In 2019, the 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl and came within a blown 4th quarter lead of winning the whole thing, after a regular season in which they finished 13-3 and had the league’s 4th best efficiency rating. The 49ers brought back most of their core for 2020, but had a significant amount of key injuries, having the most adjusted games lost in the league, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being among the injured, missing 10 games and being limited in others. They still ranked 11th in efficiency rating, but they had a -11 turnover margin and a -4 return touchdown margin, which led to them going just 6-10.
Fortunately, adjusted games lost to injury and turnover margin are relatively unpredictive metrics on a year-to-year basis and, with most of their same core returning again in 2021, the chances for a bounce back season looked good. Injuries remained a problem, as the 49ers had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2021, but they still ranked 6th in overall efficiency rating. They still had a negative turnover margin at -4 and went just 3-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer, leading to them barely sneaking into the post-season at 10-7, after winning 7 of their final 9 regular season games, getting healthier as the season went on, but they were able to carry that into the post-season, where they came within a blown 4th quarter lead of making it back to the Super Bowl.
Despite their recent success, the 49ers still made the decision to move up from #12 to #3 in the 2021 NFL Draft, giving away their 2022 and 2023 first round pick in the process, to select quarterback of the future Trey Lance. Garoppolo still started most of the 2021 season, with Lance making his only two starts as an injury replacement, and Garoppolo actually ranked 2nd in the NFL with 8.64 YPA, giving him 8.43 YPA since he joined the 49ers during the 2017 season, best in the NFL over that span and a big part of the reason for the 49ers’ success over that time span.
However, Garoppolo has benefitted from having a lot of talent and a great scheme around him, especially last season, he has missed 25 games over the past four seasons due to injury, and he’s consistently struggled with turnovers, ranking 7th in adjusted interception rate among eligible quarterbacks in 2019 and 4th in 2021, in his only two full relatively healthy seasons since joining the team, a big part of the reason why the 49ers have had consistent turnover problems in recent years. When you add in the fact that Garoppolo is highly paid (25 million in 2021, 25.55 million in 2022), it was understandable that the 49ers would want to find a quarterback of the future, even if they paid a steep price to acquire a quarterback who was too raw to be the starter as a rookie.
Lance still averaged 8.49 YPA in his limited action as a rookie though, further evidence that Garoppolo benefits significantly from his supporting cast, as is the fact that his previous backups (CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens) had a 7.74 YPA average in Garoppolo’s absence in their tenures as his backup. It’s a limited sample size, but Lance also had a comparable interception rate (2.8% vs. 2.7%), while adding another dimension on the ground, averaging 4.42 YPC on 38 carries, and he’s reportedly impressed as the starter this off-season, with Garoppolo recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and unable to throw until training camp. In fact, Lance has reportedly been told behind the scenes that he is expected to be the starter this year, in his second season in the league.
Still only in his age 22 season, with a high sky upside, Lance probably doesn’t have as low of a floor as Garoppolo, but he undoubtedly has a higher ceiling and he has a good chance to be more durable than Garoppolo has been, even if Lance is likely to take significantly more hits because he’s a dual threat quarterback. Garoppolo is still on the roster as of this writing, but he’s very much in limbo, owed way too much money to be a backup, but with none of it guaranteed, meaning they can keep him up until final cuts and not pay him a dime. His current injury also complicates matters, especially when coupled with his overall injury history.
The 49ers probably still could have traded Garoppolo earlier this off-season if they had a more reasonable asking price, but they seem to have overplayed their hand and, at this point in the off-season, the only few teams left with an unsettled quarterback situation do not seem willing to give anything up for a quarterback that they believe they could sign for cheaper, without draft compensation, if and when the 49ers ultimately release him, rather than paying him about four times more than any other backup quarterback in the league.
It’s possible a team could lose their quarterback to a serious injury before the season begins and would then be desperate enough to trade for Garoppolo at his current salary, but most likely, the closer we get to the start of the season, the harder it will be to trade Garoppolo. Given that, a release at some point or another is probably the most likely outcome, unless Garoppolo agrees to a significant pay cut to facilitate a trade elsewhere, or to remain with the 49ers as a backup, a possibility if he doesn’t think he has a starting spot elsewhere.
