San Francisco 49ers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After going 7-25 in a two-year stretch from 2015-2016, the 49ers hit the reset button during the 2017 off-season, bringing in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to be their head coach and GM respectively. Shanahan was arguably the hottest coaching candidate of his class, as the son of former Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan was fresh off coordinating a Falcons offense that came painfully close to winning the Super Bowl. Shanahan’s expertise working with quarterbacks was likely one of the reasons the 49ers were interested in him and, taking over a roster without an obvious quarterback of the future (2016 starting quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert weren’t under contract for 2017), Shanahan had the opportunity to pick his own long-term guy under center.

Shanahan evidently did not find a quarterback to his liking in the 2017 off-season, using a 3rd round pick on unheralded Iowa quarterback CJ Beathard and signing journeyman Brian Hoyer, rather than making a splash move for a quarterback. With Hoyer and Beathard both struggling, the start of Shanahan/Lynch era in San Francisco looked similar to the previous two seasons, with the 49ers losing each of their first 9 games of the season.

That changed when the 49ers got a call from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at the trade deadline. With Tom Brady still playing at a high level and Jimmy Garoppolo set to hit unrestricted free agency in the 2018 off-season, suddenly the quarterback the 49ers were told was not available the previous off-season became very available. The 49ers were able to poach Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 2nd round pick and Shanahan got the quarterback he had his eye on since he was the Browns’ offensive coordinator during the 2014 NFL Draft (they went with Johnny Manziel instead because the owner demanded it).

The 49ers gave Garoppolo about a month to learn the playbook before putting him into action, but once on the field Garoppolo wasted no time in making this look like a completely different football team, as the 49ers won all 5 of Garoppolo’s starts, after winning just 1 of their first 11 games. After picking up first downs at a 30.75% rate in the first 11 games of the season, the 49ers picked up first downs 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 was still unproven, with only 7 career starts and 272 career pass attempts under his belt heading into free agency last off-season, but he won all 7 of those games and had a 99.7 QB rating on those 272 attempts. Especially after they had just surrendered a 2nd round pick to acquire him, the 49ers had no choice but to pay up to keep Garoppolo (137.5 million over 5 years), but the 49ers seemed more than happy to do it. They had found their quarterback of the future and a team that had been sitting in the basement of the NFC West for about two and a half years suddenly had a lot of hope for the future.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, that hope was quickly put on hold when the 2018 season started. Not only did the 49ers lose 2 of their first 3 games, but they also lost Garoppolo to a torn ACL late in their week 3 loss in Kansas City. Despite the team’s underwhelming record, Garoppolo was still playing well before going down, averaging 8.07 yards per attempt and leading an offense that picked up first downs at a 41.30% rate.

With Garoppolo out, the 49ers were forced to turn back to CJ Beathard and subsequently lost each of their next 5 games. Not only did their first down rate drop to 35.17% in those 5 games, but Beathard turned the ball over 10 times by himself. A hand injury forced Beathard out of their week 9 Thursday night game against the Raiders, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as former 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens led the 49ers to victory against the Raiders and kept the starting job the rest of the way.

In Mullens’ 8 starts, the 49ers picked up first downs at a 37.80% rate and Mullens turned the ball over 10 times, the same amount of turnovers as Beathard had in almost half the amount of starts. That first down rate would have been most equivalent to the Seahawks, who finished 12th in first down rate. The 49ers still went just 3-5 in those 8 games, but that wasn’t really Mullens’ fault. Aside from those 10 turnovers, Mullens had 13 touchdowns and averaged 8.31 yards per attempt on 274 attempts.

The problem was the defense, which not only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.60% rate in those 8 games, but also collected just 2 takeaways (and a record low 7 takeaways on the season). The 49ers made significant moves this off-season to improve their defense (more on those later), but even if they hadn’t the 49ers would likely have more takeaways this season, just because of the randomness of takeaways. The 49ers didn’t have a particularly good defense in 2017 either, but still managed almost three times as many takeaways (20). That’s not that many takeaways (would have ranked 16th in the NFL in 2018) and if the 49ers can get that to that number in 2019 that alone should translate to a couple more wins for a team that lost 6 games by 8 points or fewer in 2018.

