San Francisco 49ers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, the 49ers were one of the best teams in the league, going 13-3 in the regular season, making the Super Bowl, and coming within a few minutes of holding on for the win over the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s tough to be that good in the NFL in back-to-back years and, as a result, most teams that win 13 games and lose in the Super Bowl regress the following season. The 49ers didn’t have the obvious risk factors for a big regression though. 

They didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They weren’t overly reliant on winning close games (5-3 in one score games). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury. They also avoided major personnel losses last off-season, with the 4th most snaps returned in the league and all of the key members of their coaching staff returning. In terms of first down rate differential, which is one of the most predictive stats year-to-year, the 49ers finished the 2019 season ranked 4th at +3.66%. However, the 49ers still fell off significantly, finishing just 6-10, in dead last in the NFC West.

What happened? Well, even though the 49ers were not unsustainably good in any of the aforementioned metrics in 2019, that didn’t mean they couldn’t be unsustainably bad in all of them in 2020, even if something like that would have been unlikely. That is, unfortunately, exactly what happened though. They didn’t have a terrible record in close games, going 3-5 in one score games, but their -14 point differential suggests they should have won a game or two more. 

A bigger issue was their turnover margin, which ranked 2nd worst in the league at -11. Beyond that, they had a -4 return touchdown margin which cost them at least a couple games (Washington and Philadelphia) by itself, as well a loss to Dallas in which they were -4 in turnovers and -24 in points off turnovers. Turnover margin is one of the least predictive stats on a year-to-year basis, so I’m not concerned their turnover issues will carry into 2021. 

The 49ers won the first down rate battle by a wide margin in all three of those games and could have easily finished 9-7 had just a few things gone differently and that’s in just those three games. On the season, the 49ers actually ranked 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.32%, not even that far behind where they were when they won 13 games in 2020. It’s not hard to see how the 49ers could have won 10-11 games last season with an even turnover margin.

That’s despite arguably the 49ers’ biggest issue last season, which was injuries. I mentioned earlier that the 49ers had among the most adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2019, but that was nothing compared to 2020, when they not only led the league in adjusted games lost to injury, but had the second most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the past two decades. It was arguably even worse than that suggests, as those injuries seemed to disproportionately affect their most important players.

That includes quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered an ankle injury early in the season, didn’t play as well upon his return, and then re-aggravated the injury and was shut down for the season. Through his first two games before the injury, Garoppolo completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions, but he saw that drop to 67.0% completion, 7.76 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions after the injury. Even worse, backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens and CJ Beathard combined to complete 64.4% of their passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Acquiring Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 2nd round pick midway through the 2017 season was a pivotal moment in the 49ers’ rebuild and he set expectations high from the start, going 5-0 to close out the 2017 season, with a team that previously was just 1-10. That earned him a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension that solidified him as the 49ers’ franchise quarterback, but his 2018 season was also an injury plagued one, as he tore his ACL in week 3 and missed the rest of the season, leading to the 49ers finishing among the worst teams in the league that season.

Garoppolo did play all 16 games in the 49ers’ 13-3 season in 2019, completing 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked quarterback, but that is not only the lone season of his career in which he made all 16 starts, but those 16 starts also are half of his career total, as he’s somehow still only made 32 career starts, between backing up Tom Brady early in his career and frequently getting injured in his tenure with the 49ers. Garoppolo also missed time with injury when he had the opportunity to start in 2016 in place of a suspended Tom Brady and hurt his shoulder six quarters in, further adding to his reputation as an injury prone player.

One benefit of the 49ers’ losing season last year was they got the 12 overall pick out of it, but that wasn’t enough for the 49ers, who made a radical move up the draft board with the Miami Dolphins to #3 overall to select a franchise quarterback of the future. The move didn’t come cheap, as they had to part with their first round picks in both 2022 and 2023, as well as a third rounder in 2022, to move up from #12 to #3. 

It might seem like a bit of a head scratching move from the 49ers and it’s definitely a risk, but the 49ers clearly believe that they’ve seen the best that Garoppolo has to offer and that his injury history is a real concern. With Garoppolo’s 25.5 million dollar salaries for 2021 and 2022 both being unguaranteed, the 49ers could move on from him whenever they like, while whichever quarterback they selected at 3 would be on a cheap rookie deal, allowing them to spend more on the rest of this roster. That quarterback ultimately ended up being North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, an inexperienced quarterback with a massive upside.

Giving up a total of three first round picks is a steep price to pay for Lance, but winning a Super Bowl with a highly paid quarterback who is not elite is nearly an impossible task and, in fact, no team has won the Super Bowl since the start of the salary cap era with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of their cap unless that quarterback was a future Hall of Famer. The 49ers nearly pulled it off in 2019, but clearly they didn’t love their chances of doing that again with Garoppolo and think that they would be better off with a cheaper young quarterback with more money invested on the rest of this roster, especially as talented players at other positions start needing to be extended on deals that are a significant pay increase.