Assuming Garoppolo is elsewhere this season, current 3rd string quarterback Nate Sudfeld would likely be Lance’s backup, although it’s possible they could add another veteran to the roster once Garoppolo is no longer with the team. Adding a veteran would be a good idea, as Sudfeld would be a very underwhelming backup, especially given the inexperience of the starter Lance. A 2016 6th round pick, Sudfeld has just 37 career pass attempts and no starts in 6 seasons in the league, posting a very underwhelming 77.3 QB rating and showing no signs of being the kind of quarterback who you’d be comfortable with starting for an extended period of time if the Lance were to suffer an injury. It’s a situation of concern if Garoppolo is not on this final roster, but Lance has the upside to be a noticeable upgrade on Garoppolo as the starter.
The biggest reason why both Garoppolo and Lance averaged a high YPA last season was their top trio pass catching trio of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk, who finished with slash lines of 77/1405/6, 71/910/6, and 56/826/5 on yards per route run averages of 2.98, 2.35, 1.68 respectively. That led to the 49ers ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards per pass attempt, a big part of the reason why they finished the season 1st in yards per play and 6th in overall offensive efficiency. All three of those pass catchers are expected to return for 2022 and, even with the uncertainty that comes with Lance replacing the more proven Garoppolo, the 49ers have a good chance to continue being among the best offenses in the league because of their supporting cast around the quarterback.
Prior to ranking 2nd among wide receivers in yards per route run, 5th in total receiving yards, 2nd in total yards after catch, and 6th in overall PFF grade in 2021, Samuel only had slash lines of 57/802/3 and 33/393/1 in his first two seasons in the league,. That makes last season look like something of a fluke, but he didn’t play a big snap count in either of those first two seasons, being eased in as a rookie and then missing 9 games with injury in 2020.
When he was on the field, Samuel showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league and even had some stretches of dominance, averaging 2.11 yards per route run between the two seasons, so his 2021 campaign didn’t come out of nowhere and there is a good chance he can continue playing around that level or close to it going forward, still only in his age 26 season, with a career 2.51 yards per route run average since being selected 36th overall early in the second round by the 49ers in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Kittle is also proven beyond last season, actually averaging a higher yards per route run average from 2018-2020 (2.93 yards per route run) than he did in 2021. With Samuel looking like the focal point of this passing game going forward, Kittle is likely to be closer to his 2021 average than his 2018-2020 average in 2022, but that average still was the best among tight ends last season, so he is obviously still a big part of this passing offense, even with Samuel emerging.
Also a dominant run blocker, Kittle finished last season as PFF’s 2nd ranked overall tight end last season, after ranking 1st, 1st, and 4th in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. Still only in his age 29 season, Kittle is unlikely to drop off significantly in 2022. Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he has missed 14 games in five seasons in the league, with time missed in all but one season, but, when healthy, he’s the best all-around tight end in the NFL.
Aiyuk hasn’t been quite as productive as Samuel or Kittle, but he is a former first round pick who is only going into his third season in the league and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward and develop into a high level wide receiver long-term, after averaging 1.70 yards per route run across his first two seasons in the league. He could be a #1 option for more than a few teams around the league, but, with the 49ers, he probably won’t be any better than the third option, behind Samuel and Kittle in a very talented position group.
Given who their top-3 were, the 49ers don’t need much from their other pass catchers, but they don’t have bad depth in this group. Jauan Jennings (340 snaps), Mohamed Sanu (240 snaps), and Trent Sherfield (266 snaps) all saw action at wide receiver behind Samuel and Aiyuk last season, but Jennings was by far the best (1.41 yards per route run, vs 1.04 for Sanu and 0.77 for Sherfield) and was basically their full-time #3 receiver in the second half of the season, playing 296 snaps in the final 9 games, after playing just 44 snaps in his career prior, as just a 7th round pick in 2020.
Given how well he played and that Sanu and Sherfield were not retained this off-season, Jennings has a great chance to remain the #3 wide receiver in 2022, with his top competition probably being 3rd round rookie Danny Gray, a raw option as a rookie. Jennings is still pretty unproven and wasn’t highly drafted, but he’s not a bad #3 wide receiver and the 49ers won’t need a big target share out of him, given their other pass catching options.
