It wasn’t hard to see how the 49ers could be significantly improved from 2018 to 2019. The 2018 49ers went just 4-12, but they were significantly better than that in first down rate differential, ranking 19th at -0.05%. Their struggles in 2018 were primarily due to their horrific league worst turnover margin of -25, but turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis in general and the 49ers were getting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back from a torn ACL that limited him to 3 games in 2018 and they made some significant defensive additions, so it wasn’t hard to see how they could be significantly improved in the turnover margin, even beyond the natural randomness of turnovers.
However, I don’t think anyone foresaw the 49ers being as good as they were in 2019, as they exceeded expectations on both sides of the ball, finishing in the top-10 in first down rate (9th at 38.24%) and in first down rate allowed (6th at 32.95%), joining only the Ravens as one of two teams to do so last season. Overall, the 49ers went 13-3, earned the #1 seed in the NFC, finished 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at 5.29%, and came within a half quarter of winning the Super Bowl, blowing a double digit 4th quarter lead to the Chiefs.
The question now becomes what can the 49ers do for an encore and can they make it all the way. History suggests they can’t, as there have only been three teams to ever win the Super Bowl the year following a Super Bowl defeat, including just one team over the past 47 years, and the 49ers were also handicapped by a lack of cap space this off-season. However, they still managed to rank 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and they return 18 of 22 offensive and defensive starters. They should also be healthier this season, after having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2019, so there is plenty of reason to believe the 49ers can continue to play at a high level.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns, after making all 16 starts last season for the first time in his career. The jury is still out on him being an elite quarterback and he’s not as young as you’d think given his relative lack of experience (26 career starts), but he showed last season that he’s good enough to take this team very far with the right supporting cast. His injury history is still a minor concern, but the fact that he played all 16 games last season is very promising and it’s very possible we could see him take a step forward in 2020 in his 2nd year removed from the injury.
For a quarterback who completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and who ranked 13th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, any noticeable improvement from him in 2020 would likely put him among the top-10 of starting quarterbacks in the league. He may never become the true elite quarterback he flashed signs of one day being earlier in his career, but as long as he can stay healthy, he should at least be a consistently above average starter long-term.
The 49ers are also in good shape at the backup quarterback spot, as 2017 undrafted free agent Nick Mullens showed some promise as the 49ers’ 3rd starting quarterback option in 2018, completing 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.31 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and leading the 49ers to a 37.80% first down rate in his 8 starts, most equivalent to the 12th ranked Seahawks if he had done that over the full 2018 season. Mullens would obviously be a dropoff from Garoppolo and he’s still very inexperienced, but they could get by with him for a few games if needed, given the level of talent on the rest of this roster.
One of the four starters the 49ers lost from 2019 is left tackle Joe Staley, who opted to hang them up this off-season, rather than return for his age 36 season in 2020. Staley was still Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle last season, so he was still playing at an above average level, though injuries did limit him to 434 snaps last season. The 49ers did a good job replacing him though, sending a 2021 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Redskins for disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams.
Williams held out all last season and is now going into his age 32 season, so he comes with some uncertainty, especially since he seemed to be declining in his most recent season in 2018, but for him declining means finishing 20th among offensive tackles on PFF after 7 straight seasons in the top-14, including 4 finishes in the top-6. Even if he continues to decline in 2020, he should still be an above average starter. He’s a comparable starter to Joe Staley and not a downgrade, especially since he’s likely to play more than Staley was able to last season.
The 49ers also need a new right guard as 14-game starter Mike Person also retired this off-season. He wasn’t bad last season, earning an average grade from PFF overall, but the 49ers have some decent options to replace him. 2017 undrafted free agent Daniel Brunskill and 2019 6th round pick Justin Skule both showed promise at tackle as injury fill-ins last season, playing 474 snaps and 545 snaps respectively in the first action of either of their careers, and they could be options at right guard. Brunskill has a much better chance of winning the starting right guard job though, as he was better than Skule last season at left tackle and also saw a pair of starts in place of an injured Mike Person down the stretch. Brunskill is still relatively unproven, but has the potential to develop into a consistently solid starting right guard, while Skule will likely back up Williams at left tackle.
The 49ers also added veteran Tom Compton to the mix this off-season, signing him to a 1-year, 2.75 million contract that suggests he’ll get a chance to win the starting job. Compton has only made 34 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s generally been a capable spot starter, even earning an average grade from PFF on 837 snaps (14 starts) in 2018. However, he fell to 75th out of 88 qualifying guards last season on 363 snaps and is now going into his age 31 season. He could start in a pinch, but he’s an underwhelming option who is probably best as a reserve.
