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The Lookaround: What’s the state of the San Francisco 49ers

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To give you an idea of what’s going on with Seattle’s NFC West opponents, I did a little bit of research, inserted my own opinion, and then spoke to a writer from that team’s blog. First, was the Arizona Cardinals, so you can click that link and read that. Next, the 49ers — a team that many expect to rebound for a playoff run, but I just don’t see it unless the quarterback is truly the real deal. To help me, I spoke to Niners Nation.

San Francisco 49ers

Richard Sherman

How’s your old friend doing? Sherman recovered from his Achilles tear in time to be ready for the start of training camp, but a hamstring injury held him out of the first two preseason games. Sherman made his debut this weekend against the Indianapolis Colts, recording a tackle and a PBU in 32 snaps vs former Stanford teammate Andrew Luck.

More:

On it going better than expected: “I haven’t played football in eight, nine months in a real game, so you never know how you’re gonna hold up in long drives, short drives. In practice, you get four, five plays then you’re out. Every now and then they take you to six, but in a game it could be a three-play drive, it could be a 12-play drive. So I was able to hold up, and being a vet, there were certain plays where I could just kinda just be a veteran, understand the play’s backside, play my man, understand this route is coming, non-athlete is outside, there are a lot of things that you can or recognize to make the game slow.”

Around Sherman at CB are Ahkello Witherspoon, Jimmie Ward, K’Waun Williams, and third round rookie Tarvarius Moore. Ward suffered a quad injury in Saturday’s game. Witherspoon looks to start one year after going 66th overall.

There’s also confidence with Moore:

Overall, the cornerback group has a Hall of Famer who appears healthy and a couple of young high-ceiling prospects. It’s hard to judge how good or bad this group can be right now, but Sherman should be a good teacher for the young guys and doesn’t need to get up to speed with defensive coordinator/former Seahawks coach Robert Saleh.

Safety

The Niners are hoping that Jaquiski Tartt is at least an equal to Eric Reid, who they’ve refused to re-sign for anything more than a league-minimum deal. Adrian Colbert was a surprise to make the roster last season, but then became the starting strong safety and has played well enough for SF fans to have high hopes for a long-term future at that position.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation:

The secondary is a group that I am optimistic about, but there are still questions about the group. Richard Sherman did not make his preseason debut until Week 3 because of a hamstring strain prior to the first preseason game. Ahkello Witherspoon came into camp with high expectations, but it’s been a bit up and down. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt is among the poorest graded 49ers, according to PFF. It’s not the be-all, end-all, but the secondary is young, and Sherman is a question mark, so I remain a little concerned.

Linebacker woes

Not only is Reuben Foster suspended for the first two regular season games, he left Saturday’s game with a concussion. Malcolm Smith, Brock Coyle, and Korey Toomer are three of six former Seattle defensive players on the 49ers roster. Smith missed all of last season. Toomer started 16 games for the Chargers over the last two seasons but has still wound up as a depth player in San Francisco. NinersNation said this after the first preseason game:

Toomer was supposed to be the seasoned, stable vet who is consistently above average vs. the run as an inside linebacker. Last night, he looked like a mostly poor tackler who looked consistently a step slow and confused. Even with Foster’s 2-game suspension to start the season, it’s hard for me to see the Korey Toomer we saw last night make the final roster cut unless at least 1 of Brock Coyle, Malcolm Smith, and Fred Warner are injured.

However, they recently had Toomer, Coyle, and Smith all making the final roster after the trade of Eli Harold to the Lions. Warner, a third round pick out of BYU, would be the starter at linebacker with Smith.

Defensive Line

DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas could be two of the most intriguing defensive linemen in the NFC West, with Buckner seemingly likely to play more often on the edge this season and Thomas more likely to play some on the inside. Here’s what Saleh, the defensive coordinator, had to say about Thomas:

“The problem is we didn’t have a lot of passing situations. The thing with Solomon is, I don’t think he had a bad year. The second hardest job for a rookie is pass rusher, quarterback being first. J.J. Watt had five or six sacks as a rookie [Watt had 5.5 sacks in 2011]. There are things he can better at but I thought he was productive overall.”

Saleh is higher on Thomas’ rookie season than most, but also admits that there is plenty he can improve upon and that changes are necessary to try and make him more useful. I could see Thomas as an elite player, but I could also see it just not working out long-term. Buckner seems to have at least established himself as a useful player, if not one of the most disruptive in the division.