Of course, Garoppolo still remains on this roster, but that is something that can change at any point up until final cuts without the 49ers having to pay him a dime in 2021. There has been a lot of speculation about Garoppolo’s future. Many expected the 49ers would move Garoppolo right after moving up for a quarterback, which came a couple months before the draft, as the 49ers need to recoup some draft capital and were unlikely to leave the quarterback they paid such a steep price to draft on the bench, while Garoppolo’s salary was obviously significantly more than a typical backup.

However, the 49ers came out shortly after moving up for a quarterback and said they were not moving Garoppolo and that they were planning to do what the Chiefs did with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes, sitting the rookie for a year behind Garoppolo. That metaphor was never perfect though, as the Chiefs gave up significantly less to draft Mahomes and were paying significantly less to Alex Smith than the 49ers are for Garoppolo, and, as draft day came closer, the 49ers stance seemed to shift from not moving Garoppolo to being willing to move him for the right deal. However, that deal never came and Garoppolo is still in town.

Not moving him when they had the chance to potentially get something substantial for him could prove to be a mistake. At this point in the off-season, with most teams reasonably satisfied with their quarterback situation, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious suitor for Garoppolo, let alone one that would be willing to pay him his scheduled salary and give up a draft pick. That could change if someone gets hurt before the start of the season, but if that doesn’t happen, the 49ers may wind up either having to release Garoppolo for nothing or having to keep him at his expensive salary.

Despite the 49ers mentioning the Smith/Mahomes situation in regards to their own quarterback situation, I still expect that they’re hoping that Lance can win the week 1 starting job, which would not only be a good sign for their young quarterback’s development, but would also save them significant cap space that they can roll forward if they let Garoppolo go and replace him with a cheaper veteran backup, which they can still find in free agency. 

Lance also gives them the higher upside at quarterback as well, though obviously he comes with a big downside as well. Ultimately, whether the 49ers’ decision to acquire Lance will come down to whether or not he develops and there is certainly a lot of risk here, but it’s understandable why they did what they did, given that the alternative is continually paying a middling injury prone quarterback at a high level. Regardless of which quarterback starts this season, the 49ers figure to win a lot more games than last season, but whether or not they can take the next step depends on how quickly Lance develops.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Even with Garoppolo missing significant time and backup quarterbacks playing the majority of the season, the 49ers’ biggest offensive injury was still arguably tight end George Kittle, who is one of the top offensive players in the league at his best. A 5th round pick in 2016, Kittle burst onto the scene with a dominant 2018 season, putting up a 88/1377/5 slash line despite mostly playing with backup quarterbacks, dominating as a run blocker, and finishing as PFF’s #1 ranked tight end overall. 

Kittle hasn’t matched those numbers since, but it’s not because he dropped off. In 2019, he saw his targets and routes drop on a more run heavy team and also missed a pair of games with injury, but his 85/1053/5 slash line was still very impressive considering everything and his yards per route run average increased from the previous season’s already impressive total. After leading all tight ends with 2.82 yards per route run in 2018, in 2019 Kittle led all pass catchers (including wide receivers) with 3.12 yards per route run, en route to a second straight season as PFF’s #1 overall ranked tight end. 

Kittle once again led all tight ends with 2.84 yards per route run in 2020, 2nd among all pass catchers only behind Davante Adams, once again showing he is capable of producing at a high level, regardless of who is under center. Unfortunately, his overall numbers (48/634/2) were severely limited by the fact that he was held to 443 snaps played in 8 games. Still, he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked tight end and, when on the field, proved himself to still be the same dominant player he has been for several years now. 

Kittle has somewhat of a concerning injury history and has only played all 16 games once in four seasons in the league, but he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, so there is no reason not to expect him to be one of the offensive players in the league once again in 2021 and, as long as he can stay reasonably healthy, he could easily have the most impressive season by any tight end in the league. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce gets more attention than him because of his receiving totals, but Kelce plays on a much pass heavier offense with arguably the best quarterback in the league, averages fewer yards on a per route basis, and is not nearly as good as Kittle as a blocker. 

Kittle wasn’t the 49ers only key injury in the receiving corps either, as Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk were expected to be their top two wide receivers, but they were limited to just 305 snaps in 7 games and 728 snaps in 12 games respectively by injury. Both players are still young with a lot of upside though and still have bright futures ahead of them. Samuel was the 49ers’ 36th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, selected at the top of the second round, while Aiyuk was selected in the first round, 25th overall, in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Samuel took some time to get into the starting lineup as a rookie, but he finished with a 57/802/3 slash line and a 2.04 yards per route run average (15th among wide receivers), which seemed to predict more from him in year two, but Samuel’s second season in the league hardly got off the ground. He still showed an impressive 2.26 yards per route run average though (10th among wide receivers), suggesting that he still has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 wide receiver if he can stay healthy and in the starting lineup all season.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, still led this team with a 60/748/5 slash line, despite the missed time, as he averaged 1.73 yards per route run, and finished the season as PFF’s 23rd ranked wide receiver. Development of talented young players is not always linear and, even if Aiyuk develops into one of the better wide receivers in the league over the next few seasons, that isn’t a guarantee that he takes a big step forward in year two, but even if he doesn’t, he’s shown enough promise already in limited action that the 49ers should benefit just by hopefully having him around for most of the season.