Charlie Woerner (249 snaps) and Ross Dwelley (196 snaps) saw action as the backup tight ends last season, but they have averages of just 1.01 yards per route run and 0.97 yards per route run in their careers and are mostly just blocking options. They’re at least solid blockers though, especially Woerner, who was selected by the 49ers in the 6th round in 2020, and the 49ers also have fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a unique player who lines up all over the formation and serves as a de facto #2 receiving tight end, averaging 1.40 yards per route run in his career, better than a lot of starting tight ends.
A 4th round pick in 2013, Juszczyk plays significantly more snaps than any other fullback, averaging 548 snaps per season since his second season in the league in 2014, including 610 snaps played in 2021. In addition to being a receiving threat, Juszczyk is also a solid run blocker and can carry the ball a little bit too, especially in short yardage, with 4 touchdowns and 3.58 YPC on 50 career carries. Juszczyk is now in his age 31 season, so he could decline a little bit, but he should still remain a useful asset as one of the more unique players in the NFL and a perfect fit for the kind of offense the 49ers want to play. The 49ers once again have a great receiving corps, with little changing from a year ago.
As effective as the 49ers’ passing game was last season, they could not have done so without a solid running game (16th in the NFL last season with 4.34 YPC) because this is still very much a run first team, ranking 6th in the NFL in carries in 2021, while ranking just 29th in pass attempts, which makes life much easier for their passing game because opposing defenses tend to focus on stopping the run when they face the 49ers. With Trey Lance under center this year, I would expect an even more run-heavy split, with Lance likely to take off at least a few times per game on his own, in addition to all of the carries the 49ers give their running backs.
Elijah Mitchell was only a 6th round rookie last season, but he still was an effective lead back for this team, rushing for 4.65 YPC on 207 carries and finishing 22nd among running backs on PFF in rushing grades. It’s definitely not uncommon for the zone blocking scheme that the 49ers utilize under head coach Kyle Shanahan to get big seasons out of unexpected running backs and Mitchell could see even more action in 2022, having the 13th most carries in the league last season despite missing 6 games with injury, but it’s also not uncommon for running backs like Mitchell to suddenly regress within this blocking scheme or to lose their job to another back who impresses within the scheme.
The 49ers do have other talented running back options who could push Mitchell for carries if they impress behind the scenes. Trey Sermon was actually drafted three rounds higher than Mitchell last year, selected with the 88th overall pick, but he had a disappointing and injury plagued first year in the league, averaging just 4.07 YPC on 41 carries in 5 games. He could still be better in year two and beyond though, and the 49ers also added another running back in the 3rd round of this year’s draft as well, taking LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price.
Veteran Jeff Wilson could also be in the mix for carries, after having 79 carries as the #2 back last season, although all but two of those carries came in the five games he played when Mitchell was out and he averaged an underwhelming 3.72 YPC. His career YPC average of 4.24 is better than his 2021 season average and the 2018 undrafted free agent understands the blocking system well, having spent his whole career in it, but he’s also totaled just 298 carries in his career, with a maximum of 126 carries in a season, and he’s not guaranteed a roster spot, with another young running back being added to the mix this off-season.
Deebo Samuel also saw 59 carries last season and was their best runner on a per carry basis, averaging a ridiculous 6.19 YPC with a team leading 8 rushing touchdowns, in addition to what he did as a receiver, not only getting the ball on end arounds like he did in his first two seasons in the league (8.41 YPC on 22 carries), but also lining up as a true running back from time-to-time. Lining your top wide receiver up as a running back regularly is probably not a feasible idea long-term though, as it exposes him to further injury, while wearing him out and taking him away from his natural position.
On top of that, Samuel understandably doesn’t seem to want to continue in the hybrid role going forward, risking further injury in the process, and a disagreement about his role led to Samuel demanding a trade this off-season and claiming he would not sign with the team long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. The 49ers have no interest in trading him and have the franchise tag to use if they can’t come to an agreement with Samuel before next off-season, but, with another true running back being added in the draft and wanting to keep Samuel happy long-term, it’s likely he will go back to his 2019-2020 usage as a ball carrier, being used sparingly on end arounds, rather than being a true running back option. He’s too good in the open field not to be given the ball on manufactured touches from time-to-time, but it’s understandable he doesn’t want to effectively have to play two different positions.