Add in the fact that Garoppolo should be ready for training camp and it’s not hard to see how the 49ers could make a big leap in wins in 2019, after going 4-12 in 2018. Not only did Mullens prove himself to be a capable long-term backup behind Garoppolo, but their offensive performance in his starts suggests that there’s a good deal of talent around the quarterback as well. Garoppolo is still pretty unproven, with just 10 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, and might not be 100% immediately in his return from injury, but there’s plenty of potential for this offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The most talented player the 49ers have around Garoppolo is tight end George Kittle, who not only led the team in receiving yards with 1,377, but finished 8th in the league overall and set the record for most receiving yards ever in a season by a tight end, despite inconsistent quarterback play. Quarterbacks had a 101.3 QB rating on 136 targets thrown to Kittle, as opposed to 83.2 to other targets. An adequate blocker as well, Kittle finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked tight end overall and is very much in the debate for top tight end in the league.

The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level producer in the receiving game, but he showed a nice rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, finishing his rookie year with 15 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in his final 5 games, which extrapolates to a 48/717/3 slash line over 16 games. With Garoppolo returning from injury, Kittle seems likely to produce at a high level again in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Garrett Celek, who caught just 5 passes on 277 snaps in 2018. Barring an injury to Kittle, Celek should serve in a similar role in 2019.

The 49ers will need more out of their wide receivers in 2019, after none of them topped 487 yards receiving last season. Kendrick Bourne led the way, but largely by default, as the 2017 undrafted free agent was their only wide receiver to play all 16 games and to run more than 300 routes. His 1.23 yards per route run average was underwhelming and he’s received borderline grades from PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league. He could continue playing a role in an unsettled receiving corps, but the 49ers used 2nd and 3rd round picks on wide receivers in the draft, taking South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd, so Bourne also isn’t a lock for the final roster.

Second year receiver Dante Pettis has the best chance to lead this wide receiver group. He struggled with injuries early in his rookie year, but finished strong with 20 catches for 355 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 5 games, 64/1136/13 extrapolated over 16 games. The 44th overall pick in 2018, Pettis has obvious upside and could easily make a second year leap. He’s the closest thing the 49ers have to a #1 wide receiver right now.

The 49ers are also hoping for a healthier season from veteran Marquise Goodwin, who led them in receiving with a 56/962/2 slash line in 2017, but was limited to 23/395/4 in 11 games in 2018. Goodwin showed great chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, catching 29 passes for 384 yards and a touchdown in 5 games, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of producing at the level he did in 2017 (his 2nd highest receiving total in 6 years in the league is 431) and he’s been plagued by injuries for much of his career. He has some bounce back potential, but also could get lost in a more crowded receiving corps.

Goodwin will compete for playing time with Bourne and the two rookies, who both are pretty raw entering the league. Also in the mix is slot specialist Trent Taylor, who had a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but struggled to earn playing time in 2018 and finished at 26/215/1, and veteran journeyman Jordan Matthews, who averaged 891 yards per season from 2014-2016, but has caught just 45 passes in 2 seasons since due to injury. Like Bourne, Taylor and Matthews are not locks for the final roster. It’s a much deeper receiving corps, but they lack a clear #1 wideout and will continue relying heavily on tight end George Kittle.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another skill position player who made a big impact on offense for the 49ers last season is running back Matt Breida. Breida was expected to be the 49ers’ 3rd running back at best last season, but lead back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL on the last play of training camp and Breida earned the lead back job by significantly outperforming veteran backup running back Alfred Morris, who averaged just 3.86 yards per carry on the season in 111 carries and had just 34 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. For comparison, Breida averaged a whopping 5.32 yards per carry on his 153 carries, 2nd in the NFL among running backs with at least 150 carries. That’s despite the fact he spent most of the year dealing with leg injuries, which limited him to 14 games and prevented the coaching staff from giving him more than 17 carries in a game.

