San Francisco 49ers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

The 49ers gave Garoppolo about a month to learn the playbook before putting him into action, but once on the field Garoppolo wasted no time in making this look like a completely different football team, as the 49ers won all 5 of Garoppolo’s starts, after winning just 1 of their first 11 games. After picking up first downs at a 30.75% rate in the first 11 games of the season, the 49ers picked up first downs at a 38.39% rate in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.76 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback during the final 5 weeks of the season.

Garoppolo was still unproven, with only 7 career starts and 272 career pass attempts under his belt heading into free agency last off-season, but he won all 7 of those games and had a 99.7 QB rating on those 272 attempts. Especially after they had just surrendered a 2nd round pick to acquire him, the 49ers had no choice but to pay up to keep Garoppolo (137.5 million over 5 years), but the 49ers seemed more than happy to do it. They had found their quarterback of the future and a team that had been sitting in the basement of the NFC West for about two and a half years suddenly had a lot of hope for the future.

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

Grade: B

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 74.54*

Offensive Score: 76.03

Defensive Score: 73.04

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

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)

The 49ers are just 4-11, but they’ve been much better since turning to Nick Mullens under center. They have moved the chains at a 36.87% rate in Mullen’s 7 starts, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 7 turnovers in 7 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games, and the 49ers are 3-4 in his 7 starts, as opposed to 0-5 in Beathard’s 5 starts.

Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway and the 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin all season, ranking dead last in the NFL at -21. Beathard’s turnovers weren’t the only problem, as a capable defense that ranks 17th in first down rate allowed on the season somehow didn’t force a single takeaway for 6 games until forcing 2 last week against the Bears, who ironically rank 2nd in the NFL in turnover margin (yet another example of turnover margins being unpredictable).

Unfortunately, it seems like the public is catching on with the 49ers, as they are just 10.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Rams. I know injuries have started to pile up for the Rams, with wide receiver Cooper Kupp, running back Todd Gurley, and safety LaMarcus Joyner all sidelined, but I still think this line would have been at least two touchdowns a couple weeks ago. I’m still taking the 49ers, but I wouldn’t recommend betting any money on them.

Not only are we not getting enough line value with the 49ers anymore, but they also haven’t played on the road in about a month and have been at home for 5 of Mullen’s 7 starts. In his only two road starts, the 49ers got blown out by the Seahawks and Buccaneers. Home/road disparities tend to be inconsistent in the long run, but I am concerned taking an inexperienced quarterback with no history of success on the road against a Rams team that still has a ton of talent.

Los Angeles Rams 26 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10.5

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (10-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-10)

The Bears have been better than their record all season. Even at 10-4 with the 3rd best record in the NFC, the Bears are better than that suggests, as their 4 losses came by a combined 14 points, including one game with a backup quarterback. Despite starting a backup quarterback for two games, the Bears still rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential at +6.57% and 2nd in NFL in point differential at +119. Because of that, I’ve picked them against the spread in every game but two this season and they are 10-2 ATS in those 12 games.

That being said, I’m not going to be taking the Bears this week because the 49ers are also better than their record suggests. They are only 4-10, but they are 3-3 since turning to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has played pretty well. They have moved the chains at a 38.16% rate in those 6 games, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 6 turnovers in 6 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games.

Making the 49ers’ recent record more even more impressive is the fact they haven’t gotten a single takeaway over that 6-game stretch. In fact, they are -9 in turnover margin over that time frame, including -2 in their 3 wins. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and this defense has played well enough (36.88% in first down rate allowed at 18th) that they should be able to get more takeaways going forward. This is a quietly capable team with Mullens under center.