Ben Garland, their top interior reserve last season, is also an option, as he’s flashed in 10 starts over the past 3 seasons. He played center for the 49ers down the stretch last season, but has experience at guard as well. He got a late start to his career and is already in his age 32 season though, so he may also be an underwhelming option. Brunskill, Garland, and Compton all have a legitimate chance to start at right guard and it’s possible whoever wins the job can be a capable starter, but that’s not a guarantee.
Garland could also potentially have to open the season as the starter at center, as regular center Weston Richburg suffered a torn patellar tendon down the stretch last season and is questionable for the start of the year. Patellar tendon tears are arguably the toughest injury to come back from, even for an offensive lineman who isn’t as reliant on athleticism, and Richburg was already struggling before the injury, finishing 32nd out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in 2018 and 23rd out of 36 qualifying in 2019. Richburg is still only going into his age 29 season and he finished 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, but he’s been pretty banged up in his career, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. Even if he is ready for the start of the season, he may be a below average option.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson and right tackle Mike McGlinchey return and are locked into their spots. McGlinchey was a first round pick by the 49ers in 2018, 9th overall. His career got off to a great start, as he finished 23rd among offensive tackles on PFF, but he had a bit of a sophomore slump in his 2nd season, slipping to 39th among offensive tackles. He still has a bright future though and part of his struggles last season were likely due to an early season knee injury, as he played better down the stretch. He could easily have a bounce back year in 2020 and long-term could develop into consistently one of the better right tackles in the league.
Tomlinson, meanwhile, is also a former first round pick, selected 28th overall in 2015, but he was largely a bust in two seasons with his original team the Detroit Lions, struggling in 24 starts and getting traded to the 49ers for a 5th round pick prior to the 2017 season. Tomlinson was able to prove the Lions gave up on him too early, however, making 47 starts in 3 seasons with the 49ers and grading out as a solid starter in all 3 seasons. Still only in his age 28 season, he should remain a solid starter for years to come. This isn’t quite the same line as last season, but they also could be healthier and all of the players they lost this off-season were adequately replaced, so this should still be a solid unit.
Along with the two starting offensive lineman they lost, the 3rd offensive starter they lost this off-season is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who joined the team in week 8 via trade and averaged a 58/803/5 slash line per 16 games across 10 regular season games with the team, while ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver over that stretch. In the regular season, their first down rate split between games Sanders played and games he didn’t play was 40.03%/35.61%.
That being said, losing him didn’t seem to be a big deal because the 49ers used the #25 overall pick on wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and they have promising young talent Deebo Samuel going into his second season in the league, after he averaged 2.04 yards per route run as a rookie and totaled 35 catches for 575 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 regular season games (70/1150/4 slash line over 16 games), also largely coinciding with the 49ers offensive improvement down the stretch. However, Samuel broke his foot in an off-season workout and not only seems unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, but also could possibly begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, costing him the first 6 games of the season.
Without Samuel, the 49ers’ wide receiver depth will be tested. They have some intriguing reserve options, but no sure things, leaving the rookie Aiyuk as their #1 option to open the season, even though he’s never played a down of professional football. The 49ers have another couple recent high draft picks at this position, taking Dante Pettis in the 2nd round in 2018 and Jalen Hurd in the 3rd round in 2019, both of whom have upside, but Hurd missed his whole rookie year with injury, while Pettis hasn’t shown much consistency on 766 career snaps and spent most of last season in the doghouse after a promising finish to his rookie campaign.
Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor are also options, but they’re better fits on the slot than on the outside and the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets. Bourne isn’t a bad player, totalling a 42/487/4 slash line on a 57.2% snap share in 2018 and a 30/358/5 slash line on a 43.7% snap shart in 2019, but the 2017 undrafted free agent doesn’t have a huge ceiling and shouldn’t be much more than #3/#4 receiver. Taylor, meanwhile, flashed with a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but was limited to 26/215/1 in 2018 and missed all of 2019 with injury. Physically limited on the outside, he’s a slot only option and could easily play behind Bourne.
