San Francisco 49ers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When John Lynch took over as GM of the San Francisco 49ers, his first order of business was to poach offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from the Atlanta Falcons to be his head coach. Shanahan had just coordinated the league’s #1 offense and had 9 years of offensive coordinator experience with 4 different teams (Texans, Redskins, Browns, and Falcons), despite only being 37 years old at the time he was hired. It’s impossible to predict for sure whether or not a good coordinator will turn into a good head coach, but Shanahan had made offenses better everywhere he went and had been around coaching basically his whole life, as he’s the son of 2-time Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan.

The next order of business was finding Shanahan a quarterback. With Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert set to hit free agency, Shanahan basically inherited an empty quarterback room. That can be a blessing for a new head coach as it allows him to pick his own guys, but it can also be a curse if there are simply not good quarterbacks available, which was the case for Shanahan last off-season. The 49ers signed veteran journeyman Brian Hoyer in free agency and opted to pass on selecting quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the 2nd overall pick, trading down one spot with the Bears, who selected Trubisky, and then using a 3rd round pick on Iowa’s CJ Beathard.

Hoyer had experience in Shanahan’s system, having arguably the best season of his career on Shanahan’s Browns in 2014, while Beathard was hand selected by Shanahan and was the only quarterback in the entire draft class that Shanahan wanted. Despite that, neither had success in 2017. Combined, they completed 56.4% of their passes for an average of 6.24 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in 11 starts. The 49ers had a 1-10 record and ranked 26th in the NFL in first down rate at 30.75% in those 11 starts.

Fortunately, John Lynch got a call from the New England Patriots at the trade deadline last year. The quarterback they tried to acquire the previous off-season, only to be told he was not available, was now available. With Jimmy Garoppolo in the final year of his rookie deal and Tom Brady showing no signs of slowing down, the Patriots sent Garoppolo to the 49ers for a 2nd round pick. The Patriots reportedly had a better offer from the Cleveland Browns, who were willing to give up the first round pick they acquired from Houston in a trade down in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Belichick preferred to send Garoppolo out of the conference to the 49ers, which should tell you how highly the legendary coach thought of Garoppolo’s potential.

At the time, it looked like the 49ers’ pick would be a high 2nd rounder, given their record, while the Houston pick looked like it would be in the 20s, as the Texans, led by upstart quarterback Deshaun Watson, looked likely to make the post-season. At the time, it might not have looked to Belichick that the picks would be more than 10 or so spots apart in the draft, but the Texans lost Watson for the season with a torn ACL the following week and that pick became the 4th pick in the draft, while the 49ers went on a winning streak with Garoppolo and that 2nd round pick became 42nd overall.

Given how Garoppolo ended the season, that trade looks like a steal in hindsight. Garoppolo took a few weeks to learn the system, but made the final 5 starts of the season and won all 5 of them with a team that previously had one of the worst offenses in the league and had a 1-10 record. After moving the chains at a 30.75% rate in the 11 games started by Hoyer and Beathard, the 49ers moved the chains at a 38.39% rate in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.76 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback during the final 5 weeks of the season.

Garoppolo is still relatively unproven, with 272 career pass attempts, but he has a 99.7 career QB rating and has won all 7 of his career starts, including 2 with the Patriots in place of a suspended Tom Brady in 2016. His history with Kyle Shanahan goes back beyond last season, as, not only did the 49ers attempt to acquire him last off-season, but Shanahan tried to get the Browns to draft him instead of Johnny Manziel when he was in Cleveland. Both Belichick and Shanahan saw it early and now Garoppolo seems to be blossoming into a franchise quarterback. The 49ers gave him a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension that makes him the 3rd highest paid quarterback in the NFL, so they clearly have no concerns about his long-term potential.