The 49ers have plenty of early down options, but none of the four running backs I have mentioned thus far do much in the passing game. Mitchell, Sermon, and Davis-Price were all underwhelming receivers in college, Mitchell and Sermon averaged just 0.91 yards per route run and 0.63 yards per route run respectively as rookies, and Wilson has just a 0.91 yards per route run average for his career. Mitchell still saw a significant passing down role last season, despite struggling in that aspect, leading 49ers running backs in pass snaps played, even with 6 games missed due to injury, but the 49ers also had to utilize JaMycal Hasty as a passing down specialist, playing 80.8% of his 156 snaps on a pass play.
Hasty averaged 1.43 yards per route run in a limited role last season, which isn’t bad, but the 2020 undrafted free agent is still highly inexperienced and, for him to make this final roster, the 49ers would almost definitely have to get rid of either Jeff Wilson or Trey Sermon to make the numbers work and make room for an inexperienced passing down specialist who is unexpected to make an impact as a runner (3.93 YPC on 55 career carries). It’s possible they could retain Hasty as a passing down specialist, but, either way, Mitchell is likely to get another significant opportunity in passing situations by default. He’ll probably struggle in that role, but the 49ers don’t utilize running backs in the passing game much anyway and Mitchell should remain a good early down option. If not, the 49ers have decent insurance behind him, in a solid overall backfield.
Starting Trey Lance should free up even more room for running backs in this offense because defenses will have to worry about his ability to take off and run himself, but that’s doesn’t necessarily mean life will be even easier for 49ers running backs this season, as they are unlikely to get the same offensive line play in 2022 as they did in 2021. In fact, if there is a reason this 49ers offense could be significantly worse in 2022, it’s most likely to be their offensive line more so than anything else, even the quarterback position. The 49ers were PFF’s 1st ranked run blocking and 6th ranked pass blocking offensive line in 2021, so, even if they do decline significantly, they would almost definitely still be above average in both aspects, but a noticeably worse offensive line will have a negative effect on this offense.
The biggest loss upfront for the 49ers this off-season was left guard Laken Tomlinson, who was PFF’s 11th ranked guard and played every snap in 2021, before signing a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Jets this off-season. The 49ers used a 2nd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Aaron Banks, who is a ready-made replacement for Tomlinson at left guard, but he’s highly inexperienced, after getting into just 5 snaps as a rookie, and, even if he has a solid first season as a starter, it would be a surprise if he was close to as good as Tomlinson was.
On top of that, promoting Banks into the starting lineup thins their depth, a problem since the 49ers also have to replace center Alex Mack, who opted to hang them up this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 37 season in 2022. Mack still finished 12th among centers on PFF in his final season in the league in 2021, so he’s not a small loss, and, if they had kept Tomlinson, they could have moved starting right guard Daniel Brunskill to center, where he has some experience, and then plugged Banks into Brunskill’s old spot.
Brunskill has been a capable, if unspectacular starter over 40 starts in the past three seasons, regardless of where he plays (27 starts at guard, 8 at center, 5 at tackle), and will likely continue that in 2022, regardless of where he plays, still only in his age 28 season. However, now if Brunskill is moved to center, the 49ers would have to turn to either 2021 5th round pick Jaylon Moore (145 rookie year snaps), 2020 5th round pick Colton McKinvitz (371 career snaps), or 4th round rookie Spencer Burford at right guard.
All three of those players are underwhelming options, but any of them may be better than the alternative, which would be to keep Brunskill at guard and start the only true center on their roster, veteran Jake Brendel, who has been in the league for six seasons, but has made just three career starts, while never playing more than 176 snaps in a season. The definition of a career backup, now in his age 30 season, Brendel would be a very underwhelming starting option if forced into the first extended starting role of his career.
The 49ers get starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey back from an injury that knocked him out for the season in week 9 last year, but his backup Tom Compton actually excelled in his absence, finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked offensive tackle in 7 starts, actually making him a significant upgrade on McGlinchey, who ranked 44th at the time he went down. Compton is no longer with the team, which thins their depth and, while McGlinchey has been a solid starter throughout his 4-year career, since being selected 9th overall by the 49ers in the 2018 NFL Draft, he’s never played as well as Compton did down the stretch last season, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked offensive tackle in 2020, so the 49ers will miss Compton too, as well as Tomlinson and Mack.