The reason the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets is because they like to run two tight end sets and two back sets. Ross Dwelley played 359 snaps as the #2 tight end last season, while fullback Kyle Juszczyk led all fullbacks with 388 snaps played, despite missing 4 games with injury. These aren’t just running formations either. Dwelley struggled both as a pass catcher and a blocker last season, but Juszczyk caught 20 passes in 12 games and has a 32/293/1 slash line over the past 5 seasons, while also being a good run blocker, and of course top tight end George Kittle can be just as productive as any wide receiver in the passing game.
A 5th round pick in 2017, Kittle was average as a rookie, but has quickly broken out as the best all-around tight end in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, taking that title from Rob Gronkowski, a player he compares favorably to. Kittle had a 88/1337/5 slash line in 2018 and, though that fell to 85/1035/5 in 2019, that was primarily due to the 49ers being more run heavy and Kittle missing some time due to injury, as his yards per route run actually improved from 2.82 to 3.12, both of which were position leading marks in the respective year. In addition to being a high level pass catcher, Kittle is also one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL and has finished #1 among overall tight ends on PFF in each of the past two seasons. He’s arguably the most dominant offensive player in the league regardless of position.
Still only in his age 27 season, Kittle has a lot of high level football ahead of him if he can stay healthy, something that hasn’t been a significant concern for him thus far in his career. The 49ers didn’t upgrade on Ross Dwelley as the #2 tight end, even though the 2018 undrafted free agent showed very little on 359 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but Kittle and Juszczyk will allow them to continue getting big passing plays out of non passing formations, which will mask some of their depth problems at wide receiver. Deebo Samuel’s injury hurts this group, but when he’s back they should be an above average group again if he can continue developing, especially with George Kittle elevating this group by himself.
This will remain a run heavy team, after a 498/478 run/pass split in 2020, making them one of three teams in the league (Ravens, Vikings) to have more rush attempts than pass attempts last season. This season, they’ll perhaps be even more run heavy at the beginning of the year, with top wide receiver Samuel likely to be sidelined. The 49ers traded away running back Matt Brieda after he averaged 5.07 YPC on 123 carries last season, but they still have a deep running back group, with holdovers Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman in the mix and long-injured running back Jerick McKinnon looking likely to be healthy for 2020.
McKinnon is the biggest unknown of the group, given that he was expected to play a big role for the 49ers two off-seasons ago when they signed him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar contract in free agency, but he has yet to play a snap for the team, missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL and all of 2019 after suffering another knee injury during his rehab. McKinnon averaged just 4.05 yards per carry on 474 carries in 4 seasons with the Vikings, but a lot of that was due to a poor offensive line (2.40 yards per carry after contact) and his primary value is as a receiver.
In his final season in Minnesota, he caught 51 passes in a part-time role and averaged 2.63 yards per carry after contact, and the 49ers clearly had big plans for him when they brought him in, given the contract they signed him to. He had to take a pay cut down to 1.16 million for 2020 and he’ll likely be limited to primarily passing down work, assuming he can even stay healthy, but this offense had three backs with more than 123 carries last season, so McKinnon will have an opportunity to earn some carries as well.
With McKinnon likely to be the primary passing down back, Mostert and Coleman are expected to split early down work. How they split the work is up in the air though. Mostert was a breakout star down the stretch last season, taking over as the lead back in week 13 and starting the final 5 regular season games and their three playoff games, in which he rushed for a combined 715 yards and 11 touchdowns on 117 carries (6.11 YPC). All in all, Mostert averaged 5.64 YPC on 137 carries in the regular season and 6.34 YPC on 53 carries in the post-season and could easily continue in the lead back role in 2020.
Whether or not he can continue running as well is up for debate though. As impressive as his 8-game stretch was, he’s still highly unproven, with just 114 career carries outside of those 8 games, even though he’s already in his age 28 season. He certainly wouldn’t be the first obscure running back to ever break out in a Shanahan blocking scheme and he’s shown promise throughout his 3 seasons in San Francisco, with a 6.01 YPC average. Even if he is able to translate to a larger role over a 16-game season, he’s highly unlikely to hit that mark, but he could easily keep having success in this offense.
Coleman has also spent most of his career in the Shanahan blocking scheme, playing for now 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta where Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, before eventually following him to San Francisco. Coleman has had some success throughout his 5-year career, rushing for 4.34 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 665 carries, so he’s not a bad lead back option, but Mostert will likely be given the first chance after how he finished last season. Neither Mostert nor Coleman are much of a receiver, but the 49ers are hoping the return of Jerick McKinnon can add that new dimension to their offense. This is a good group overall.