With Aiyuk and Samuel both missing time last season, 3rd receiver Kendrick Bourne saw more playing time and finished with a career best 49/667/2 slash line (1.49 yards per route run), but he signed with the Patriots this off-season, leaving the #3 receiver job up for grabs. Top reserve holdover Richie James, a 7th round pick in 2018, is in the mix and saw more significant playing time for the first time in his career last year, due injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s earned just middling grades overall from PFF and his 1.53 yards per route run average isn’t overly impressive either. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the #3 receiver job and, with three other very talented pass catchers on this offense, James won’t be counted on for much, barring another improbable rash of injuries.

The 49ers also signed veteran Mohamed Sanu, who will likely be James’ primary competition for the role. At his best, Sanu was a solid #2/#3 receiver with the Falcons, averaging a slash line of 68/757/4 per 16 games in 53 games in Atlanta from 2016-2019, but he got hurt shortly after being traded mid-season in 2019 to the Patriots and has caught just 31 passes in 16 games since, while bouncing from the Patriots to the Lions to the 49ers late last season, with whom he played just 40 snaps in 3 games. 

Now going into his age 32 season, Sanu’s best days are definitely behind him, but he could have enough left in the tank to be a decent depth option for the 49ers if he’s past his injuries, although he might have just as good of a chance of not making the team and being completely finished. One wild card option for the 49ers at wide receiver could be Jalen Hurd, who the 49ers clearly had expectations for when they selected him in the 3rd round in 2019, but they have yet to see him play a regular season snap due to multiple injuries. He could still have upside, but it’s hard to know what to expect, if anything, from him in 2021.

Depth is a bit of a concern at tight end as well. Last year, they were actually decently equipped to handle Kittle’s absence, as they had veteran tight end Jordan Reed, who turned the clock back a little bit and averaged a 1.31 yards per route run average in limited action, but Reed retired this off-season, leaving the 49ers with some underwhelming options. Ross Dwelley actually led this position group with 502 snaps played last season, with Kittle missing time and Reed only being a passing down option, and Dwelley played 360 snaps in 2019 as well, but the 2018 undrafted free agent is primarily a blocking specialist, has averaged just 1.03 yards per route run as a receiver, and isn’t all that good of a run blocker either.

Charlie Woerner, a 6th round pick in 2020, is also an option, as they could be expecting him to take a step forward in year two, after 119 mediocre rookie year snaps. Their best option as a pure blocker would be free agent addition MyCole Pruitt, who has been a consistently above average run blocker over the past few seasons, but he’s not much of a receiver, with 32 catches in 62 career games. Needless to say, the 49ers will need Kittle to stay healthy this year, even more so than last year when Reed was a decent insurance policy. Depth is a concern across this receiving corps, but their top-3 options have a huge upside together, assuming they can stay healthier than last season, when they combined to miss 21 games, which they almost definitely will. That will be a huge boost to this team.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The 49ers’ running backs had injury issues last season as well. Expected lead back Raheem Mostert was limited to just eight games (104 carries) and, with him missing significant time, Jeff Wilson led the team in carries with 126 carries, but even he missed four games with injury. Ironically, Jerick McKinnon was their only running back to play all 16 games, after he missed all of 2018 and 2019 with injury, but the passing down specialist was not an effective runner, averaging 3.94 yards per carry, and his passing down work (1.19 yards per route run and 5.50 yards per target) left something to be desired as well.

Mostert and Wilson, meanwhile, averaged 5.01 YPC and 4.76 YPC respectively, so if the 49ers can have both of them healthy for most of this season, that should be a boost to this running game. Unfortunately, that already seems unlikely with Wilson, who suffered an off-season injury that could cost him the first month or two of the season. Wilson is probably the less important of these two backs though as, even though he was impressive last season, he otherwise has just 93 carries for 3.99 YPC in three seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2018.

Mostert is also a former undrafted free agent and took a few years to get established as a runner, spending his first four seasons in the league from 2015-2018 as primarily a special teamer who had totaled just 41 carries. However, Mostert was given a chance during the 49ers’ run in 2019 and made the most of it. Including the post-season, Mostert averaged 5.83 YPC on 190 carries and rushed for 13 touchdowns. Even though he missed time with injury, Mostert’s impressive average in 2020 showed that his 2019 season wasn’t a complete fluke so, while he doesn’t have the biggest track record, he should remain an effective lead back in 2021 and hopefully one who can stay healthier.

