Overview: The San Francisco 49ers were the ''trendy" pick among many to win the NFC West in 2018. Quarterback Jimmy ''Jimmy G:" Garoppolo, Tom Brady's former backup in New England, was hyped as the second coming of Joe Montana after a half-a-dozen stellar, albeit mostly meaningless, starts at the end of 2017. Many ''experts" considered Kyle Shanahan the equal or superior of the Rams' Sean McVay in terms of being an offensive mastermind. After all, Shanahan had once been McVay's boss when both were members of the Washington Redskins' coaching staff.
Throw in a defense loaded with former high draft choices, and what could go wrong?
It turns out that a whole lot could go wrong as it did.
So are the Forty-Niners contenders in 2019? Not for the division title, in my opinion. 8-8 or 9-7 and fringe contention for a wild-card spot in the playoffs is possible, but a lot would have to go right.
Offense: In late 2018 season, several NFL analyst compared as well as expected, Garoppolo to be the second coming of the legendary Joe Montana. Of course, Jimmy G has talent, but to have played against mostly meaningless games against teams with sub-par records does not necessarily give him that title. A little suspicious of "flavor of the month" declarations of a guy who has played a half-a-dozen games mostly. Keep in mind also that the Patriots are not known for trading future Hall-of-Fame players for second-round draft picks. So far in the 2019 season, he has been pretty bad after missing most of 2018 with an injury. He was somewhat better in San Francisco's third preseason game but still hasn't been the Jimmy G of 2017.
So who is the real Jimmy G?
He's probably not as bad as he has seemed this preseason or as good as he appeared in late 2017. And unless he is who the Niners thought he was when they signed him to a fat contract before last season, they probably don't have a breakout season in 2019. Let's not forget too that the NFL is very good at adjusting to what quarterbacks do well and what they don't. Remember when everybody thought RGIII was a future Hall of Famer?
The Niners are still hoping Jerick McKinnon can be '"the guy" at running back, despite the fact he has never done that at the pro level. San Francisco got him from the Minnesota Vikings before last season, only to have him get injured. He never rushed for more than 571 yards with the Vikings, but maybe Shanahan knows something that nobody else does. The Niners had also added Tevin Coleman, who flourished in Atlanta when Shanahan was the team's offensive coordinator. Matt Breida played well last year in McKinnon's absence before getting injured as well.
The talented 49ers backfield concerns of injuries amongst the backs need to be of interest. If McKinnon can't seem to emerge as the player they anticipated, the team probably will be no better than the third-best group of running backs in the division.
The 49ers arguably has the best tight end in football, who set a record for tight-ends with 1,377 receiving yards. The problem for San Francisco last season was an underwhelming group of wide receivers, and now Pierre Garcon is gone from that group. Wide-receiver Dante Pettis is expected to become a headliner, as well as the burner Marquis Goodwin, despite who was limited last season. The Niners selected Deebo Samuels from Clemson in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He brings a physical style that could complement Pettis and Goodwin. But overall this looks like a no better than average group, aside from Kittle.
Upfront the 49ers have one of the better tackle combos in league with Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey. There are some questions inside, where center Weston Richburg is coming off leg surgery. Guards Laken Tomlinson is solid if unspectacular players. There isn't a lot of proven O-line depth, and that could be a problem.
Offensive Overview: The Niners have a lot riding on Jimmy G being the elite quarterback that he was in late 2017. I'm not convinced that he is, but we shall see. If Garoppolo he is truly that good, and if the receivers can step up, this could be a good to great offense. It's even possible San Francisco could contend for the division. The other question here is whether the line can stay relatively healthy. If all of those things come up positive, San Francisco could have a good to an excellent offense. However, many questions surrounding that point, and a lot would have to go well for that to happen.
Defense: The 49ers tried to upgrade their pass-rush in a big way, drafting Nick Bosa from Ohio State in the first round of the draft and trading with the Chiefs for defensive lineman Dee Ford. Bosa has been battling injuries in the preseason, and the team is saying it's 50-50 as to whether he will be ready for the season opener. You never really like your rookies to miss the preseason, but obviously, a lot is expected of Bosa this season.
Ford, meanwhile, has a quick first step and notched 13 sacks last season. He is prone to offside penalties, and some think he is a one-dimensional pass rusher who needs to vary his approach a little bit, but 13 sacks are hard to argue. Of course, he was also playing for a team that featured a high-powered offense, forcing opposing sides into distinct passing situations. He may not have that luxury this season.
The 49ers have one of the best defensive tackles not named Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox in DeForest Buckner, who had 12 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl last season. Former First-Round pick Solomon Thomas has so far been something of a disappointment, but even so, this is potentially a perfect unit, especially when it comes to rushing the passer.
The 49ers potentially have at least two of the pieces needed for a pretty good linebacking crew, assuming free-agent signee Kwon Alexander, who came over from Tampa Bay, is recovered from a torn-ACL he suffered last October. Fred Warner is a rising star playing inside. But the rest of the linebackers on this roster are a little dicey. Malcolm Smith has played in only five games since 2017. Mark Nzoecha has made a name for himself on special teams, not so much at outside linebacker. As with a lot of the 49er units, depth is a question mark.
The San Francisco secondary looks like the relatively weak link on this unit. They do feature cornerback Richard Sherman, who brings a name and some attitude to the field. But at the age of 31, and a lot of people think he's not the player he used to be. Fellow corner Jason Verrett is a former first-round pick of the Chargers, but a variety of leg injuries have kept him off the field for most of the past three seasons. Safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmy Ward have both played well at times but can't seem to stay on the playing field. There is talent here, and this unit should benefit from a better pass rush. But the injury history here is a problem, and Sherman isn't getting any younger.
Defensive Overview: The significant x-factors here are injuries and depth. The defensive line has a chance to be very good, maybe even elite if everything comes together. Fred Warner is one of the league's better linebackers, and Richard Sherman would still start for the significant majority of NFL teams. But so many of the linebackers and defensive backs can't seem to stay healthy that you don't know what this unit will look like, especially a few games into the season. The overall depth here is unproven at best.
Special Teams: The 49ers thought enough of placekicker Robbie Gould that they would have been willing to place the franchise tag on him, before reaching an agreement on a four-year contract. He's a proven veteran and a guy you can trust with the game on the line. The fact that the Niners spent a fourth-round pick on Mitch Wishnowsky, the rookie punter out of the University of Utah, tells you how much they think of him. Not everyone agreed with the pick. The rest of the San Francisco special teams don't look all that great going into 2019. As with the other units, this looks like a mixed bag. A very good placekicker, possibly a good punter, and a lot of question marks.
Coaching: Kyle Shanahan remains as a highly-regarded head coach, even though the results in San Francisco so far don't seem to support the idea that hen is some genius, at least for now. In fairness, this team has been plagued by injuries in the last couple of seasons, and he hasn't had a lot to work. Robert Saleh is generally well-regarded as a defensive coordinator, but with the infusion of talent this year on the D-line, he needs to show some better results.
Final Prediction: In some ways, this is a tough team to figure out. How good is Jimmy G? How many of the projected starters will finish the season? Theoretically, this could be a 10-6 team if everybody stays healthy and lives up to their reputation. But in the NFL, injuries are a given, and there are major depth questions in almost every unit.
7-9, Third in NFC West