All that being said, Garoppolo might be a little overhyped going into the 2018 season. With a full off-season to study his tape, the rest of the NFL will be more prepared for him in 2018 and he may have some growing pains. On top of that, his supporting cast still leaves a lot to be desired. While the 49ers went undefeated in Garoppolo’s starts, they did not play a tough schedule. They played playoff teams in 3 of 5 games, but their week 17 game against the Rams came against their backups, as they were resting starters for the post-season, while their win over the Titans came by just 2 points at home, despite the Titans being a very underwhelming playoff team. Their only impressive win came at home against the Jaguars. They also beat the Bears and Texans, who were far from playoff teams. Many have high expectations for the 49ers in 2018, but they may struggle to even qualify for the post-season in a loaded NFC.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even after locking up Garoppolo long-term on a massive extension, the 49ers still had among the most cap space in the NFL this off-season and had plenty of opportunity to improve Garoppolo’s supporting cast. One of the big contracts they handed out in free agency went to center Weston Richburg, who is now the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary after being lured away from the Giants on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal. Richburg should be an upgrade on last year’s center Daniel Kilgore, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked center out of 38 eligible and was subsequently traded to the Dolphins this off-season when Richburg was signed.

That being said, you can definitely argue the 49ers overpaid Richburg. After struggling at guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, Richburg was an above average center in both 2015 and 2016, but is not one of the top centers in the league. On top of that, he played just 241 snaps in 4 games last season because of a bad concussion, which make this contract even riskier. If he suffers another concussion, he could miss a significant amount of time and may reconsider his playing future. For now he’s healthy, but that’s not a long-term guarantee.

Mike McGlinchey is the other new starter they added on the offensive line this off-season, though the 9th overall pick is not necessarily going to be an upgrade at right tackle over Trent Brown. McGlinchey was a bit of a strange selection, as the 49ers had good tackle play in 2017 with Brown and left tackle Joe Staley, but it made some sense because Staley is getting up there in age and Brown was going into the final year of his contract. McGlinchey was easily the top offensive tackle in a weak offensive tackle class and had the ability to kick inside to guard for a year or two if needed.

Despite that, the 49ers traded Trent Brown on day 2 of the draft, only moving up from 143 to 95 with the Patriots in return. Brown was going into the final year of his rookie deal, was coming off of major shoulder surgery, and has had an inconsistent career with a history of weight and conditioning problems, but it was still a surprise that the 49ers gave him up so inexpensively. Brown was an above average starter in 2017, dominating in pass protection on the right side, allowing just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 9 hurries in 10 starts. Injuries caused him to miss 6 games, including the final 4 of the season, which makes Garoppolo’s play at the end of the season even more impressive, but McGlinchey is not guaranteed to be an upgrade.

McGlinchey will likely end up at left tackle long-term, but Joe Staley had yet another strong season there in 2017 and remains locked in as the starter, going into his age 34 season. He looked to be declining a little in 2016, when he finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF, but he finished #1 at his position in 2017 and has finished in the top-11 at his position in 5 of the last 6 seasons, with 2016 being the lone exception. In his career, he’s made 158 starts in 11 seasons in the league and has earned a positive grade from PFF in all but one season. His age is becoming a concern, but he could easily have a couple strong seasons left in the tank. He has 2 years left on his current contract and has not publicly discussed retirement.

The 49ers will also have a new starter at right guard with Josh Garnett returning from a season lost to injury to replace the departed Brandon Fusco, who made all 16 starts in 2017. Garnett was a first round pick (28th overall) in 2016, but he could easily be a downgrade from Fusco, who was about a league average starter in 2017. Garnett struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 73rd out of 77 eligible guards, before missing all of last season with injury. A projected 2nd/3rd round pick going into the draft, the 49ers surprisingly traded up for him and he hasn’t panned out. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and is no lock to remain the starter for the whole season.

The 49ers also have a pair of former first round picks competing at left guard with Jonathan Cooper and Laken Tomlinson. Cooper’s salary (4.95 million on a one-year deal) suggests he’s the favorite for the job, but Tomlinson is the incumbent and made 15 starts last season. Despite both being former first round picks, neither is a guarantee to be any good. Tomlinson has 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in 2 seasons with the Lions, finishing 62nd out of 82 eligible guards in 2015 and 62nd out of 77 eligible guards in 2016, leading to him getting benched and eventually traded to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick last August. With the 49ers, he had the best year of his career, but still earned a negative grade from PFF.