We’ve lost line value with the 49ers due to their recent upset wins over Denver and Seattle, as this line has dropped to Chicago -4 from Chicago -6 on the early line last week, but the Bears have also lost stud safety Eddie Jackson to an ankle injury in the past week, so that line movement is more than justified. An All-Pro caliber player, Jackson’s absence is worth at least 2-3 points. We’re not getting enough line value with the 49ers to take them with any confidence, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Chicago Bears 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +4

Confidence: None

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (8-5) at San Francisco 49ers (3-10)

The 49ers are just 3-10, but that’s primarily because they’ve gotten killed in turnovers, posting a league worst -21 turnover margin this season. In terms of first down rate differential, they are actually positive at +0.39%, despite their record, but it’s tough to win games when you consistently lose the turnover battle. Their offense hasn’t turned the ball over as much since switching to Nick Mullens under center though, as they’ve turned the ball over 8 times in his 5 starts, with 6 credited to Mullens, as opposed to 14 turnovers in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts, with 10 credited to Beathard.

They’ve also moved the chains better in Mullens’ 5 starts, moving them at a 38.51% rate, as opposed to 35.17% for Beathard (41.30% in Garoppolo’s 3 starts). However, despite Mullens being an obvious upgrade, they are still just 2-3 in his 5 starts as their defense has not managed a single takeaway in his 5 starts. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis though, so the 49ers could easily get some takeaways over the final 3 games of the season, which would be a big boost to this team.

The defense isn’t at 100% without injured top safety Jaquiski Tartt and released top linebacker Reuben Foster, but they rank a decent 19th in first down rate allowed on the season at 37.42% and are talented enough that they should have forced more than 5 takeaways on the season. Recovering just 2 of 10 forced fumbles is a big part of the problem, but that tends to be luck more than anything. With an improved quarterback under center and a defense that should force more takeaways going forward, the 49ers are better than their 3-10 record suggests.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they’re really that underrated, after last week’s upset win over a banged up Denver team. That game moved this line from Seattle -7 all the way down to Seattle -3.5, so we’re getting no line value with a 49ers team that isn’t in the best spot this week. In addition to coming off of a big home upset victory, they also have to follow up this tough home game with another tough home game against the Bears next week, a game in which the 49ers are 6-point home underdogs on the early line. Teams are just 26-53 ATS since 2016 before being home underdogs of 4.5 points or more. I’m still taking the 49ers and hoping for a field goal game, but I can’t take them with any confidence, given all of the line value we’ve lost in the past week.

Sunday Update: The 49ers got some good injury news over the weekend, with running back Matt Breida and wide receivers Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin all expected to play despite questionable tags and limited practices. Despite that, this line has climbed back up to +4. There’s still not enough here to bet the 49ers, but I’m moving this up to a low confidence pick.

Seattle Seahawks 26 San Francisco 49ers 24

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +4

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (6-6) at San Francisco 49ers (2-10)

The Broncos have had a tough season. They had the toughest schedule in the league over the first 11 games of the season, including close losses to the Texans, Rams, and Chiefs (twice) and wins over the Chargers, Steelers, and Seahawks. Now that their schedule has gotten easier, they’ve had so many losses that they aren’t the same team. Already without their top-2 offensive linemen, right guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis, with injury and starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was traded to the Texans for a draft pick, the Broncos are now without #1 cornerback Chris Harris and #1 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who have both suffered season ending injuries in the past week.

The Broncos’ opponents this week, the San Francisco 49ers, are one of their easiest opponents all season, but it’s hard to be confident in the Broncos as 3.5-point road favorites given the current state of their roster. With a banged up offensive line and a depleting receiving corps, the Broncos have little talent around quarterback Case Keenum and their defense isn’t nearly as good without their top cornerback Chris Harris. The 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin this season at an NFL worst -20, but turnover margins tend to be unpredictable week-to-week and the 49ers are the kind of team that can easily pull an upset if they can play a turnover neutral game. I have this line calculated at Denver -4, so I’m still taking the Broncos, but this is a no confidence pick.