The position where the 49ers were most improved from 2018 to 2019 was the edge defender spot. It was predictable they’d get better play at the position, using the #2 overall pick on Nick Bosa and trading a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, who they extended on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar deal. Ford was limited to 226 snaps by injury, but just about everything else went well. Ford played at a high level when on the field, particularly as a pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks and a 14.4% pressure rate, while Bosa exceeded most expectations by finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th edge defender and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In addition to playing at a high level against the run, Bosa had 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate and he has the upside to become even better in the future.
In addition, the 49ers got a somewhat surprising breakout year from Arik Armstead, who played a little on the interior, but saw the vast majority of his snaps on the edge in place of Ford. Armstead finished 3rd among edge defenders on PFF, playing the run at a high level and totalling 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. Armstead had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons prior to last season, but he is a former first round pick and he had shown signs of being a consistently above average player prior to last season, despite the low sack total. Injuries were part of the problem, as he was limited to 46 out of 64 games over those 4 seasons, but he still added 15 hits and a 12.3% pressure rate and was an above average run defender. He’s a one-year wonder, but not as much as it seems, so he could easily remain an above average starter if he can stay healthy.
It’s likely Armstead sees more action inside this season, as Ford seems to be healthy. Durability has been a concern for him in recent years, as he was also limited to 316 snaps in 6 games in another injury plagued season in 2017, but in between he finished 10th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, which is why the 49ers gave up a premium pick in order to acquire him, even though he needed a big extension. Ford is still only going into his age 29 season and he’s shown he can play at a high level when on the field, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, but that’s not quite a guarantee.
The 49ers also get reserve edge defender Ronald Blair back from injury, after he went down with a torn ACL in week 10. A 5th round pick in 2016, Blair played 981 nondescript snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, but seemed to be on his way to a strong season as a reserve before getting hurt last season. He was limited to 199 snaps total in 9 games, so he’s still very unproven, and the injury complicates his outlook, but he could return as a talented reserve again.
Solomon Thomas is also in the mix for a reserve role on the edge. Like Armstead, Thomas played some on the interior last season, but primarily played on the edge. He wasn’t particularly good on 425 snaps total though, earning a below average grade from PFF. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in 2017, but he’s been a massive bust thus far, earning middling at best grades in 3 seasons in the league, on an average of 38.4 snaps per game in 46 games. Still only in his age 25 season, he may have some late breakout potential, but it’s hard to expect much from him. He could be used on the interior more this season, as this is a deep and talented edge group.
Part of the reason why the 49ers will likely play Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas on the interior more often this season is that they lost top defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who played 811 snaps and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked interior defender last season. The 49ers couldn’t afford to keep Buckner long-term and they used the first round pick they got for trading Buckner to the Colts on a replacement in Javon Kinlaw, who is much cheaper and has a huge upside long-term, but he’s unlikely to be as good as a rookie and could be a significant dropoff even if he doesn’t have a bad season.
The 49ers also lost reserve Sheldon Day, but he was underwhelming on 325 snaps last season. They still have DJ Jones, who was better on 304 snaps last season than Day was, especially against the run. A 2017 6th round pick, Jones didn’t show much on 304 snaps in the first two seasons of his career before showing improvement last season and he doesn’t have a huge upside, but he could remain a capable reserve. He’ll play a role along with Kinlaw, Armstead, and Thomas, at a position group that lost its best player from last season.
The 49ers were also improved in the linebacking corps last season. This wasn’t really a surprise, as the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal in free agency, but Alexander was actually limited to 357 middling snaps in the regular season by injury. Instead, this group took a step forward because Fred Warner stepped up in his 2nd year in the league and 5th round rookie Dre Greenlaw proved to be a steal, holding his own in an every down role in Alexander’s absence and finishing 38th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 725 snaps.
Warner is likely locked into an every down role again in 2020, after playing in that capacity in each of his first two seasons in the league and improving from his rookie year to his 2nd season, in which he finished as PFF’s 28th ranked off ball linebacker. A former 3rd round pick only in his age 24 season, Warner has the ability to keep getting better. Alexander and Greenlaw, meanwhile, will compete for the other every down role, with the loser likely to play in a pure base package role when the 49ers play with 3 off ball linebackers.
Greenlaw is still pretty unproven and Alexander’s contract and coverage ability suggests he’s the favorite, but Alexander has never played as well as he’s being paid, topping out at 33rd among off ball linebackers (2016) in 5 seasons in the league and consistently struggling against the run and as a tackler (86 missed tackles in 54 career games), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Greenlaw outplayed him in training camp and the pre-season and won the job. Alexander has also had each of his last three seasons impacted by significant injuries (26 games played out of 48 possible), so there’s a good chance Greenlaw ends up in an every down role at some point one way or another. This is a deep and talented group, even if it lacks an elite player.