Cooper is also coming off of the best year of his career, which is why he got a decent chunk of change as a free agent, despite being a massive bust as the 7th overall pick in 2013. Injuries limited him to just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league and he struggled in his first extended action in 2015. As a result, the Cardinals traded him as a throw-in with a 2nd round pick to the New England Patriots for Chandler Jones. The Patriots tried to coach him up, but he never played a snap for them, before being cut mid-season. He spent the rest of the 2016 season with the Browns, making 3 starts, and then signed with the Cowboys on a minimum contract the following off-season.

With the Cowboys last season, he started a career high 13 games and was not bad, suggesting he may become a late bloomer. He has experience at both left and right guard, so it’s possible both he and Tomlinson start together at some point this season, if Garnett continues to struggle at right guard. Tomlinson, Garnett, and Cooper are going into their age 26, age 24, and age 28 season respectively, so it’s not inconceivable that one could have a breakout year, but none are sure things at guard in 2018. Fortunately, the 49ers should get good play at both tackle spots and center.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The 49ers also spent big money on a running back, signing ex-Viking Jerick McKinnon to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that makes him the 5th highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary. McKinnon replaces free agent departure Carlos Hyde, who signed a smaller deal, 15.25 million over 3 years, with the Cleveland Browns. A 2nd round pick by the 49ers in 2014, Hyde averaged 4.17 YPC on 655 carries in 4 seasons with the 49ers, but his ineffectiveness in the passing game made him a poor fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which likes to feature running backs in the passing game. Hyde averaged just 4.22 yards per target on 83 targets last season, while dropping 9 passes. He also allowed 3 sacks and 3 quarterback hits on 110 pass block snaps.

Jerick McKinnon is a much better fit for this scheme, so much so that Kyle Shanahan compared him to Devonta Freeman, who made the Pro Bowl in each of Shanahan’s 2 seasons with the Falcons. That would explain why they were willing to pay so much for him. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be worth what the 49ers are paying him. Despite playing just 527 snaps, McKinnon finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back last season. He caught 51 passes as a part-time player and ranked 16th in the NFL in elusive rating, with 2.63 yards per carry after contact and 39 broken tackles on 201 touches. He only averaged 3.80 yards per carry, but that was in large part due to issues on Minnesota’s offensive line. More than two-thirds of just rushing yardage came after contact.

However, if he plays like he did in 2016, when he finished with a negative grade on PFF on 512 snaps, signing him will prove to be a mistake. He averaged just 3.39 yards per carry on 159 carries and just 5.93 yards per catch on 43 catches. It’s also unclear how well he’ll translate to a larger role, as he’s never topped 527 snaps or 202 touches in a season. McKinnon’s salary suggests they see him as at least a 250+ touch back. Freeman averaged 309 (245 carries, 64 catches) in 2 seasons with Shanahan.

Matt Breida and Joe Williams will compete for touches behind McKinnon on the depth chart. Breida is the incumbent backup and averaged an impressive 4.43 YPC on 105 carries as an undrafted rookie last season, but Williams was a 4th round pick before missing his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, so he could push Breida for the backup job this off-season. Unfortunately, neither player is reliable on passing downs. Breida struggled as a receiver and a pass protector last season, while Williams caught just 20 passes in his collegiate career and is likely still very raw as a passing down back after missing all of last season. McKinnon will play the vast majority of passing down snaps, with Breida and Williams mixing in on early downs. Unfortunately, McKinnon has not always been the most consistent back.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The 49ers did not add a big free agent at wide receiver, though they were reportedly interested in adding Allen Robinson before he signed with the Bears. They do get Pierre Garcon back, however, after he missed the final 8 games of last season with a neck injury. Garcon was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver in 2016 with the Redskins and was ranked 9th last season when he went down. He was on pace for 80 catches for 1000 yards, despite terrible quarterback play, which would have been the third 1000+ yard season of his career. The fact that Jimmy Garoppolo was able to do what he did last season even without Garcon makes it that much more impressive.