Even if Breida is healthier in 2019, he’s unlikely to average the same average per carry. Not only is it very tough to average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons (63 of the last 69 running backs to top 5 yards per carry on 150+ carries did not repeat the feat the following season), but a lot of Breida’s yardage came on long runs. He had 42.5% of his rushing yards on 14 carries of 15 yards or more and averaged just 3.32 yards per carry on his other 141 carries. In terms of carry success rate, he ranked just 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs. Something similar to the 4.43 YPC average he had in 2017, when he didn’t have a single of his 105 carries go for more than 33 yards, is more likely.

Fortunately, the 49ers shouldn’t have to rely on Breida as the lead back in 2019. Not only do they get Jerick McKinnon back, but the 49ers also signed veteran running back Tevin Coleman away from Kyle Shanahan’s former team the Atlanta Falcons this season. Coleman also had an impressive YPC average last season, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on 167 carries, but, like Breida, much of his yardage came on a few carries. He had 48.5% of his yards on his 15 longest carries and averaged just 2.71 yards per carry on his other carries, while ranking 37th out of 47 qualifying in carry success rate. Coleman has averaged 4.43 yards per carry on 132 carries per season in 4 years in the league, primarily as a backup to Devonta Freeman, but it’s concerning he wasn’t able to run away with the lead back job in Atlanta last season, despite an injury to Freeman that left the Falcons without another capable runner.

McKinnon, meanwhile, has averaged just 4.05 yards per carry in his career and is coming off of a major injury, but he ran behind a poor offensive line in Minnesota before coming to San Francisco and the 49ers clearly valued him highly last off-season, signing him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that guaranteed him 12.5 million in the first year. His biggest value to the 49ers will be on passing downs. McKinnon had 51 catches as a part-time player in his last healthy season in Minnesota and the 49ers probably had visions of increasing that number in 2018 had he stayed healthy.

Matt Breida caught 27 passes last season and Tevin Coleman had a 31/421/3 receiving slash line in 2016 with Shanahan in Atlanta, but McKinnon is a different caliber player in the passing game. He should play the majority of passing snaps, with the running snaps likely being split between McKinnon, Breida, and Coleman based on performance. Unproven backs Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert, who flashed with 66 carries for 266 yards and 34 carries for 261 yards respectively in limited action in 2018, will also compete for a roster spot and 3rd round wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who is a former running back, could also see some carries in a Cordarrelle Patterson role. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk should also be good for at least 30 catches out of the backfield, a number he’s topped in 4 straight seasons, and his 285 snaps played led all fullbacks in the NFL in 2018. The 49ers have plenty of options, but lack a clear lead back. If Brieda and Coleman don’t have as many big carries as they had last season, the 49ers may struggle to average the 4.40 yards per carry (12th in the NFL) that they averaged last season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the 49ers had success on the ground last season was their strong run blocking. They were not as good in pass protection, allowing 48 sacks (9th in the NFL), though that was partially the result of quarterbacks holding the ball too long. The 49ers return all 5 starters on the offensive line, so they could easily have similar play in 2019, but their depth might be tested a little bit more, after their starting 5 upfront missed a combined 1 game in last season.

One player who could take a leap forward in 2019 is right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The 9th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers traded Trent Brown for almost nothing to clear room for McGlinchey, which could have easily backfired, but McGlinchey played well enough as a rookie to make people forget about Brown. He was only adequate in pass protection, but was a strong run blocker and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle in 2018. McGlinchey has Pro-Bowl upside and could easily take another step forward in 2019, though that’s obviously not a guarantee.

McGlinchey could end up at left tackle eventually, but for now veteran Joe Staley remains locked in on the blindside. Though he’s going into his age 35 season, Staley is still playing at a high level, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, his 7th straight season in the top-17 among offensive tackles on PFF (including 5 seasons in the top-6). His age is obviously becoming a concern and sometimes players lose it quickly, but he could easily have another strong season.

The 49ers are not quite as strong at guard as they are at tackle, but they have a pair of solid starters there as well. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was a bust as a first round pick of the Lions in 2015, struggling in 24 starts in 2 seasons in Detroit before the 28th overall pick was sent to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick during the 2017 off-season, but he has proven to be a late bloomer in San Francisco, making 31 of 32 starts and earning average grades from PFF in both seasons. The 49ers locked him up on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract last off-season and he should continue providing solid play at left guard.