Aside from McGlinchey, left tackle Trent Williams is the only returning starter locked into the same position he played last season. He also happens to be by far their best offensive lineman, as he was PFF’s 1st ranked offensive tackle by a wide margin in 2021. However, that also means he doesn’t have anywhere to go but down and that it wouldn’t be hard for him to regress, even if only a little, especially now that he’s heading into his age 34 season.
Williams has had a Hall-of-Fame caliber career, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of his past ten seasons, including six seasons in the top-7 and four #1 overall finishes (2013, 2016, 2020, and 2021), so, even if he did regress, he would likely still remain one of the best left tackles in the league, but if he’s only one of the best instead of the best, it could have a noticeable effect on this offensive line, a problem for an offensive line that already lost several key players this off-season. This is still an above average group, but I wouldn’t expect them to be nearly as good upfront as a year ago.
As much talent as the 49ers have on offense, their defense has actually been the better unit in recent years, finishing 2nd, 4th, and 6th in defensive efficiency over the past three seasons respectively. When they made the Super Bowl in 2019, their defense was led by a dominant defensive line that had four players, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead who could all wreak havoc, especially on passing downs.
Ford is not expected to remain on the roster in 2022 after a couple injury plagued seasons and Buckner was traded to Indianapolis for a first round pick ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020, with Buckner going on to sign a 4-year, 84 million dollar deal with the Colts that makes him the 2nd highest paid interior defender in terms of average annual salary, but the 49ers’ defensive line has remained a strength over the past two seasons and should remain a strength in 2022, albeit not on the same level as 2019.
The 49ers sought to replenish talent on this defensive line by using the first round pick they got from the Colts on Javon Kinlaw, an interior defender they viewed as a long-term replacement for Buckner at a cheaper salary, but Kinlaw actually hasn’t been the reason for their continued success over the past two seasons, finishing 100th among out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 547 snaps in a disappointing rookie year and then missing all but 149 snaps in 4 games in 2021 due to injury. Kinlaw obviously still has upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took a big step forward or even broke out in a significant way in his third year in the league in 2022, but that’s far from a guarantee and he hasn’t made much of a positive impact thus far in his career.
When Kinlaw went down last season, the 49ers moved hybrid edge defender/interior defender Arik Armstead from a primarily edge role to a primarily interior role and he finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked interior defender, while playing 820 snaps total. Armstead has proven he can be effective lining up anywhere, finishing 29th, 3rd, and 19th at his position on PFF as primarily an edge defender in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, on snap counts of 608, 776, and 750 respectively. As tough as their decision to part with DeForest Buckner was, trading him not only got them a first round pick, but it also freed up the money for the 49ers to re-sign Armstead on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that he has proven to be well worth in two seasons since.
The 6-7 290 pound Armstead is a little better as a pass rusher on the interior and a little better as a run stopper on the edge, but he has earned above average grades from PFF in both aspects in each of the past four seasons, regardless of his position, playing the run consistently well and adding 22.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate as a pass rusher, impressive production when you consider how often he rushes the passer from the interior. A former first round pick who is still only in his age 29 season and who hasn’t missed a game since 2017, I see no reason to expect anything different from Armstead in 2022, regardless of where he lines up.
Where he lines primarily will likely depend on which other players can earn roles at either the edge defender or interior defender spot. Kinlaw will return to play a role on the interior, but this is still an unsettled group, both on the edge and on the interior. DJ Jones was PFF’s 17th ranked interior defender across 550 snaps last season, but he signed with the Broncos this off-season. Kentavius Street also played a significant role last season (352 snaps) and is no longer with the team, though that could easily be addition by subtraction, after Street finished 127th among 146 interior defenders on PFF last season.
Kevin Givens (230 snaps) is their top returning interior defender in terms of snaps played from a year ago aside from Armstead and he was decent in that role, after being decent on 387 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2020. Givens will likely continue being decent in a similar rotational role this season, but the 2019 undrafted free agent probably doesn’t have much untapped upside and would probably be overstretched in a larger role.
The 49ers added Hassan Ridgeway in free agent, but he has never played more than 442 snaps in a season, nor has he ever been more than a middling rotational player, and he’s coming off of a 2021 campaign which was the worst of the 2016 4th round pick’s career, finishing 142nd out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 373 snaps. He could have a role, but isn’t more than a snap eater in a rotational role at best. It’s also possible 6th round rookie Kalia Davis could be in the mix for a role, even if he would be unlikely to be effective in that role in year one.