Garcon was signed last off-season from the Redskins to be a #1 receiver, coming over on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal, so having him back for Garoppolo to throw to is a big deal. He’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons. If he returns to form and stays healthy, he should be able to top 1000 yards with Garoppolo under center, but that’s not a guarantee, given that he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of a major neck injury.

In Garcon’s absence, Marquise Goodwin stepped up as the #1 receiver. He put up a 36/613/2 slash line in 8 games without Garcon, including a 29/384/1 slash line in the 5 games Garoppolo started, and finished with a 56/962/2 slash line on the season. He was rewarded with a 3-year, 19.25 million dollar extension this off-season, after getting just a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. It’s a substantial pay increase and may prove to be a mistake, as Goodwin is a complete one-year wonder.

Prior to last season, Goodwin had 49 catches in 4 seasons with the Bills, with 29 of them coming in 2016, when he made 9 starts, but caught just 46.0% of his targets and finished 103rd among 119 eligible wide receivers on PFF. Goodwin is a blazing deep threat with a 16.6 career yards per catch average, but he’s undersized at 5-9 179. He fits Shanahan’s scheme well as a deep threat, but Garoppolo doesn’t like to throw the deep ball that often (Goodwin averaged just 13.2 yards per catch in Garoppolo’s 5 starts) and Goodwin will likely take a backseat targets wise to the returning Pierre Garcon. I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s numbers.

The 49ers also used a 2nd round pick on Washington wide receiver Dante Pettis, moving up from 59 to 44 to grab him. He may be a starter long-term, but for now he’ll compete with 2nd year player Trent Taylor for the #3 receiver job. Taylor is a slot specialist at 5-8 180 who lined up outside on just 85 of 382 pass routes last season as a 5th round rookie. He wasn’t bad, putting up a 43/430/2 slash line, including 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. He finished about average on PFF. He’ll likely stay as the slot receiver, while Pettis is learning all of the receiver spots and will likely spend his rookie year as a backup across the board. He’s also expected to return kicks.

At tight end, George Kittle and Garrett Celek return after leading the team in tight end snaps with 591 and 560 respectively in 2017. Celek is just a blocking tight end who hasn’t topped 29 catches in any of his 6 seasons in the league. He’s not a bad pass catcher and had 8 catches for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns in Garoppolo’s 5 starts, but he ran a route on just 220 of 560 snaps last season and is unlikely to improve as a pass catcher in his age 30 season.

George Kittle will be the primary pass catching tight end. A 5th round rookie, Kittle struggled early in the season, but got better as the year went on. He caught 15 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in Garoppolo’s 5 starts and finished the year with a decent 43/515/2 slash line. He ran a route on 377 of his 591 snaps and is not much of a run blocker. Now in his 2nd season in the league, with a full season of Garoppolo, Kittle has some breakout potential as a pass catcher. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk also caught 33 passes on 151 routes run last season and has 111 catches over the past 3 seasons. Garoppolo has some good options to throw to.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The 49ers should have a pretty good offense in 2018, but they’ll need their young defense to take a step forward in their 2nd year under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (previously the Jaguars linebackers coach). They finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at 35.96%. Even during their 5-game winning streak, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 34.87% rate, despite facing a relatively weak slate of offenses. If they are going to continue their winning ways in 2018 against a tougher schedule, they’re going to have to improve defensively.

DeForest Buckner is one of the players who was not part of the problem, as he was quietly one of the better defensive tackles in the league. He only had 3 sacks, but added a whopping 19 quarterback hits and defended the run well. The 7th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Buckner showed promise as a rookie (6 sacks, 14 quarterback hits) at 3-4 defensive end before breaking out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. He’s also played a ridiculous 1,873 snaps over the past 2 seasons, most by any defensive lineman in the league. The definition of an every down player, Buckner is still only going into his age 24 season, so his best football could still be yet to come. He could post a big sack total this season if the 49ers play with more leads and some of those quarterback hits turn into sacks. The 6-7 300 pounder drew comparisons to Calais Campbell during the pre-draft process and seems to be developing into that kind of impact defensive lineman.