Arik Armstead is working his way back from a hamstring injury and while he’s expected to be a big piece of the defensive line rotation, he still hasn’t done much to justify his selection at 17th overall in 2015. Armstead has played in 14 games over the last two years, recording 4 sacks. Fourth round pick Kentavius Street tore his ACL prior to the draft, so the team knew he wouldn’t be contributing. (Did Trent Baalke actually get fired?) If there’s an opening at edge rusher, Cassius Marsh is looking to take advantage. (The other former Seahawk is Tyvis Powell, but I could be missing one or two.)

Dave Fucillo:

Worries: The pass rush is still a concern. The team did not add much to the group (just Jeremiah Attaochu), instead counting on some players getting healthy. Of course, not adding much means it should not be entirely shocking if the group does not improve.

Jimmy Garoppolo

You can’t make much, if anything, of preseason stats, but here’s what ESPN had to say following their most recent matchup, likely Garoppolo’s last game before the regular season begins:

The Niners managed just a pair of field goals with the starting offense in the game and went 0-for-3 in the red zone. Garoppolo’s final line against Indianapolis -- 9-of-19 for 135 yards with no touchdowns or an interceptions for a passer rating of 71.2 -- would definitely have looked better were it not for the drops, but he also benefited from at least a pair of would-be interceptions that Colts linebacker Darius Leonard dropped.

What I’ll be most paying attention to with Garoppolo this season is in the interceptions. He had five on 178 throws last year and some reports this year suggest he’s still overthrowing some receivers. Even if part of the problem is the receivers themselves (dropped and bobbled balls, being in the wrong position, etc.) then it’s still the same problem for San Francisco regardless. Are they going to have trouble protecting the football?

My expectations for Garoppolo is that he’ll be pretty good, have some really eye-popping games, but also have some really questionable performances with a number of turnovers. Maybe that puts him in the “Tony Romo” category — which in a best case scenario would still be a very good thing. Even Eli Manning is serviceable at important times. Then again, maybe he’s Tom Brady. Then again, maybe he’s Matt Schaub. That’s my biggest thing with Garoppolo for now: He has 272 throws in four years.

I see Garoppolo as a really intriguing prospect. Better than where he was at as a late second round pick in 2014 (which is not that high of a pick for a QB), but 2018 will say so much more about him than 2014-2017 ever did.

What will help him or hurt him the most though isn’t just Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling but the supporting cast around him. I still think that’s below playoff-caliber.

Pierre Garcon and the rest of the receivers

Garcon never got to work with Garoppolo last season after he came over from the Patriots. It’s been a very quiet offseason, training camp, and preseason for Garcon, but he still seems like the most talented pass-catcher on the roster unless/until Dante Pettis is ready for a huge step forward. As seen above, Garcon finally did breakout for a 2018 highlight, but: preseason and COLTS DEFENSE.

I have always like Garcon a lot. That being said, he’s 32 and he’s coming off injury and a lot has changed over the last year in San Francisco. If Shanahan wanted to recreate his Atlanta Falcons 2016 offense, he’s clearly missing a Julio Jones figure.

Others would say that not Garcon, not Pettis, but Marquise Goodwin is the clear number one and best receiver on the 49ers. And that’s totally defensible. Goodwin had 56 catches for 962 yards last season, including catching 29 of 43 targets for 384 yards and one touchdown over six games with Garoppolo. I’m just not there yet with Goodwin. Much like Garoppolo, I’d like to see another season of proof — I’ve been burned one too many times by believing in receivers who had one unlikely breakout season (Terrelle Pryor, John Brown, Harry Douglas, Rod Streater, etc.).

Others more would say that not Garcon, not Goodwin, and not Pettis, but Trent Taylor will be the greatest benefactor of Garoppolo’s playmaking decisions. With Jimmy last season, Taylor caught 17 of 20 targets for 191 yards and one touchdown. Garoppolo seems to be favoring Taylor because of that reliability, including in the red zone, and that could make San Francisco another offense that features its slot receiver as its favorite target. With that said, Taylor is recovering from offseason back surgery; he’s playing, but Shanahan noted that it doesn’t mean he’s 100% yet.

As you know, Dante Pettis seems to be a good punt returner.

Pettis is currently dealing with a bruised knee, though he’s expected to be ready Week 1. I don’t expect him to have a major impact as a rookie receiver, but we’ll see. The team may not need him at all anyway, given that there is a quality scenario with Garcon, Goodwin, and Taylor. I know that I’ve been critical of those three, but I am also conceding that it could work out perfectly for Garoppolo and Shanahan; I like Garcon, I understand Goodwin’s 2017 season was very good, and I also like Taylor. That gives the Niners a decent top four at the position, along with Kendrick Bourne, who NN projects to make the 53, but they could keep six receivers because of a surprise seventh round pick.