The 49ers also upgraded the rest of this backfield this off-season, letting go of McKinnon and fellow veteran Tevin Coleman, who was the most injured of this group with just 28 carries in 8 games, and replacing them with free agent Wayne Gallman and third round rookie Trey Sermon, who could both prove to be upgrades. Sermon projects as a potential future starter, while Gallman played better than his numbers suggest from his first 4 seasons with the Giants, who selected him in the 4th round in 2017. 

Gallman has averaged just 4.28 YPC on 338 carries in his career, but he played on consistently below average offenses and he picked up 68.9% of his yardage after contact, with only 19.0% coming on carries longer than 15 yards, meaning his average isn’t inflated by a couple long runs. He’s only topped the 100 carry mark twice in his career, but one of those instances was last season, when he averaged 4.64 YPC with 78.2% coming after contact and a 54% carry success rate that ranked 14th in the NFL. He also finished with PFF’s 26th highest rushing grade for a running back. He definitely could hold the rookie Sermon off for the #2 running back job behind Mostert, but Sermon has high upside as well.

The 49ers don’t throw all that often to their running backs, with 137 targets going their way in 2020 and just 103 targets in 2019, when the 49ers were more run heavy because of their strong defense and when passing down back Jerick McKinnon was hurt. Now without McKinnon and with a healthier defense, that number should go down closer to the 2019 mark and there will be even fewer targets up for grabs for running back than that suggests, as fullback Kyle Juszczyk has averaged 34 targets per season in his four seasons with the 49ers and has been probably their most effective receiver out of the backfield, with 1.53 yards per route run and 7.94 yards per target.

Of their running backs, Raheem Mostert (1.26 yards per route run in his career) seems to be the best passing down option, as Jeff Wilson (1.06 yards per route run), and Wayne Gallman (1.01 yards per route run) have not impressed in passing situations in their careers, while the rookie Trey Sermon could still be raw in the passing game in year one. Overall, passing the ball to their running backs is not going to be a part of this offense, as they should be able to effectively run the ball and move the ball in the air to their downfield receivers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As injury plagued as they were last season, the 49ers didn’t have an outbreak of injuries in every unit last season. Their offensive line fortunately mostly avoided significant injuries and was the single biggest reason for this team still finishing 14th in first down rate over expected at +0.58%, despite all of the injuries at other positions. Expected starting center Weston Richburg did miss the entire season with injury, but he was probably their worst starter anyway and their other four projected starters all made at least 14 starts, with three of them making 16 starts. 

Richburg retired this off-season, so the 49ers won’t get the benefit of getting him back, but the 49ers did add veteran starter Alex Mack in free agency, who they are expecting can be an upgrade at their only position of weakness upfront last season. Mack is going into his age 36 season, so his age is obviously a concern, but he was one of the best centers in the league in his prime, starting his career with eleven straight seasons in the top-15 among centers on PFF, including a 2nd ranked finish as recently as 2017 and a 4th ranked finish as recently as 2018. 

Mack has clearly started to decline, but he still finished last season as PFF’s 18th ranked center, after finishing 8th the year before, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Mack hold it together as a capable starter for another year or two. The rest of this offensive line returns around Mack, so they should once again have an above average unit upfront. If Mack struggles, the 49ers’ likely plan will be to shift right guard Daniel Brunskill inside to center, where he made his final eight starts of last season, and then plugging 2nd round rookie Aaron Banks in at Brunskills’ old spot at right guard. 

A 2017 undrafted free agent, Brunskill didn’t play an offensive snap in his first two seasons in the league, but he flashed on 474 snaps in 2019, before earning a middling grade as a season-long starter in 2020. He might never be better than a middling starter, but he does have impressive versatility, making 1 start at left tackle, 4 starts at right tackle, 10 starts at right guard, and 8 starts at center in his brief career.

Aside from Richburg missing the whole season, only left tackle Trent Williams missed any time last season and one of his two missed games was due to the COVID protocols. Williams actually sat out all of the 2019 season in a dispute with his old team in Washington over their mishandling of a medical situation, before Washington ultimately granted his wish for a trade and sent him to the 49ers for a 3rd and 5th round pick last off-season. Williams was one of the better left tackles in the league prior to sitting out the 2019 season, as the 2010 4th overall pick went on to make 119 starts in 9 seasons in Washington, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles in each of his final 9 seasons in Washington, including four seasons in the top-7 and two #1 overall finishes.

Despite that, acquiring Williams was not a slum dunk move. Not only had he sat out the whole previous season, but the 2020 season was his age 32 season, he had just one-year, 12.5 million left on his contract, and the 49ers had to give up a couple picks to acquire him. However, it worked out as not only did Williams turn back the clock and have one of the best seasons of his career, finishing 1st among offensive tackles on PFF, but the 49ers were able to keep him this off-season, albeit on a 6-year, 138.06 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid offensive tackle in the league and that guarantees him 41.5 million over the first two years. 

