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3 breakout candidates for the San Francisco 49ers in 2018

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing their first nine games to start the 2017 season, the San Francisco 49ers enter 2018 feeling positive about the end of last season, as well as their present and future.

Trading for Jimmy Garoppolo has completely changed a formerly dysfunctional franchise’s fortune and now the 49ers will look to compete for the division title once again this season. It all starts with Garoppolo, of course, as the rising star came in and lit the league alight, and should only improve after his first offseason with Kyle Shanahan.

However, GM John Lynch deserves a tremendous amount of credit for building up a culture from the ground, and Shanahan himself deserves credit for maximizing what was still a relatively talent-poor offense. In addition to Lynch fostering a new culture around the team, he’s done a good job assembling young, promising talents on both sides of the ball.

Here are three candidates to breakout for San Francisco in 2018:

Marquise Goodwin, WR

Goodwin, a former U.S. Olympian, started his career with the Buffalo Bills as little more than a gadget player, totaling just 58 catches in four seasons. After the 2016 season, the 49ers signed Goodwin to fill a role similar to the one played by Taylor Gabriel during Shanahan and the Atlanta Falcons’ record-setting season: A player capable of stretching a defense vertically, coming across the formation in motion as a decoy or on a jet sweep, and winning with electrifying stop-start ability and speed.

Like the rest of the team, Goodwin’s 2017 in San Francisco started slowly, as his output resembled his first four years in the league. While his big play ability still flashed as he averaged just under 19 yards per catch on 22 receptions as the team started 0-9, his performances were inconsistent.

However, over the final seven games, Goodwin hit his stride and closed out the season with 34 catches, 545 yards and his only two touchdowns in a stretch that included back-to-back 100-yard games, and a 99-yard game, in Garoppolo’s first three starts.

Now, with an already established connection between quarterback and wide receiver, Goodwin is expected to begin the season starting opposite of Pierre Garcon in what should be one of the league’s more entertaining offenses. If the 49ers’ offense steps up in the manner they’re expected to, then Goodwin will be a huge part of that and should post career numbers along the way.

George Kittle, TE

If Goodwin was the biggest beneficiary of Garoppolo’s red-hot finish to 2017, Kittle was the second biggest. An uber-athlete who posted the highest SPARQ score among tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft (in the 97th percentile), Kittle broke out over the season’s second half as San Francisco finally received steady play from the QB position.

In the 10 games Kittle played prior to Garoppolo’s first start, the rookie averaged just 1.06 yards per route run, with C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer combining for a paltry 74.6 passer rating when targeting him. In the five games Garoppolo and Kittle played together, he averaged a tremendous 2.57 yards per route run, with Garoppolo posting a passer rating of 133.3 while targeting him.

Kittle’s skill and athleticism coming out of college was apparent, and now, he and Garoppolo’s connection is apparent too:

Assuming the two get 16 games together in 2018, don’t be surprised to see Kittle end the season as one of the most productive tight ends in the entire NFL.

Ahkello Witherspoon, CB

A long, lean cornerback, Witherspoon possesses the ideal size and skill set for a cover-3 heavy defense in the same vein as the Seahawks’. After being selected in the third round last year, Witherspoon began the year as an inactive through the first month, before starting nine games over the rest of the season. As with practically any rookie defensive back, the growing pains were glaringly obvious:

However, there were also a good number of positives as he finished the season with two interceptions and seven pass breakups:

Helping Witherspoon’s effort to take a step up in 2018 is the player he now finds opposite him, Richard Sherman. In fact, Sherman himself recognizes the potential for a huge sophomore season from Witherspoon. Speaking to the MMQB after his recent cornerback summit, Sherman had this to say about his new teammate:

“I think from being around him, working with him, working out with him, watching him in OTAs and minicamp, I knew he could keep up with the workflow. I knew he would look the part. I knew, drill-wise, he wouldn’t be overwhelmed. His footwork is beautiful and technical. I knew that in terms of demeanor and just being able to just walk around and not be star-struck by these guys, he’d be fine. I think he belongs with those guys, and people will figure that out in a few months.”

As Sherman said, Witherspoon has the technique, the size and the skill set. With Sherman across from him, the onus is off Witherspoon to shut down the opposing offense’s best receiver. And in a few months, people will figure out just how good Witherspoon can become.