Editor's note: This is Part III of a four-part series ranking the 20 most important players for the 49ers in 2018. To reiterate, the player value is influenced by how critical it is they be available for all 16(+) games. It considers snaps/usage, their contract, how much the team needs them to play to their potential, and the depth and importance of their position. Head here for Part I (#20-16), Part II (#15-11) and Part IV (#5-1).
#10 Cassius Marsh, DE
Not a household name, but important nonetheless. The 49ers fully committed to Marsh as their top Leo pass rusher this offseason, giving him a two-year deal in February months before the draft after claiming him off waivers midseason. The team also passed on pass-rushing defensive ends early in the draft, despite it still being a perceived need.
When asked about it, Shanahan said, "You don't just walk in and take a guy like Cassius Marsh's job." So the staff, from the head coach on down, believes in him to disrupt the pocket (even though he's on his third team in four years, and only has two career starts in 52 games with 6.0 sacks). Marsh will have a great deal of responsibility and is largely a projection.
Weaved into that, he is carrying a chip on his shoulder after his falling out with the Patriots. There's also cash incentive working as motivation. According to NFL reporter Field Yates, his contract features a total base value of $7.7 million, but escalators could push the value up to $12.7M, so he can cash in if he performs.
If the 49ers turn out to be right, it could be huge for the team's chances, and at great value. If they get it wrong, it could negatively affect games, and put a cap on how good this team can be.
#9 Weston Richburg, C
The 49ers this offseason made Richburg the NFL's third-richest center, and the owner of the third-largest contract on their books. And not long after we learned about the importance of his position in Shanahan's offense. "It allows you to do a bunch of different stuff," the 49ers head coach said. "It puts more pressure on the center. It puts versatility in everything you can do, not just with the center but what your guards and tackles can do. It helps solidify the entire O-line. That’s usually where it starts."
Given Shanahan's sentiments about Richburg and the position itself, it seems the ultra-athletic center will be a focal point in the run and screen game. He will also be largely responsible for protecting the depth of the pocket for Garoppolo, and will see some tough competition this year. Not to mention, with the 49ers being relatively weak and unestablished at both guard spots, Richburg will be relied on even more. Lastly, the center is the co-pilot of the offense; he needs to be sharp mentally and maintain a strong relationship with the quarterback.
While the 49ers have depth behind Richburg in Mike Person and potentially Erik Magnuson, there's a significant gap between them, as Richburg is one of the top performers in the league at his position.
#8 Mike McGlinchey, RT
A top-10 pick this year, McGlinchey became the highest-drafted offensive player by the 49ers since 2006 (Vernon Davis, No. 6 overall). But to the dismay of many, John Lynch bypassed DBs like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James, and pass rushers like Harold Landry, in order to take the tackle from Notre Dame. While he won't have shareable stats like those guys, he'll significantly factor in to the (likely) inflation of everyone else's numbers.
He's that good, and that's the ripple effect of his position. From decorated execs like Scot McLoughan to players with league-wide respect like Joe Staley, there's been little doubt McGlinchey's that going to be a special player, and at the most important non-QB position group.
He'll be San Francisco's Day 1 starter at right tackle, and he'll enable the team to run and pass the ball more efficiently. He was a beast of a run blocker in Brian Kelly's outside zone scheme at Notre Dame, so there's potential for him to open up the run game, and Shanahan may be counting on him to do that as a rookie. He's also going to be relied on to keep Jimmy Garoppolo upright. If McGlinchey can provide the QB with a pocket and time, and pave the way for the run, this offense can really soar. If he's not available for any reason, they'll be seriously handicapped.
#7 Ahkello Witherspoon, CB
Witherspoon finished the 2017 season looking like one of San Francisco's most promising young players at any position, showing rapid growth and an ability to play at high level in just his rookie year. The third-round pick journeyed from game day inactive in the first half of the season to undisputed CB1 after his first start against the Eagles, in which he intercepted MVP candidate Carson Wentz.
Readying for a second-year leap, Witherspoon has since latched onto Richard Sherman and developed a swagger.
Having a second "lockdown" caliber corner could take the 49ers very far, which is why there's a lot riding on the performance of Witherspoon. If he can be the shutdown complement to Sherman, it'll not only lead to more incomplete passes and interceptions, but it'll help the pass rush get home, ultimately making this a strong defense from top to bottom. With both Witherspoon and Sherman glued to their receivers, they can generate more coverage sacks, and make up for not having a premier pass rusher.
If he lives up to his billing, and his trajectory stays the same or has spiked as reported, it could alter the entire look of this defense and make them a serious contender. At the same time, the downside is alarming, as there's no depth at boundary corner to replace Witherspoon if he's out; and if something were to happen to Sherman, then Witherspoon would have to resume the duties of CB1.
#6 Solomon Thomas, DL
Few 49ers players in 2018 are going to be under the microscope like Thomas. As the No. 3 overall pick in last year's NFL draft and the first major investment by the new regime, he needs to be one of the pillars of this 49ers team. And he can do that by continuing to be the consummate professional, but also by developing as an overall edge defender and pass rusher.
While he's by all means a natural on the interior, Thomas is still growing as an outside player – and that's where he gets most of his snaps, playing techniques that were previously foreign to him. But the 49ers are committed to developing him there, so the pressure is on in terms of a learning curve and expectations.
Thomas in 2017 also played just under 62% of defensive snaps, a number that could see an uptick this year. He only logged three sacks as a rookie, too, so improvement will be needed in that particular category. Overall, he'll have more responsibility and more expectations, and he knows there's a lot of eyes on him. The 49ers are looking for progress from Thomas, and the team's depending on it. If anyone from the 2017 class needs to make the proverbial second-year leap, it's him.
If Thomas settles in, stops overthinking like Robert Saleh suggested, and finds the animal he had at Stanford where he looks every bit like a top-three overall draft pick, the 49ers could wind up with a havoc-wreaking defensive line. If he doesn't make a noticeable jump, it may hurt this team's chances and open the front office up to some potentially noisy criticism.
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