It’s a risky contract because Williams isn’t getting any younger, now in his age 33 season, but he really hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet and when he starts to decline, it’ll be from a high basepoint, so he could remain an above average starter for at least another couple seasons. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2021 as his dominant 2020 season, but he should still be a major asset for this offensive line and this offense in general.

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey remains locked in at right tackle opposite Williams. The 9th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, many expected he would move over to left tackle long-term, but the Williams acquisition and extension ensures he’ll remain on the right side, where he has generally performed at a high level. McGlinchey had a down second season in the league in 2019, in part because of injuries that cost him 4 games and limited him in others, but he still earned a slightly above average grade from PFF that season, which is sandwiched in between a 23rd ranked finish as a rookie in 2018 and a 20th ranked finish in 2020, in seasons where McGlinchey made all 16 starts. Still very much in his prime in his age 27 season, he should remain an above average right tackle for years to come.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson rounds out this offensive line and is also a former first round pick in his own right, but that selection was made by the Lions, 28th overall in 2015, while the 49ers only paid a fifth round pick to acquire him after two inconsistent seasons in Detroit. The Lions proved to have moved on from him too quickly, as Tomlinson has made 63 of 64 starts for the 49ers in four seasons since they acquired him, earning an above average grade in all 4 seasons, including a 29th ranked finish on PFF in 2019 and an 8th ranked finish in 2020. Tomlinson is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, so I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as 2020, but he should also remain an above average starter in 2021.

The 49ers should have at least three starters who are above average, possibly well above average, in Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, and Mike McGlinchey, and they should have an above average offensive line overall, but needless to say if injuries strike this group more than last season, that would be a concern. Fortunately their depth situation isn’t bad, especially on the interior. Aside from second round rookie Aaron Banks, they have a pair of experienced, if underwhelming journeymen in Tom Compton (37 career starts) and Senio Kelemete (42 career starts). 

However, the swing tackle role is more questionable, with expected swing tackle Justin Skule tearing his ACL earlier this off-season. Without him, the swing tackle role looks likely to be left up to 2020 5th round pick Colton McKivitz (0 rookie year snaps), 5th round rookie Jaylon Moore, or veteran Shon Coleman, who saw significant action earlier in his career, but struggled and hasn’t played a snap since 2017. It’s possible they could move Banks outside if an injury happened to a starter there and Compton and Kelemete have a little bit of experience at tackle as well. Overall, this is an above average group, but they have a couple questionable spots and their depth could be a concern if the starters don’t all stay mostly healthy again next season.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

On defense, the 49ers’ biggest injury absence last season was edge defender Nick Bosa, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, after being selected 2nd overall by the 49ers, ranking 11th among edge defenders on PFF and totaling 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate, only to see his second season end with a torn ACL suffered early in week 2, after just 68 snaps played. Bosa should be able to make a full recovery and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was as a rookie, he should still be a big re-addition for this team. He also has the upside to be even better than his rookie season if he’s fully past his injury. He could easily add a Comeback Player of the Year award to his trophy case and he has the long-term potential to someday add a Defensive Player of the Year.

Bosa’s return overshadows the return of Dee Ford from injury, but Ford has the potential to make a huge impact as an edge rusher if he’s fully past his injuries and able to perform at the level he played at previously. In his career, Ford has 37 sacks, 45 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate in 79 games in 7 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2018, when he had 13 sacks, 19 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate, while finishing the season as PFF’s 10th ranked edge defender.

That enticed the 49ers to not only trade for him after he had been franchise tagged by the Chiefs the following off-season, giving up a 2nd round pick, but also to extend him on a deal worth 85.5 million over 5 years. However, that deal hasn’t gone according to plan. He had an impressive 14.4% pressure rate in his first season with the 49ers and was very effective when on the field for a dominant defense, but he was limited to just 226 snaps and then in 2020 he saw his season end after 46 snaps in just one game played. 

The 49ers could have opted to move on from Ford this off-season, ahead of what would have been a non-guaranteed 16 million dollar salary, but instead they renegotiated a heavily reduced contract with him and will be paying him just 7 million this season instead. That could prove to be a steal if he’s at his best and, the 49ers have a deep enough rotation on the edge that Ford won’t have to play much on early downs, where he can struggle, and instead can just focus on getting after the passer in obvious passing situations, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and the 30 games he’s missed over the past four seasons are obviously concerning. 