The 49ers are also hoping for more out of Maurice Hurst, a 2018 5th round pick who earned above average grades from PFF on 472 snaps and 522 snaps respectively in the first two seasons of his career, but then was limited to 277 snaps in 11 games by injury in 2020, leading to the Raiders releasing him. Claimed on waivers by the 49ers, Hurst had the opportunity to earn a significant role with his new team in 2021, but injuries again limited him to just 41 snaps. The 49ers retained him in free agency this off-season, albeit on a cheap one-year deal, and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so if he can stay healthy, he should be effective for the 49ers in a rotational role, like he was with the Raiders early in his career, though that’s not a guarantee. Also a solid run stopper, Hurst has a 7.7% pressure rate for his career, above average for an interior player.
Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder also have some experience on the interior in their careers, although they are hybrid players who are more likely to be edge defenders for the 49ers in 2022. Omenihu played both inside and outside with the Texans in the first two and a half seasons of the 2019 5th round pick’s career, but he played almost exclusively on the edge after the 49ers acquired him midway through last season, playing 136 snaps in 9 games with the 49ers and posting a 11.8% pressure rate.
In his hybrid role with the Texans prior to joining the 49ers, The 6-5 280 Omenihu had a 9.5% pressure rate, while playing 34.5 snaps per game. He’s never been much of a run stopper regardless of where he has lined up, but, still only in his age 25 season, he should remain a useful rotational pass rusher in 2022. He will also likely see his snap count increase from his limited role down the stretch last season, most likely playing exclusively on the edge, but possibly also playing on the interior if needed.
Hyder, meanwhile, is a 8-year veteran, who has primarily played on the edge in his career, but the 6-2 270 pounder has seen at least some action on the interior in every season, with the exception of 2020, which happened to be his lone season in San Francisco, when he played almost exclusively on the edge. He played a career high 722 snaps total and had a career best pass rushing season that year, finishing with 8.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate, so I would imagine the 49ers are bringing him back after a 1-year hiatus with the idea of playing him in that same role.
Hyder could easily remain an effective rotational player regardless of where he lines up, but I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as he was two years ago, unlikely to repeat a career best year, now in his age 31 season. In fact, he’s now coming off arguably a career worst year, finishing 2021 as PFF’s 100th ranked edge defender out of 124 eligible across 508 snaps. I wouldn’t expect him to be that bad again, but he doesn’t have a huge ceiling and could very well be on the way down.
Hyder is one of many options at an unsettled interior defender group. Most likely, Hyder and Omenihu will play mostly outside, with Kinlaw, Hurst, and Givens as the top pure interior options and Arik Armstead splitting time between the edge and the interior, playing outside primarily in running situations and playing inside primarily in passing situations. It’s an unsettled group, but Arik Armstead elevates their grade a little bit by himself, even though he isn’t likely to play inside every down.
I already mentioned Armstead, Omenihu, and Hyder in the interior defender section. Among pure edge defenders, Nick Bosa is obviously the best of the bunch and he’s the other dominant defensive lineman remaining from the 2019 defense. Bosa was actually a rookie in 2019, but he was the 2nd overall pick and produced in a big way, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender and totaling 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate.
Bosa lost almost his entire 2020 season to a torn ACL, but came back and had another strong season in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked edge defender and totaling 15.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate. As long as he can stay healthy, I see no reason to expect anything other than another comparable year in 2022 and, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from the injury, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he took another step forward and had the best year of his career in his fourth year in the league. He has the potential to win a Defensive Player of the Year award someday and should be on the short list for pre-season DPOY candidates.
The 49ers lost Arden Key this off-season and, even though he played just 375 snaps and struggled mightily against the run, he excelled as a situational pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 13.8% pressure rate, despite a part-time role. The 49ers used a second round pick to replace him though, taking USC’s Drake Jackson, who could have an immediate role. Jackson might not be as productive in year one as Key was last season, but, with Bosa playing opposite him, Jackson should see plenty of single teams and should get the opportunity to clean up a lot of Bosa’s disruptions.
The 49ers also still have Samson Ebukam, who played 554 snaps in a rotational role last season as well. Ebukam was underwhelming, but he’s been a solid rotational player throughout his 5-year career, averaging 505 snaps per season, playing decently against the run, and totaling 18.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in his career, since being selected in the 4th round by the Rams in 2017. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, a low floor, but also a low ceiling.
