pressure off the quarterbacks. While age may be a concern, there wasn’t a better fit for Mack outside of Shanahan’s scheme.
With Kendrick Bourne going to the east coast, all eyes turned to Jalen Hurd to potentially take his spot. Unfortunately, Hurd may be on the injured reserve by the time the 49ers kick off Week 1. Veteran Mohamed Sanu figures to replace some of Bourne’s workload, but Trent Sherfield feels like the most likely candidate to be the team’s third-leading wide receiver — just as we all suspected when he signed in March.
There’s a new defensive coordinator in town. DeMeco Ryans has a speed unlike any other defense in the NFL to work with. He also has a defensive line with stars at the top, and they can go ten guys deep.
Nick Bosa and Dee Ford return to a defensive line that will have Javon Kinlaw headed into Year 2, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, and four defensive tackles who have an argument to start for most teams in the NFL.
Let’s walk through some of the biggest talking points heading into the season and make some predictions.
What will we see from the quarterbacks?
It’s impossible to discuss the Niners without talking about who is under center. Will we see a different version of Jimmy G? Do we need to? Garoppolo will turn 30 in November. In every aspect of life, when you do something for this many years, you are who you are.
Garoppolo will be surrounded by one of the best supporting casts in the NFL if we include the defense. He doesn’t have to morph into Joe Montana. He also can’t have those “oh no, we’re back in the 2000s post-Jeff Garcia” moments Garoppolo’s prone to, either.
The last two times Kyle Shanahan’s starting quarterback remained healthy through the season, his team went to the Super Bowl. Jimmy needs to play. I don’t expect him to be spectacular, but he doesn’t have to be. If Garoppolo is a touch more aggressive down the field while continuing to take care of the football, the 49ers will win a bunch of games this year.
So, where does the rookie fit into all of this? It’s impossible to know, and that’s an advantage for San Francisco. Early on, I expect to see Trey Lance in the red zone while he gets a series or two a game. This will be Jimmy’s show until either Lance develops and gives the coaching staff confidence or Garoppolo gives the team a reason to play the rookie.
As much as Lance oozes talent, you have to know the plays. That starts with spitting out the correct verbiage with confidence to knowing the checks at the line of scrimmage to knowing where to go with the football, and delivering an accurate pass.
Instead of focusing on how much Lance plays, keep an eye on his development. If we see progress, he’ll be one step closer to getting the keys to a luxury car.
Lance starting at some point this season feels inevitable. For as much talk about “no rookie has ever won a Super Bowl,” it ignores the teams that surround those rookies. I dare you to find a rookie QB who had a roster with this much talent and these coaches.
My answer to the poll question is “no,” despite the 49ers’ last-place schedule. The Lance we saw in August won’t be the Lance we see three months from now. The more he plays, the more Shanahan realizes he gives the team the best chance to win.
I have Jimmy G completing 68% of his passes with a yard per attempt of 7.5, but the turnovers and miscues won’t stop, which leads us to Lance.
Shanahan will lean on a quarterback with more variance. Lance will complete closer to 64-65%, but he’s closer to nine yards per attempt and, by doing so, opens up running lanes for the backs and allows Brandon Aiyuk to morph into a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Lance’s TD/INT ratio comes in close to 2/1, as I have project 18 touchdowns to 8 interceptions, which just under 500 yards rushing on the ground with another six scores via Lance’s legs.
Lance’s success in the red zone will make this an easier transition than some may imagine.
Biggest strength on offense
The team speed on the 49ers resembles more of a track team than anything. Raheem Mostert has proven to be the fastest player in the NFL with the ball in his hands. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk both play like 4.3 guys. Trent Sherfield proved during the preseason that he’s an explosive play waiting to happen, and George Kittle can outrun most defenders trying to cover him.
In addition, the offensive line is more athletic than they’ve ever been, which helps them against the blitz and get to their spots in the run game. The team speed will be on full display in Week 1. Pre-snap motion gets defenses out of whack, and all it takes is one false step for a player like Mostert to be off to the races.
The line should finish top-10, and the skill players are the best they’ve been under Shanahan. I’m bullish on the 49ers’ offense and would go as far as to say that they’ll be on par or better than the defense this year. It may take a month or so to figure everything out, but this unit is the real deal and will be the reason this team wins in the playoffs.
Will injuries cost the team again?
When you look up and down the depth chart, the starters and even most of the backups give you confidence. It’s once a guy goes down is when you begin to worry. We have a history that suggests either Aiyuk or Deebo may miss time. So that means Sherfield and Sanu are now your starters. Same with Kittle, or, big gulp, someone on the offensive line goes down.
The same is the case with the defense. While we talk about how deep the line is, they’re one injury away from everyone being bumped up a spot. Your role players are role players for a reason.
You can say this with most teams, but we’re already seeing how an injury at cornerback forces the Niners to go out and sign free agents off their couch. From running back to the defensive line, I’d expect the playing time to be low across the board to ensure the team is healthy into the second half of the season.
Instead of going game by game, I’ll pick every game and place them into four categories: wins, losses, toss-up wins, and toss-up losses. The latter two are self-explanatory, as I wouldn’t be shocked by either outcome.
Wins: Lions, Eagles, Cardinals, Colts, Bears, Cardinals, Jaguars, Falcons, Texans, Bengals
Losses: Rams, Vikings, Seahawks,
Toss-up wins: Seahawks, Rams,
Toss-up losses: Packers, Titans
I’m going 12-5 based on everything I’ve seen. Of course, you’re going to laugh at losing to the Vikings, but the NFL is funny like that. Fresh off a victory over the Rams in primetime and a trip to the east coast against the Jags, the Niners get caught looking ahead to their matchup against Seattle and forget to take care of Minnesota.
The Packers are better than we think. This isn’t the same team you’re used to seeing the 49ers beat up on in recent memory. That’ll be the first test and a much-needed wake-up call for San Francisco as they’ll go on to reel off several wins in a row after.
The Titans’ loss comes on a short week late in the year, while the other two are divisional losses on the road.
Five bold predictions
- Fred Warner is higher in the Defensive Player of the Year voting than Nick Bosa
- Brandon Aiyuk has more receiving yards than Justin Jefferson from the Vikings
- Dee Ford plays a full season and leads the team in sacks
- Trey Sermon scores double-digit touchdowns
- The 49ers end up trading for a cornerback in the middle of the season
What happens in the playoffs
I thought ESPN’s simulation for the 49ers was spot on. I think they earn the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, win in the first round, and lose in the Divisional playoff round to either Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.
There’s so much to like on this roster. I have a hard time poking holes and finding reasons for this team to lose. When that’s the case, you’re usually going to play into January. This season should be a fun ride full of emotional rollercoasters, surprises, and enjoyable football.