The 49ers also have Arik Armstead, who has played a big role on this defensive line in each of the past two seasons, averaging 763 snaps per season, while playing all 16 games in both seasons, primarily playing on the edge. That’s surprising for a number of reasons. For one, Armstead is 6-7 292 and was drafted primarily to play on the interior as a defensive end in a 3-4 defense, which is where he saw a lot of early career action, after being selected by the 49ers in the first round in 2015. On top of that, Armstead had significant injury issues early in his career, missing 18 games over his first 3 seasons combined, and looked like something of a bust up until a couple of seasons ago. 

Armstead always flashed potential early in his career and showed signs of being the player the 49ers were expecting when they selected him with a high draft pick, as he had a 12.7% pressure rate over those first 3 injury plagued seasons and then in his 4th season he played all 16 games and had his best season to that point in his career, only managing 3 sacks, but adding 9 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate while playing strong run defense and finishing as PFF’s 29th ranked edge defender overall. 

However, even that didn’t seem to predict how well Armstead would play in 2019, when he had 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, dominated against the run, and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked edge defender. He fell off a little bit in 2020, but still finished 18th among edge defenders on PFF, making it three straight above average seasons for him, while not missing a single game over that stretch. He should play at a similar level in 2021, still in his prime in his age 28 season. With Ford and Bosa both back and healthy, it’s possible Armstead sees more action on the interior than he’s seen over the past couple seasons, but he’s a force on this defensive line regardless of where he plays.

Aside from Arik Armstead, Kerry Hyder played the most among 49ers edge defenders in 2020, playing 722 snaps and faring pretty well across those snaps, but he’s no longer with the team. The 49ers also no longer have Dion Jordan (375 snaps), who they signed as a mid-season reinforcement, and, on top of that, rotational player Jordan Willis (183 snaps), who was also a mid-season reinforcement, is suspended for the first six games of the season and probably won’t see a significant role at any point in 2021.

The 49ers do have depth options though, signing Arden Key and Samson Ebukam, who have some experience as rotational players. Key was a 3rd round pick in 2018, but he’s disappointed with a 8.6% pressure rate in his career and was cut by the Raiders before the end of his rookie deal. The Raiders might have given up on him a little early though, as he’s just now going into his age 25 season and has at least some experience under his belt, averaging 419 snaps per season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was better with his second team.

Ebukam, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same ceiling, but also has a higher floor. He’s largely been a middling player since being selected by the Rams in the 4th round in 2017, but he’s played in all 64 games in 4 seasons in the league, averaging 30.8 snaps per game and totaling 14 sacks, 14 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate. Neither Ebukam nor Key will see more than a rotational role unless significant injuries strike again, but they do provide solid depth at a position group that has a massive upside if everyone stays healthy. As good as they were in 2019, Bosa was just a rookie and Ford wasn’t healthy most of the season. It’s conceivable they could be even better than that dominant group if things go right in 2021.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player missing from the 49ers’ dominant defensive line is DeForest Buckner, who ranked 14th among interior defenders in 2019, but the 49ers used the draft pick they acquired in exchange for him on a replacement in Javon Kinlaw and avoided having to pay Buckner the 4-year, 84 million dollar extension the Colts gave him, allowing the 49ers to keep Arik Armstead on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. Kinlaw was not a good replacement for Buckner in year one, finishing just 100th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 547 snaps, but he has the upside to be a lot better in year two. 

The 49ers also added to their interior this off-season with a couple of great, cheap signings in Maurice Hurst and Zach Kerr. Hurst was a 5th round pick by the Raiders in 2018 and showed a lot of promise across his first two seasons in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in both seasons, averaging 497 snaps per season, and especially impressing as a pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate. That seemed like it could precede a third year breakout year, but instead Hurst was limited to 277 snaps in 11 games, primarily due to injuries.

Hurst still played well in his limited action though, finishing a career best 21st among interior defenders on PFF, and, only going into his age 26 season this season, he seemed like he could still have that breakout year in 2021 if he stayed healthy. Instead, the Raiders cut him to save a little bit of cap space this off-season. Hurst leaves something to be desired against the run, but it was a surprising move that seemed to make little sense. The 49ers could easily be a big beneficiary of that, as Hurst could now have his breakout year in San Francisco. Even if he doesn’t, he should still play well as a heavy rotational player, as he’s been whenever he’s been healthy in his career.

Kerr, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same track record as Hurst and is not as young, now heading into his age 31 season, but he excelled as a rotational player with the Panthers last season, finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked interior defender across 390 snaps. The big 6-2 335 pounder is unsurprisingly a good run stuffer, but he also showed some pass rush ability last season with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a 8.5% pressure rate. 

Kerr has never surpassed 394 snaps in a season in seven seasons in the league and his career 6.6% pressure rate is not as impressive as last year’s pass rush production, but he’s been a consistently solid run stuffer and, if he can add a little pass rush as well, that is just a bonus. I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as arguably the best season of his career last season, but unless he drops off significantly, he should still be an above average rotation player.