The wild card of the bunch is Kemoko Turay, a 2018 2nd round pick who flashed a lot of talent in limited action (14.6% pressure rate) in four seasons with the Colts, but was limited to just 783 snaps in 38 games over those four seasons combined, due to injury. The 49ers only signed him to a 1-year, 1.7 million dollar deal, but he could prove to be a very worthwhile flyer if he can stay healthy and contribute in a rotational role. Bosa and hybrid player Arik Armstead elevate this position group significantly and they have some intriguing depth options as well.
Another key player on this defense over the past few years is linebacker Fred Warner. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Warner instantly became an every down player on this defense and hasn’t looked back, playing 62.4 snaps per game, missing just 1 game total across four seasons, and finishing above average on PFF in every season, including 1st and 12th ranked finishes among off ball linebackers in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Warner is one of the best true every down off ball linebackers in the NFL and, still only in his age 26 season, he should have several years left of his prime.
Warner isn’t the 49ers only talented off ball linebacker though. Dre Greenlaw was limited to 113 snaps in 3 games by injury last season, but Azeez Al-Shaair played pretty well in his absence, finishing as PFF’s 26th ranked off ball linebacker across 730 snaps. Greenlaw was a solid player across snap counts of 725 and 700 in 2019 and 2020 and showed signs improving further in 2021 before getting hurt, so he should reclaim his old role now that he’s healthy again, despite how Al-Shaair played in his absence.
Al-Shaair should will likely still see a role in 2022 though, similar to the 335 snaps Marcell Harris played as the 3rd linebacker with Greenlaw hurt last season and, while the 2019 undrafted free agent is a one-year wonder as an above average every down linebacker, he also showed promise on 305 snaps in 2020 and should be more than qualified to be at least a solid 3rd linebacker in 2021. He should be a significant upgrade over Harris, who was PFF’s 66th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible in his limited role in 2021. Harris is no longer with the team and depth is a concern outside of their top-3, but they have arguably the best off ball linebacker in the league in Fred Warner and, with Greenlaw returning, they have arguably the best trio of off ball linebackers of any team that runs a 4-3 defense.
The position group on this defense that had the biggest problem with injuries last season was the 49ers’ secondary. Jason Verrett was their top cornerback in 2020, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked cornerback, and the 49ers were hoping he could do the same in 2021, but his season was ended by a torn ACL in week 1. That shouldn’t have been that surprising, as Verrett has somehow missed 90 of a possible 129 games in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 1st round by the Chargers in 2014, but it was a damaging loss nonetheless.
Emmanuel Moseley would have been a starter even if Verrett hadn’t gotten hurt, but he became even more important without Verrett and ended up missing six games of his own. K’Waun Williams was relatively healthy compared to Moseley and Verrett, but he still missed three games. With their top-3 all missing significant time, expected #4 cornerback Josh Norman led the position group in snaps played with 765 and he was horrible, finishing as PFF’s 125th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. Rookies Ambry Thomas (3rd round) and Deommodore Lenoir (5th round) also were both forced into action and struggled, on snap counts of 334 and 238 respectively.
Going into 2022, the 49ers are hoping for better health. Josh Norman is gone, but that should be addition by subtraction, given how much he struggled a year ago. K’Waun Williams is also gone, but he was middling at best across his 647 snaps. Verrett and Moseley both return and are expected to be starters alongside free agent acquisition Charvarius Ward, who signed on a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal. That would leave youngsters Thomas and Lenoir as reserve options, with 5th round rookie Samuel Womack as a deep reserve.
In addition to his strong 2020 campaign, Verrett was also PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback in the lone other relatively healthy season of his career and has overall played at a pretty high level when on the field in his career, but that other healthy season came all the way back in 2015 and he’s now in his age 31 season, with as concerning of an injury history as any player in the league, so it’s hard to expect him to both stay healthy and play around the level he has played at in the past. He’s a boom or bust player and his history has been more boom than bust, given how often he has gotten hurt.
Moseley doesn’t have the same upside as Verrett, but he’s a more reliable player, even if only by default, having missed 10 games over the past 2 seasons. Moseley played in every game in 2019 in the first season of his career in which he saw starting action (9 starts), and he has earned an above average grade from PFF in two of the three seasons since, but the 2019 undrafted free agent has been a bit inconsistent in his career and has never put together a full, healthy season as a starter, given that he didn’t enter the starting lineup until midway through 2019. Still only in his age 26 season, Moseley has the upside to be an above average starter, but he comes with a history of inconsistency and injury.