At right guard, the 49ers were hoping Josh Garnett would prove to be a similar late bloomer, but the 2016 28th overall pick failed to lock down the starting job in training camp and ended up playing just 59 snaps on the season, while journeyman Mike Person made all 16 starts. Person was not bad, earning an average grade from PFF, but he’s started just 34 games in 8 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 31 season, so it’s possible 2018 will end up being the best season of his career. Still, he should be considered the heavy favorite to start over Garnett, who has not made a start since struggling through 11 starts as a rookie in 2016, when he finished 70th among 85 qualifying guards on PFF. Garnett missed all of 2017 with a knee injury and also dealt with foot injuries that caused him to be inactive for several games in 2018. With his 1.7 million dollar salary non-guaranteed, he’s not a lock for the final roster.

The weak point upfront for the 49ers last season was center, where Weston Richburg was a major disappointment. Signed to a 5-year, 47.5 million contract with 16.5 million guaranteed in the first year last off-season to solidify the center position, Richburg had the worst season of his 5-year career, finishing 33rd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. Injuries were likely the culprit, as he had surgery on his knee and thigh this off-season. Richburg ranked 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, only in his age 28 season, but the injuries are starting to pile up for him. In addition to the knee injury that limited him in 2018, he was limited to 4 games by a concussion in 2017 and dealt with a hand injury for much of the 2016 season. It’s possible his best days are behind him, but he should be better in 2019 in 2018. This should remain a solid offensive line with all 5 starters returning. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning under center, this could easily be a top-10 offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the bigger problem for the 49ers for most of last season was their defense. Not only did they finish 21st in first down rate allowed, they somehow managed just 7 takeaways all season, fewest ever in a full length NFL season. That combined with CJ Beathard’s propensity to turn the ball over in his limited action led to the 49ers finished dead last in turnover margin at -25. The good news for them is turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis. In fact, the past 10 teams with a turnover margin of -20 or worse, on average, had a turnover margin of +5 the following season.

The 49ers would likely force more takeaways in 2019 even without a boost of talent on defense (in 2017, they ranked 26th in first down rate allowed, but still managed a league average 20 takeaways), but the 49ers also spent significant resources on upgrading their defensive talent this off-season, armed with among the most cap space in the league and the #2 overall pick in the draft. They used that #2 overall pick on Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who could have a big immediate impact on this pass rush, but he wasn’t even the biggest addition they made at the defensive end position this off-season.

The 49ers also sent a 2020 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for franchise tagged defensive end Dee Ford, who they then locked up on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar extension. The Chiefs did not think Ford was a great fit for their new defensive scheme and did not want to give him a long-term extension, but he’s a worthwhile addition for a 49ers team that still has the 3rd most cap space in the league (about 35 million) as of this writing. His contract is also relatively low risk, with only 19.5 million total guaranteed in the first year, so the 49ers could move on him from next off-season if he regresses significantly.

Ford was one of the most productive edge rushers in the league last season, with 13 sacks, 19 hits, and 46 hurries on 563 pass rush snaps (13.9% pressure rate). He’s not nearly as good of a player against the run and has a concerning injury history, missing most of the 2017 season with a back injury, but the 49ers could play him off the ball as an outside linebacker in obvious running situations and he’s not a one-year wonder, totaling 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries in 2016 as well.

Ford and Bosa are obvious upgrades on the edge for a team that had just 17 sacks off the edge in 2019. Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair led the way with 5.5 sacks each off the edge, but the former left as a free agent this off-season, while the latter profiles best as a rotational end. The 49ers used first round picks on defensive ends in 2015 and 2017, taking Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas respectively, but they combined for just 4 sacks in 2018 and have 9 sacks and 4 sacks respectively in their careers.