DJ Jones (420 snaps), Chris Givens (387 snaps), and Kentavius Street (380 snaps) all saw significant action last season and are still with the team, but they will see smaller roles with Hurst and Kerr being added this off-season. A 6th round pick in 2017, Jones struggled early in his career, but he’s developed into a capable rotational player over the past two seasons, earning middling grades over a combined 724 snaps over the past two seasons. He is the most likely of the trio to continue having a role. 

Givens and Street are a 2019 undrafted free agent respectively and a 2018 4th round pick and both struggled in the first significant action of their career last season, finishing 84th and 138th respectively out of 139 eligible interior defenders. It’s possible they still have some upside, but the 49ers won’t need to rely on them for a role. This group should be much improved this season, with the additions of Kerr and Hurst and Kinlaw going into his second season in the league. This isn’t as talented of a group as their edge defenders, but this is an above average group overall. 

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The 49ers linebackers were relatively healthy last season. Kwon Alexander suffered an ankle injury early in the year, but he was traded to the Saints upon his return in what amounted to a salary dump, so he won’t factor into the mix this season. The 49ers also lost Dre Greenlaw for 3 games, but he was a middling linebacker, so that wasn’t a huge loss. Most importantly, stud every down linebacker Fred Warner didn’t miss a game, in a dominant 2020 season that saw him finish as PFF’s #1 ranked off ball linebacker. In a season where this defense was otherwise ravaged by injury, Warner had a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season to elevate a group that still finished 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.65%.

Warner is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s been an every down player since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2018 and he earned above average grades from PFF in his first two seasons in the league as well, including a 28th ranked finish among off ball linebackers in 2019. That’s a far cry from his dominant 2020 season, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and, given that he has somewhat of a track record prior to last season, there is plenty of evidence that he can remain a top off ball linebacker in 2021 and beyond. 

Warner might not be quite as good as he was in 2020 and there is always a possibility he isn’t able to play in all 16 games this time around, despite having yet to miss a game in his career, but he should remain a huge asset for this defense and it shouldn’t be a surprise if he contends for the Defensive Player of the Year award again. The 49ers would be wise to lock him up long-term now, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, rather than waiting another year when the cap will be significantly higher and Warner’s value is likely to be higher as well.

Dre Greenlaw remains as the 49ers’ second off ball linebacker, after finishing 38th among off ball linebackers across 700 snaps in 13 games in that role last season. Greenlaw also finished 39th among off ball linebackers across 725 snaps in 2019, despite being a mere 5th round rookie. Greenlaw’s draft status makes me wonder if he has any more upside than what he’s shown thus far, but he should remain at least a solid starting linebacker and he has the versatility to play every down.

The 49ers play a 4-3 defense and will play three off ball linebackers together in base packages, so, even though they don’t play many base packages, they will still need to find a third linebacker. Azeez Al-Shaair played 305 snaps as primarily an injury replacement last season and held his own, but the 2019 undrafted free agent also struggled mightily across 174 rookie year snaps, so he’s hard to depend on. 

The 49ers added competition for him this off-season by signing ex-Eagle Nathan Gerry. He has experience as an every down player and, while he hasn’t played all that well in extended action, he could be a better fit for a smaller role, which is all the 49ers will need from him barring an injury to one of their starters. Fred Warner elevates this group by himself, but Greenlaw isn’t a bad starter either and the 49ers have some decent depth options.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The 49ers’ secondary was yet another injury ravaged group last season. Going into the season, Richard Sherman, Akhello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, and Emmnauel Moseley were the 49ers’ top-4 cornerbacks. They played 5 games, 9 games, 8 games, and 12 games respectively. Sherman was the biggest loss, as he was a huge part of the 49ers’ defensive success in 2019, when he was PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback. The 49ers had a bunch of free agent cornerbacks this off-season, but managed to bring back everyone except Sherman and Witherspoon, the former of whom is still available as a free agent and could still re-sign with the team before training camp, for what would be his age 33 season.

Ironically, the 49ers healthiest cornerback last season was free agent addition Jason Verrett, who was an under the radar signing, as a result of having missed 73 games in 7 seasons in the league, including a 4-year stretch from 2016-2019 where he played just 6 games total. However, Verrett stayed mostly healthy in 2020, playing 803 snaps in 13 games, earning PFF’s 9th highest grade for a cornerback, and providing needed stability at an otherwise injury plagued position.

Verrett’s performance didn’t come out of nowhere, as the 2014 1st round pick finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie (albeit in 223 snaps in yet another injury plagued season) and then finished 2nd across 720 snaps in 2015, in the only somewhat full season of his career prior to last season, which at the time made him seem like one of the most promising young players in the league. However, Verrett isn’t a young promising player any more after all that missed time, now heading into his age 30 season, and his history of injuries can’t be ignored. He should remain an asset for this team if he can stay healthy, but I wouldn’t bet on him having the impact he had last season.