Denver Broncos 20 San Francisco 49ers 16

Pick against the spread: Denver -3.5

Confidence: None

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (2-9) at Seattle Seahawks (6-5)

The Seahawks have a solid record at 6-5, but this is not nearly the Seahawks team we’ve seen in recent years. Despite their record, they rank 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.78%. Their offense has been solid, moving the chains at a 37.03% rate, 14th in the NFL, but their defense, a shell of its former self, has allowed opponents to move the chains at a 39.81% rate, 27th in the NFL. Their defense has been on the field for fewer snaps than any defense in the league, as a result of the offense going 9 of 12 on 4th down on the season and only turning over the ball 9 times, fewest in the NFL, but 4th down percentages and turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t always be able to depend on those to make life easy for their defense.

Given that, this line is a little high at 10. The 49ers have major issues at the quarterback position, but they have a capable defense (17th in first down rate allowed) and a strong running game. They’re just 2-9 largely because of their -17 turnover margin, 2nd worst in the NFL, but, like I said, turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Given their quarterback situation, it wouldn’t surprise me if the 49ers continued turning the ball over frequently, but their defense should have more takeaways than they’ve had (5 in 11 games) just from random chance alone. We’re not getting enough line value to bet the Seahawks, but this line is a few points too high.

Seattle Seahawks 24 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (2-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7)

These two teams have had similar seasons statistically. Both have poor records, but rank significantly better than their record suggests in first down rate differential. The 49ers rank 12th at +1.26%, while the Buccaneers rank 16th at +0.95%. Both teams have been crushed by the turnover margin, with turnover margins of -15 and -23 respectively, but turnover margins tend to completely unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Buccaneers were -4 in turnover margin last week in New York in 3-point loss to the Giants and, on average, teams with a turnover margin of -4 in a game have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week.

The 49ers’ offense obviously hasn’t been as good since Jimmy Garoppolo went down, but they haven’t been terrible either, moving the chains at a 36.30% rate in 7 games without Garoppolo, as opposed to 41.30% in the 3 games Garoppolo started. CJ Beathard took over the starting job after Garoppolo got hurt, but he missed a start with a hand injury and lost his job to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has been an upgrade in 2 starts.

After Beathard turned the ball over 10 times in 5 starts, the 49ers are just -2 in turnover margin in Mullens’ two starts, with both turnovers bouncing off receivers’ hands. Turnover margins tend to stabilize in the long run anyway, but Mullens has definitely been an upgrade over Beathard. They’ve also been decent defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 36.49% rate, 17th in the NFL, and should force more turnovers going forward.

The Buccaneers have also switched quarterbacks several times this season, but under different circumstances. Ryan Fitzpatrick began the season as the starter, but the Buccaneers have switched quarterbacks mid-game three times this season and are now back to Jameis Winston for his second stint as their starting quarterback this season. Both quarterbacks have committed numerous turnovers, 13 for Fitzpatrick and 12 for Winston, but they’ve also averaged a combined 9.11 yards per attempt (3rd best in the NFL), taking numerous shots downfield to one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. As a result, they have moved the chains at a 43.34% rate, 4th best in the NFL. Regardless of which quarterback they start, they should continue moving the chains at a high rate and their turnover margin should be better, even if only by default, going forward.

The biggest problem for the Buccaneers is that they have the worst defense in the NFL. They rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.39% and have been even worse in recent weeks due to numerous injuries, including linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, safety Justin Evans, and cornerback MJ Stewart. The injury bug has also spread to their offense, with tight end OJ Howard going down for the season, which is a big hit to their receiving corps. The 49ers, meanwhile, are getting healthier coming out of the bye, with both linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Jaquiski Tartt both expected back this week. For that reason, I’ll give them the edge in this one, but this could easily end up being a push.

Final Update: Foster will not play for the 49ers after being arrested for domestic violence last night. Despite that, sharp action on San Francisco has pushed this line down to 2. Given that, I’m changing my pick, but this is still a no confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 San Francisco 49ers 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2

Confidence: None