Fucillo:

Surprises: Seventh round pick Richie James has been getting a lot of work as a wide receiver and return man. He does great work when he gets the ball in space, so I expect Kyle Shanahan to use him in a role similar to that of Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta.

I’m lumping backs and tight ends together for time

The 49ers gave Jerick McKinnon an unfathomable contract in the offseason, paying him $10.5 million this season, and he hasn’t played since injuring his calf in the preseason opener. Another running back who was out but returned in Week 3 was Alfred Morris, who Brian Baldinger thinks is actually the right player to start behind Jimmy Garoppolo this season:

Morris had his best seasons playing for Shanahan in Washington.

McKinnon is expected to be ready for Week 1, meaning that we’d likely see him out there at some point, even if he doesn’t start. Since Morris is a player that Shanahan clearly already likes, it could be a split between those two and then working in Matt Breida, who was also ruled out for the preseason with a separated shoulder. Raheem Mostert looks to be the fourth back on the roster.

It looks to me like the depth at running back is not very good, which is why it was so important that Morris did have a positive impact in his return. I just don’t know where they go if McKinnon is a dud, and we still don’t know exactly how Shanahan plans to justify that contract for a player with 3.6 yards per carry over his last two seasons. I’m not saying he can’t justify it, I’m just saying that his injury has prevented us from getting much of a preview before the season, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Another player who was ruled out for the preseason (also separated shoulder) was tight end George Kittle. Key developmental time missed for the team’s presumed number one. The next man up is Garrett Celek, who is surprisingly 30.

Run blocking is an issue

The 49ers are happy with their tackles, Joe Staley and top pick Mike McGlinchey, and they spent a lot of money on center Weston Richburg.

Laken Tomlinson got a three-year contract and is the left guard (with mixed results, from what I’ve read/seen), but the right guard position is up for grabs still.

Fucillo:

The first unit offensive line pass protection seems to be coming together. They’re still sorting out the right guard position, but Jimmy Garoppolo has been getting some time to make his throws. The line was a question entering camp, and given the money invested in Jimmy G, improved play from the group is key. The run blocking has been poor thus far, but I’m happy about the pass blocking.

It looks like the team is deciding between former first round pick Joshua Garnett and Mike Person. Either way, it’s likely a hole on the offensive line. That being said, I’m not so sure about Tomlinson and it’ll be surprising if McGlinchey gets through his entire rookie season without any issues. It happens (Jack Conklin), but we’ll have to wait and see on that too. Richburg also missed 12 games last season, so keep an eye on that.

Bottom Line:

I’m not ready to give the 49ers as much credit as most people out there, and it has nothing to do with any bias. I really do not care about “rivalries.” I simply see a team that went 1-10 last season before winning their last five games with Garoppolo, two wins of which could have easily swung the other way. In the offseason, they added some players (McKinnon, McGlinchey, Sherman, Pettis, Richburg), but none of those guys are a slam dunk to make significantly better contributions than the players they are replacing; they likely will, but I still see a team that was really far from being a playoff team that has gotten a little bit better. The 49ers were 26th on defense by DVOA last season, is Sherman, and a year of development from Solomon Thomas, Colbert, Witherspoon to get them to being a top-10 or even top-15 defense? And the schedule is B.R.U.T.A.L. to open the season:

@ Vikings

Lions

@ Chiefs

@ Chargers

Cardinals

@ Packers

Rams

Can they come out of their opening seven games with a 4-3 record? If so, they might be a playoff team. I’m not saying I can’t see it. I just think that this roster is weak enough that it really needs to be elevated by a top-8 quarterback in order to win 10+ games. Is Garoppolo a top-8 quarterback? I just think it’s too early to tell and I’m not convinced by the supporting cast around him that his rise to the top will be expedited by elite weapons or an offensive line. Can you spot one elite weapon? Can you spot a proven offensive lineman outside of the 34-year-old Staley?

This is not bias, this is just what I see when I objectively look at San Francisco’s roster. The preseason and training camp has not helped the Niners — too many injuries already — and the schedule is not going to be forgiving if some of them are still on the sidelines with the suspended Foster. The best case scenario does include the playoffs, but I’d say my most likely scenario has San Francisco falling just below the .500 mark.