With Moseley and Williams being brought back this off-season, I would expect them to play in three cornerback sets with Verrett. Moseley could be an every down player opposite Verrett, but he could struggle in that role. An undrafted free agent in 2018, Mosley showed some potential across 577 snaps in 2019 in his first career action, but struggled across 499 snaps last season, perhaps due to nagging injuries. He could bounce back, but he’s a former undrafted free agent who has been pretty inconsistent in his career, so it’s far from a guarantee that he ever develops into a consistent starter. 

With only third round rookie Ambry Thomas as a legitimate alternative behind him on the depth chart, the 49ers will be counting on Moseley to not be a position of weakness on this defense. The 49ers also have veteran Dontae Johnson, who saw action earlier in his career with the 49ers, but struggled and has played just 314 snaps in three seasons since, joining the 49ers for a second stint in the process. He might not even make this final roster and, even if he does, I wouldn’t expect him to see a significant role. Now in his age 30 season, he would be very unlikely to play well in extended action.

K’Waun Williams, meanwhile, is by far their best slot cornerback, so he should be locked into that role, even if he isn’t a legitimate option to play on the outside. Williams missed significant time last season with injury, which has been a recurring theme for him, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed 35 games over 7 seasons in the league combined. When healthy, he’s one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league though, earning an above average grade from PFF in every season in which he’s seen action, maxing out at 4th among cornerbacks across 350 snaps in 2014 and ranking 10th across 734 snaps as recently as 2019. He could easily bounce back to that level in 2021 if he’s healthy, although his injury history is a concern, as is his age, going into his age 30 season.

Continuing the theme of injuries, safety Jaquiski Tartt was limited to 374 snaps in 7 games last season. That’s nothing new for a player who has missed 30 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never played all 16 games in a season. Tartt plays well when healthy though, as the 2015 2nd round pick got past some early career struggles and has ranked an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons, maxing out at 16th among safeties in 2017, albeit across 595 snaps in yet another injury plagued season back. He’s almost a sure bet to miss at least some time, but the 49ers should have him for more than they had him last season and he should remain a solid starter when on the field.

Fellow starting safety Jimmie Ward also missed some time, but he still played 851 snaps in 14 games. Injuries have been a recurring theme for him in his career as well, to the point where last season was actually the most snaps he’s ever played in a season. He did play in all 16 games in 2015, but he played just 732 snaps and overall he has missed 34 games in 7 seasons since the 49ers selected him in the 1st round in 2014. 

Most of his missed time was earlier in his career though, as he also had 806 snaps in 13 games last season, which was previously his career high in snaps. Ward was also highly inconsistent earlier in his career, but has finished 7th and 16th among safeties on PFF in the past two seasons respectively, the two best finishes of his career. Going into his age 30 season, with a significant injury history, there is downside here, but Ward could continue playing at a high level for another season.

With the starters missing time last season, Marcell Harris (348 snaps) and Tavarius Moore (541 snaps) saw significant action as reserves, but most struggled. A 6th round and 3rd round pick in 2018 respectively, they both still theoretically have some upside, but the 49ers upgraded their depth this off-season with veteran Tavon Wilson, who will probably play over either of the young players. Wilson is going into his age 31 season and played just 219 snaps last season as a reserve with the Colts, but he has made 45 starts in 9 seasons in the league (125 games) since being selected in the 2nd round in 2012 and has always earned average or better grades from PFF when he’s played. 

Wilson is very much in the reserve stage of his career, but that’s all the 49ers will need him for and, if he has to make a few starts, he should be able to hold his own. This is a pretty talented secondary, but they could have a weakness at the #2 cornerback spot if Moseley doesn’t bounce back and they have several over 30 starters who are injury prone. They could add Richard Sherman back to this group, which would give them a boost, but he obviously would also fit the description of injury prone and over 30.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The 49ers are the probably surest bet in the NFL to have a significantly higher win total in 2021 as compared to 2020. All of the talent they are returning from injury is obvious, but this team was a lot better than their record last season, as they ranked 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.66% and could have easily won 9-10 games if not for an unsustainably poor turnover margin and terrible return touchdown luck. Add in the fact that this was legitimately one of the best teams in the league two years ago and you have a team that looks like it should be one of the best in the league once again. Even in the loaded NFC West, the 49ers should be divisional favorites and they may be the best team in the NFC outside of the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That being said, this team is a little different than it was a couple years ago, most notably at the quarterback position. New franchise quarterback of the future Trey Lance gives the 49ers a higher ceiling than Jimmy Garopppolo ever did and could easily be the piece to get them over the hump after coming so close in 2019, but he also gives them a lower floor and, even if they were to stick with Jimmy Garoppolo for another year, it’s far from a guarantee that he can stay healthy for the whole season like he did in 2019. Their quarterback situation will obviously be one to monitor in training camp and the pre-season. I will have a final prediction for the 49ers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

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