Buckner is not the only recent high pick on this defensive line, as they used the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, after passing on Mitch Trubisky and trading down one spot with the Bears. Thomas finished 2nd on this defensive line with 696 snaps, but he struggled and was part of the problem for this defense last season. He only managed 3 sacks and added just 9 hits and 18 hurries on 401 pass rush snaps. He did a solid job against the run, but still finished as PFF’s 59th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible. He could easily be much improved in his 2nd season in the league though. A bigger defensive end at 6-3 273, Thomas plays defensive end in base packages, but lined up inside on 162 of 401 pass rush snaps. He should continue in that role in 2018.

Arik Armstead is also a bigger defensive end at 6-7 292. He’s also a former first round pick, going 17th overall. The 49ers essentially used their top pick in 3 straight drafts on players who play similar positions. Armstead flashed on 385 snaps in 16 games as a rookie in 2015, but he’s been limited to 14 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons and has not developed into the player it looked like he would as a rookie. He’s also not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense, after spending the first 2 seasons of his career in a 3-4.

Armstead was primarily a base package defensive end when on the field last season, but did rush the passer on 158 of 304 snaps. Of those 158 snaps, he lined up on the edge 120 times, as the 49ers tried to turned him into an edge rusher, but he managed just 1.5 sacks and 1 quarterback hit in 6 games before going down for the year with a broken hand. This season, he’s expected to line up on the interior in passing situations more.

With Buckner being an every down player inside and Thomas lining up inside frequently, there may not be a lot of sub packages snaps left over for Armstead. The majority of his snaps will probably still come as base package defensive end. He’s a solid run stuffer and still has upside, going into his age 25 season, if he can stay healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee. The 49ers did issue a vote of confidence in his long-term health by picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which would be worth around 9.046 million and is guaranteed for injury.

It’s understandable why the 49ers would not want to give up on Armstead’s upside, as they have very little depth on this defense line. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell will be the 4th starter in base packages inside next to Buckner, with Armstead and Thomas outside. Mitchell played 622 snaps last season, 344 of which came on run plays. Mitchell was terrible though, finishing 70th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF. An 8-year veteran, Mitchell has earned negative grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons and 6 of 8 seasons overall and is unlikely to improve in his age 31 season in 2018. He used to be an adequate run stuffer, but he’s not even that anymore and he has just 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in his career. He only remains a starter for lack of a better option.

The 49ers lack edge rusher options as well. Thomas will see a lot of snaps as an edge rusher, but he’ll also line up inside frequently and they lack options behind him on the depth chart. Elvis Dumervil led the team in edge rusher snaps last season with 287 and also led the team with 6.5 sacks. In addition, he added 9 hits and 34 hurries. Despite that, the 49ers declined his 2.75 million dollar option for 2018 and he remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 34 season. The 49ers only had 30 sacks (26th in the NFL) last season so they could miss Dumervil, who had 6.5 of those by himself as a part-time player.

Cassius Marsh figures to get the first shot at the other edge rusher job. Signed off waivers after being let go by the New England Patriots, Marsh flashed in 6 games with the 49ers last season. He had 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 11 hurries on 147 pass rush snaps and held up against the run, despite a slender 6-4 245 frame. Marsh has never earned a positive grade for a full season in 4 years in the league, but he was originally a 4th round pick and is only going into his age 26 season, so it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue being a capable edge rusher. The 49ers clearly have faith in him, giving him a 2-year, 7.7 million dollar extension this off-season, keeping him off the open market with his rookie deal set to expire. That could prove to be a mistake if he regresses.

Eli Harold might be his primary competition. Harold is a linebacker in base packages, but the 6-3 257 pounder was a collegiate defensive end and is capable of rushing the passer off the edge. He rushed the passer on 106 of 215 pass plays last season, with 99 of those snaps coming as an edge rusher. He isn’t much of a pass rusher though, earning negative grades as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons since going in the 3rd round in 2015. He has just 5 sacks and 9 hits in his career in 48 games.