Armstead is a strong run stuffer at 6-7 292 and should continue seeing a significant role in base packages, but Thomas is reportedly on the trade block after the addition of Ford and Bosa. Thomas is still only going into his age 24 season and still has obvious upside, going 3rd overall just two years ago, but he doesn’t have a clear role on this defense right now. Like Armstead, Thomas is a bigger end at 6-3 280, so the 49ers could try him more frequently as an interior rusher to see if that jumpstarts his career. They are much deeper at defensive end this season than last season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is another former first round pick on this defensive line, going 7th overall in 2016, but unlike Armstead and Thomas, he has panned out. He had 12 of the team’s 37 sacks (22nd in the NFL) by himself last season and also added 10 hits and 31 hurries on 544 pass rush snaps, an 9.7% pressure rate, impressive for a player who lined up on the interior for almost all of his pass rush snaps. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked qualifying interior defensive lineman overall and is no one-year wonder either, finishing 20th at his position in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 as well. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best days could easily still be ahead of him.

The other defensive tackle position next to Buckner is still unsettled. Earl Mitchell was nominally the starter last season, but he played just 363 mediocre snaps in 13 games and is no longer on the team. DJ Jones and Sheldon Day remain on the team, but they were equally mediocre snaps on 239 snaps and 275 snaps respectively and both have never played more than a rotational role in their career.

Veteran Cedric Thornton unretired this off-season and could play a role as well. He was once a strong run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in his final 2 seasons in the league before retiring last off-season. Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can still contribute. The other defensive tackle spot next to Buckner figures to be handled by committee once again (with Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead likely seeing snaps inside as well) and should remain a position of weakness.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers also made a big addition at linebacker this off-season, signing ex-Buccaneer linebacker Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal that was the highest ever for an off ball linebacker until it was surpassed by CJ Mosley’s deal a few days later. Unlike the additions of Ford and Bosa, this signing is a bit head scratching. Not only was Alexander coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s never performed at the level the 49ers are paying him at, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked off ball linebacker in 2016. He’s a great athlete and holds up well in coverage, but he misses far too many tackles, missing 70 in 3 seasons before last year’s lost year due to injury.

Alexander is still young, only going into his age 25 season, and obviously the 49ers believe his best days are ahead of him, but it’s unclear who the 49ers were bidding against that also would have paid Alexander over 13.5 million annually. The one good thing about his contract is that only 14.5 million is guaranteed in the first year, so if he struggles off of injury the 49ers can let him go next off-season and cut their losses.

That being said, Alexander should by default be an upgrade over the different players they tried at the middle linebacker position last season. Outside linebacker Fred Warner was their only every down linebacker last season and he should continue playing the vast majority of the snaps, staying on the field with Alexander in nickel packages. Warner was more of a snap eater than an impact player, playing 1060 of the 49ers’ 1073 defensive players snaps, but only earning an average grade from PFF overall. Warner was only a 3rd round rookie though and could easily get better going forward. He might not play quite as many snaps this season, with Alexander likely to stay on the field over him in dime packages, but he could easily play at a higher level.

Malcolm Smith is currently penciled in as the 3rd linebacker. Smith has been a disappointment since signing a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar contract with the 49ers two off-seasons ago though and is not a lock for the role, after being forced to take a pay cut down to 1.2 million to keep his roster spot. Smith showed promise in limited action earlier in his career in Seattle, even becoming the most unlikely of Super Bowl MVPs in a game in which he didn’t even play half the snaps, but he has always struggled in a larger role and that’s unlikely to change, now going into his age 30 season. 3rd linebackers come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages and rarely play more than half the snaps anymore, so that could work to his benefit, but I would be surprised if he made much of an impact this season.

Other options that the 49ers have for the 3rd linebacker role including using Dee Ford as an off ball linebacker in base packages or starting 2017 7th round pick Elijah Lee, who was underwhelming on 476 snaps last season. With Alexander coming in as an every down linebacker, this linebacking corps is upgrade by default, but they will lack an impact player unless Alexander becomes the player they expect or Warner takes a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary is the one area the 49ers did not address this off-season. They were widely expected to sign a starting safety in a deep safety class in free agency, but they didn’t end up signing anyone and did not address the secondary in the draft until the 6th round. Jaquiski Tartt is locked into one safety spot and he’s developed into an above average starter, after the 2015 2nd round pick struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league, but his durability is a concern, as he’s missed 15 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons with injury.