The 49ers were also better in the secondary last season than 2018 and, unlike the other defensive position groups where they were better, they didn’t make any major additions to the secondary. Instead, they just got much better play from pretty much everyone across the board. No player was more important than #1 cornerback Richard Sherman, as the multi-time All-Pro turned back the clock in 2019 and finished #2 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.
Sherman seemed to be on the decline going into 2019, tearing his Achilles midway through the 2017 season, falling to 49th among cornerbacks on PFF upon his return in 2018, and now on the wrong side of 30, but last season he showed himself to be every bit of the cornerback who finished in the top-10 among cornerbacks on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2011-2015. Sherman’s age is still a concern, but in his age 32 season it’s reasonable to expect he could continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons even if he declines, especially since he’s much more reliant on intelligence than athleticism. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2020 as he was in 2019, but Sherman could easily decline gracefully over the next few years if he can avoid further injury.
Slot cornerback K’Waun Williams also made a big jump from 2018 to 2019, ranking 58th among cornerbacks in 2018 before jumping to 10th in a 2019 season in which he also ranked 17th in yards per route run allowed among slot cornerbacks (0.99). Last year was the best year of Williams’ career, but he’s not a one-year wonder, finishing in the top-34 among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 of 5 healthy seasons in the league and allowing 0.98 yards per route run on the slot in his career. Still in his age 29 season, he should remain one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league even if he isn’t as good as he was last season.
Sherman and Williams are locked in, but the other outside cornerback spot opposite Sherman is up for grabs. Ahkello Witherspoon opened last season as the starter and played at a high level in the first 3 weeks of the season, but then he got injured, missed 6 games, struggled upon his return, and then eventually was benched. Witherspoon has been up and down throughout his 3 seasons in the NFL, but he’s still a former 3rd round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could have a mini-breakout year in 2020 if he can stay healthy, but, given how inconsistent he’s been in the past, he’s not guaranteed to even win his old job back.
Emmanuel Mosley started in Witherspoon’s absence last season and eventually took his job down the stretch. Undrafted in 2018, Mosley wasn’t bad in the first 577 snaps of his career last season (9 starts). It’s still worth noting that every team including the 49ers let him fall out of the draft, given that he still has very little NFL experience, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he beat the undrafted rookie odds and developed into a consistently capable starter long-term. Neither him nor Witherspoon are sure things to be solid starters in 2020, but both have upside.
At safety, the 49ers got a big improvement between 2018 and 2019 from Jimmie Ward, who finished below average on PFF on 388 snaps in an injury plagued season in 2018, but then jumped to 7th among safeties in 2019. Ward still missed 3 games with injury and injuries have plagued him throughout his career, costing him 32 of a possible 96 games since the 49ers took him in the 1st round in 2014.
Ward is also a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, so even if he does stay relatively healthy, he’s unlikely to play as well. He’s definitely shown potential in the past when healthy though and is a good fit in his role as the deep safety in this defense, after moving around both safety spots and the slot cornerback spot early in his career. Still only in his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have another above average year, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good and he’s an obvious injury risk.
Fellow safety Jaquiski Tartt didn’t improve from 2018 to 2019, but he remained a solid starter and played more games, playing in 12 after being limited to 8 the previous season. Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his 5-year career, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed a total of 19 games over the past 3 seasons, but he’s generally been an above average starter when healthy. He’ll probably miss time at some point again, but should continue playing around the same level when on the field.
With two injury prone starting safeties, depth will be important for the 49ers at the safety position, but they will be in reasonably good hands if either of their starters goes down, as 2018 3rd round pick Tavarius Moore showed some promise on 234 snaps last season and could easily be an above average reserve in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. The 49ers might not be quite as good in the secondary in 2020, but this is still a well above average group.
It’s typically tough for teams to be as good as the 49ers were last season in back-to-back years, but the typical risk factors for regression aren’t really present here. The 49ers didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also bring back all key members of their coaching staff. None of this ensures the 49ers will win the Super Bowl this year or even make it back, but they should be considered one of the top few contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The 49ers have some injuries in the receiving corps to start the season, but overall look in good shape for another deep playoff run.
Projection: 12-4 (1st in NFC West)