The 49ers also took a flyer on former Chargers second round pick Jerry Attaochu. Attaochu looked like a long-term starter in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with 6 sacks, 9 hits, and 32 hurries while playing 69.9% of the snaps in 15 games, but he’s played just 237 snaps in 12 games in 2 seasons since due to injury and ineffectiveness. He has just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 8 hurries in those 2 seasons.

Despite that, he still has upside, going into his age 25 season, and his 3 million dollar salary (2.5 million guaranteed) suggests the 49ers have a role planned for him, provided he’s healthy. Even though they’ve used 3 straight first round picks on the defensive line, the 49ers are not deep upfront and need a reliable pass rusher to step up alongside DeForest Buckner. They have some young players with upside, most notably Solomon Thomas, but this defensive line has a low floor and may struggle to get to the quarterback.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The 49ers also have a recent first round pick at linebacker, as they moved up to draft Reuben Foster 31st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. The 49ers were reportedly considering him with the 3rd overall pick if Solomon Thomas was not available and they were ecstatic to get him late in the first. His play as a rookie showed why the 49ers were so high on him, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker, earning positive grades for his run stopping ability and his coverage ability as a three down player. Unfortunately, he was limited to 553 snaps in 10 games by ankle and rib injuries.

The 49ers were hoping to get a boost from a full season of Foster in 2018, but he’s reportedly facing a multiple game suspension. Charges were dropped in his domestic violence case, but a lack of charges hasn’t stopped the NFL from giving big suspensions in the past and Foster was also arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama earlier this off-season. Foster also remains an injury risk. Injuries were part of the reason why he fell on draft day and they could continue to be an issue for him in the future. Between that and off-the-field issues, Foster comes with some risk and he’s unlikely to play all 16 games in 2018, but he’s a talented player who could still develop into one of the best linebackers in the league.

The 49ers also get Malcolm Smith back from an injury plagued season, after he missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral that he suffered in training camp. Smith was signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal last off-season, which guaranteed him 12.1 million in the first 2 years of the deal, but he struggled mightily in 2015 and 2016 with the Raiders, finishing 40th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in 2015 and 49th out of 59 eligible in 2016. Smith flashed in limited action earlier in his career, but never developed into a capable every down player. His return might not be a boost for this linebacking corps and he may not return to an every down role. In base packages, he’ll play outside linebacker with Reuben Foster lined up inside. He also has experience at middle linebacker, so he may play there if Foster misses time with suspension or injury.

The other base linebacker job is up for grabs. Eli Harold played that role last season, but he’ll face competition from 3rd round rookie Fred Warner and veteran holdover Brock Coyle, who filled in for Smith when he was injured last season. Coyle led this linebacking corps in snaps with 646, but he was PFF’s 30th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 39 eligible in the first significant action of his career, after going undrafted in 2014. The 49ers valued him enough to bring him back on a 3-year, 8.4 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s not a lock for a starting job.

Warner has the highest upside of any of the candidates, but may spend his rookie year as a reserve. That being said, if Foster gets suspended for any period of time, that could push Warner into the lineup. The 49ers also added veteran Korey Toomer as insurance in case of a Foster injury. An 5th round pick in 2012, Toomer played just 1 snap in his first 4 seasons in the league, bouncing from the Seahawks to the Cowboys to the Rams to the Raiders, before settling into a part-time role with the Chargers over the past 2 seasons.

Toomer played 479 snaps in 2016 and 265 snaps in 2017, serving first as a coverage specialist in 2016 and then as a base package run stuffer in 2017, showing his versatility. He also earned a positive grade for both his coverage ability and his run stopping ability in both seasons, so he’ll be a valuable reserve for them, especially with Foster’s status uncertain. The 49ers definitely have depth at the linebacker position, but Foster is their only impact linebacker and he’s highly unlikely to play every game in 2018.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Safety Eric Reid also played significant snaps around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, lining up there on 416 of 736 snaps. The 6-1 213 pounder fit well as a hybrid player and proved to be a good coverage linebacker, but he was not retained this off-season. Despite that, the 49ers are still deep at safety. They get both Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward back from injury and have 2nd year safety Adrian Colbert also in the mix for snaps.