Without a starter being added in free agency, the starting job at the other safety spot is totally up for grabs. Marcell Harris, DJ Reed, Adrian Colbert, Tyvis Powell, Antone Exum, and Jimmie Ward all made starts last season and all except Powell are still on the roster, but none of them played particularly well, hence why they cycled through so many players. Ward has the most experience of the group, with 31 career starts, but he’s also injury prone (missing 29 of 80 games in his career) and the 49ers value his versatility more than his talent. In 5 seasons in the league, he’s received below average grades from PFF in 3 seasons, including 2017 and 2018. He may play some safety, but he can also play both outside cornerback and slot cornerback as well.

Adrian Colbert is probably the favorite for the other starting safety job, if only because he started the first 6 games of the season last year before missing the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Colbert struggled mightily in those 6 games, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety, but he showed more promise as a rookie, when the 2017 7th round pick earned an above average grade on 320 snaps. Assuming he’s healthy, he has bounce back potential, but he’s no lock to keep his job if his struggles continue in training camp.

There have been rumors that the 49ers are going to move aging cornerback Richard Sherman to safety at some point in the future, rumors that Sherman basically confirmed himself, but at least for this season he seems likely to remain at cornerback, in his age 31 season. Sherman isn’t the player he was in his prime anymore, when he was arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, but he was still easily the 49ers’ top cornerback in 2018 and earned an above average grade from PFF for the 8th straight season. That’s despite the fact that he was coming off of a torn achilles and was never 100% all season, dealing with lingering leg issues. His durability is a serious question at this point, but if he’s healthier in 2019 that should be noticeable on the field.

At the other outside cornerback spot, starter Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily last season, finishing 128th among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The 2017 3rd round pick was better as a rookie, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on 660 snaps, and has bounce back potential, but he’s not a lock to keep his starting job. Even with the 49ers not adding a top tier cornerback prospect in the draft, Witherspoon should still face competition from free agent acquisition Jason Verrett and 2018 3rd round pick Tarvarius Moore.

Verrett was only signed to a one-year deal that guaranteed him just 1 million (max value of 3.6 million), but he comes with a lot of upside. A first round pick in 2014, Verrett looked like one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the league at one point, finishing the 2015 season as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback, but injuries have limited him to just 5 games in the 3 seasons since. Durability has always been a significant concern for him (even in 2015 he played just 14 games), as he’s played just 25 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league, thanks to multiple shoulder surgeries, multiple knee surgeries, and a torn achilles that cost him all of 2018.

Verrett is a worthwhile flyer, but he could easily just get hurt again and it’s unclear if he’ll ever regain his old form, now going on 28 years old and 4 years removed from that strong 2015 season. Moore also has upside, but managed to get on the field for just 232 snaps as a rookie. Perhaps he’ll make a leap from year 1 to year 2, but that’s hardly a given. Jimmie Ward is also probably in the mix for the other outside cornerback job, but he doesn’t have the same upside as Moore, Verrett, or Witherspoon.

Ward could be in the mix at slot cornerback as well, but K’Waun Williams is a solid slot specialist, earning above average grades from PFF in all 4 healthy seasons he’s been in the league (he missed 2016 after ankle surgery). The 49ers didn’t do much to address the secondary this off-season, but they have some bounce back candidates and they have players with upside.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The 49ers should be significantly better on both sides of the ball this year, with Jimmy Garoppolo coming back from injury and talent being added on defense. The 49ers should also have a significantly better turnover margin, which is very significant for a team that actually finished last season 19th in first down rate differential, despite everything that went wrong (4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league). Whether it’ll be enough to take the 49ers from 4 wins to the post-season is still a question, but they should be very much in the mix for a playoff spot.

It helps them that they are in a relatively weak division. The Seahawks continue to shed talent, while the Cardinals would likely need an All-Pro effort from rookie quarterback Kyler Murray to mask their other issues enough to make the post-season. Even the two time reigning NFC West champion Rams look vulnerable compared to a year ago, with Todd Gurley’s knee concerns and several off-season losses on both sides of the ball (including 2 starters on the offensive line).

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in NFC West

Team Score: 74.54 (18th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 76.03

Defensive Score: 73.04

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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