Charvarius Ward is the 49ers’ most reliable cornerback option, which is a good thing, given how much money they gave him, making him the 13th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Ward has never played at that level, with the 2018 undrafted free agent’s best single season grade from PFF coming when he finished 40th among cornerbacks back in 2019, but he has made 41 starts over the past three seasons, while earning an average or better grade from PFF in all three seasons, so he should be a useful addition to this team, even if the 49ers did overpay a little bit. He’s also only in his age 26 season, so he could have further untapped potential and, at the very least, he is unlikely to decline significantly any time soon. Ward, Mosley, and Verrett could be a solid top-3 if they’re all healthy, but that is far from a guarantee and if one were to get hurt, the 49ers would be relying on an unproven young player in this absence.
Safety Jimmie Ward was their best defensive back a year ago and could remain their best defensive back in 2022. A first round pick in 2014, Ward was very inconsistent early in his career, in part due to injuries, which cost him 29 games over the first five seasons of his career combined, but he’s proven to be a little bit of a late bloomer, turning into a consistently high level safety over the past three seasons, finishing 7th, 16th, and 13th among safeties on PFF over the past three seasons respectively.
Ward is in his age 31 season, meaning he is likely to begin declining soon, and, even though he has only missed six games over the past three seasons, he still only has played in every game just once in 8 seasons in the league, so he is likely to miss at least a little bit of time in 2022. However, he should remain at least an above average starter and, barring a major injury, he should be a significant asset for this secondary, even if he’s not as good as he has been in recent years.
The other starting safety spot is up for grabs after the 49ers opted not to retain the capable, but underwhelming and injury prone Jaquiski Tartt in free agency, ahead of his age 30 season in 2022. The most likely option is promoting 2nd year player Talanoa Hufanga, who was decent in limited action as a rookie, but he was just a 5th round pick and only played 395 snaps as a rookie, so he’s a big projection to a starting role and won’t be guaranteed to win the job.
His biggest competition will be George Odum, a 2018 undrafted free agent and career backup who was decent in 472 snaps last season, but has made just 10 career starts, and Tavarius Moore, a 2018 3rd round pick, who was decent across 336 snaps per season in his first three years in the league, before missing all of 2021 with injury. All of their options are underwhelming, but Hufanga at least has some upside. This isn’t a great secondary overall, but it’s not a bad unit either and they should be significantly healthier than a year ago.
Special teams was the 49ers’ achilles heel in 2021, ranking 26th in special teams DVOA. They should be a little better in 2022, but they have a good chance to still be below average. Robbie Gould and Mitch Wishnowsky remain as the starting kicker and punter respectively. Ray-Ray McCloud was added as the primary return man, which should be a slight upgrade. George Odum was a big addition because he was a top-50 special teamer on PFF in 2021 and the 49ers didn’t have any top-50 core special teamers a year ago. However, overall this is still an underwhelming group.
The 49ers were one of the better teams in the NFC last year, ranking 6th in overall efficiency, going 10-7 despite a 3-5 record in one-score games and a -4 turnover margin, and coming within a blown 4th quarter lead of making it back to the Super Bowl. They did lose some talent this off-season, particularly on the offensive line, but they still have one of the more talented and complete rosters in the league. The question mark is going to be the quarterback position and whether or not first year starter Trey Lance can be an upgrade on Jimmy Garoppolo, who was productive in his tenure as the 49ers’ quarterback, but who also was injury prone, turnover prone, and benefited significantly from the talent around him.
If Lance can break out as a top-15 quarterback, this could be a very dangerous team, but I don’t think I would project that from such an inexperienced quarterback. Even still, they should compete for a playoff spot and for the division, which looks like a two team race between them and the Rams. I have the Rams a little bit ahead of them for now and the 49ers won’t be guaranteed a wild card spot either, but this should still be an above average team. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The 49ers are behind the Rams in the NFC West, especially with talented safety Jimmie Ward expected to miss the first few weeks of the season at least, but they should still be a tough opponent and a wild card qualifier.
Prediction: 11-6, 2nd in NFC West