Tartt, a 2nd round pick in 2015, was on his way to a breakout year before breaking his arm midway through the 9th game of the season and going down for the year. Through the first 8 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. He could pick up right where he left off before the injury, but he also earned negative grades from PFF in his first 2 seasons in the league (14 starts), so he’s still unproven. The 49ers clearly still believe in him, giving him a 2-year extension worth 13 million this off-season.

Ward, on the other hand, is not a lock to get his job back. Colbert played 530 snaps in the final 9 games of last season and, despite being a mere 7th round rookie, he more than held his own and finished with a positive grade on PFF. He’s still unproven and was not highly thought of coming out of the University of Miami, but he could develop into a long-term starter for them. Ward, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his rookie deal.

A 1st round pick in 2014, Ward has flashed his talent from time to time, but he’s also missed 24 games in 4 seasons, including 9 games last season. His best attribute is his versatility, as he’s played outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and safety in his career. Because of his versatility, he could still see a lot of action this season even if he can’t lock down a starting job. Shanahan has said Ward could be the top backup at every spot in the secondary this season.

Outside of safety, Ward’s best shot at playing time will come on the slot, though he’ll have to compete with K’Waun Williams, who is coming off of a solid season. A capable slot cornerback with the Browns in 2014 and 2015, Williams missed all of 2016 with an ankle injury and was let go over a dispute on how to treat the injury. When healthy, he signed with the 49ers on a one-year deal as a free agent last off-season. He looked rusty to start the season, but played well down the stretch and ended the season with his 3rd positive season grade from PFF in 3 healthy seasons. He’s likely to remain on the slot. The 49ers locked him up long-term with a 3-year, 8.85 million dollar extension in September.

Outside cornerback was the 49ers’ big problem spot in 2017. Dontae Johnson and Rashard Robinson were the starters to begin the season, but Johnson finished as PFF’s 119th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible in 16 starts last season, while Robinson struggled through 7 starts before getting benched and eventually traded to the Jets for a 5th round pick. Third round rookie Ahkello Witherspoon took over for Robinson and played pretty well down the stretch, making 9 starts and earning a positive grade from PFF on 660 snaps. Now going into his 2nd season in the league, Witherspoon has the look of a long-term starter and should be locked into one of the starting jobs.

To address the other starting spot, the 49ers made a splash signing, signing Richard Sherman just days after he was released by the rival Seahawks, with whom he made 4 Pro Bowls in 7 seasons. Sherman was let go because he’s coming off of a torn achilles and was set to make 11 million in the final year of his contract, but he was still playing at a high level before the injury. He was a top-10 cornerback on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016 and ranked 14th at his position through 10 weeks before going down last season.

Despite that, given his injury and his age (going into his age 30 season), it’s fair to wonder if his best years are behind him. His 3-year deal with the 49ers could be worth up to 39.15 million, but the 49ers protected themselves against Sherman declining. Sherman will make just 7 million annually in all 3 years of the deal and can earn another 2 million annually in per game roster bonuses and up to 4 million annually in incentives (1 million for 90% playing time, another million for making the Pro-Bowl, another 2 million for making an All-Pro team).

He also has annual workout bonuses of 50K that bring the maximum contract value to 39.15 million dollars, but, if he struggles in 2018, the 49ers can get out of this deal having paid just 7-9 million dollars (depending on roster bonuses). Sherman is currently questionable for the start of training camp and is fully expected to be ready week 1. He’ll be a boost for a secondary that needed it, but he may not be the same player he was in Seattle.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The 49ers have high expectations after the way this team finished last season with Jimmy Garoppolo, but they may be a bit of a disappointment against a tough schedule with the rest of the league having an off-season to study Garoppolo’s tape. Garoppolo should still have a good season, but he’s not going to be able to carry this team by himself, so their supporting cast will need to be better. With Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, and Richard Sherman added this off-season and Pierre Garcon returning from injury, they should have a better supporting cast in 2018, but it could be tough for them to sneak into the post-season in the loaded NFC.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

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