The 49ers open the Black Mirror NFL season Sunday against the division-rival Cardinals, and I had some thoughts, ideas, expectations to purge before this whole thing kicks off. Here's a quick top of mind covering several players and position groups for San Francisco ahead of the 2020 opener.
Nick Bosa, Defensive Player of the Year? Bosa was as dominant a rookie defender we’ve seen since Aaron Donald. The eye test, statistics, and advanced metrics all confirm it. His abnormally large build, superior strength, and advanced technique give him a consistency along the likes of the elite veterans in the game already – the way he uses his hands, powers through doubles, makes out-of-reach run stops, and athletic plays in space (Panthers interception, Saints tip, Vikings tip) – and he's just getting started. As a rookie, the 49ers ramped Bosa's snaps up over the season and he didn’t have Dee Ford for a majority of the defensive snaps. Ford had a major impact on Bosa's productivity and is expected to have a larger workload this year. Add in Bosa's offseason work plus weekly practices opposite Trent Williams, and the second-year DE should be a strong DPOY candidate.
A More Balanced Role: Physically and financially, George Kittle had the offseason of his life, and knowing how the All-Pro tight end converts work into results, 2020 could be his best year yet. But, it may be from a standpoint of down-to-down dominance and leadership. With the weapons added, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kittle doesn’t finish as the NFL’s #1 receiving TE. Run blocking, pass blocking, consistency, clutch plays, big catches, staying healthy are all ways he can make his mark in 2020. This is not to say he won't have a big year, or hit 1,000 yards, but with Brandon Aiyuk, Jordan Reed, Trent Taylor, and Jerick McKinnon in particular, Kittle might hover around ~110 targets and might not make the jump to a tight end that scores double-digit touchdowns (he's only scored five each of the last two seasons).
Make or Break: Dante Pettis’ moment-of-truth season has everyone on the edge of their seat. He's always been oozing with potential. And, now, the 49ers’ third-year WR added muscle, had a breakthrough with Shanahan, and brought a new mentality to the field. It's time to see if it translates. As a pure route runner, Pettis has been one of the best in the NFL. If he rounds out the rest of the game with consistency, and being stronger on the ball, the 49ers could tap into a whole new muscle on offense.
A Whole New Offensive Component: Jerick "Jet" McKinnon has Madden 20 glitch-like upside in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and we’re finally going to see it. Returning from an ACL that sidelined him for two years, he was uncoverable in training camp this year. While Raheem Mostert is the deserved RB1, I’m expecting McKinnon to become a player Shanahan loves more as the season goes on and one that just becomes hard to keep off the field (includes 2-RB sets). Expect McKinnon to be a regular presence in the red zone, too, as Shanahan draws mismatches that see him running routes out of the backfield and slot.
Trent Taylor 2.0: Speaking of players returning from extended time off due to injury, Trent Taylor, the slot god, is back. Once again, the smallest 49ers receiver is packing the biggest punch and garnering the most headlines ahead of the season opener. In practice and on game day, it’s also apparent how comfortable Jimmy Garoppolo is with him. Despite his 5-foot-8, 180-pound build, Taylor has been a go-to outlet for the 49ers’ quarterback. The last time we saw these two play consecutive games, there were no perimeter weapons and Kittle didn’t have a reputation. That’s all changed, and Taylor could be ripe to gut defenses as a third option. Not to mention, in the past two offseasons since we've seen him, he has been working with wide receivers coach Wes Welker, who could not be a more perfect mentor.
Jason Verrett Watch: Staying on the topic of comeback seasons, Verrett finished on the plus side when it came to his training camp with the 49ers. While he didn’t earn a starting job, based on how the team finished last year with Emmanuel Moseley, and what we last saw of Verrett, nobody reasonably expected him to enter Week 1 as a starter opposite Richard Sherman. But, what’s exciting is that’s actually a possibility at some point this year. San Francisco has no corners signed beyond this year. Verrett is now healthy, and like several other 49ers, has regained a semblance of his old self. If he can put up good reps, and find himself again, Verrett can force the 49ers to play him because he's that talented. Heck, he could even earn an extension.
Two TE Attack: Jordan Reed may be the 49ers’ top red-zone weapon in 2020. Kendrick Bourne has been that player, but Reed is an elite route runner, high pointer, scorer, and 22 of his 24 career regular-season touchdowns have happened inside the 20-yard line (three under Shanahan when Reed was a rookie). According to multiple reports and teammate Richard Sherman, Reed has looked like that guy in camp, someone that's “open even when he’s covered.” Priority No. 1 is keeping Reed healthy, and perhaps the 49ers do that by reducing the risk with a limited role where the TE2 comes in on third down and in the red zone. If that’s how they use him, and he plays 16+ games, Reed could improve their 9th-ranked third-down conversion percentage from a year ago (44.35%), and 9th-ranked red-zone scoring percentage (55.56%). The Kansas City Chiefs, for reference, ranked first and second in those categories, respectively. With that as a barometer for success, Reed potentially enhances two areas that would make San Francisco markedly better and closer to "the standard" on offense right now.
The New Blindside: Trent Williams is a special addition, reunited with Shanahan, and rejuvenated in a winning environment. The goliath All-Pro tackle who spent his entire career in Washington before skipping 2019 due to a fractured relationship with the organization has looked every bit like his old self. He’s had no time. Nick Bosa and this D-line have made sure of it. At camp, Williams captured the eye as the biggest, most dominant player. He was also already voted a team captain, which says quite a bit considering this was a Super Bowl team last year and he wasn’t on it. Williams’ impact on the No. 2 rushing attack from last year, as well as the underneath passing game designed for YAC, could be quite significant.
Weakness in the Middle: Sticking with the OL, there’s concern with the interior, particularly the C/RG spot. Center Weston Richburg is on the PUP, not ready to go, and the 49ers don’t have depth there. It’s looking like Ben Garland – if the can return – and Daniel Brunskill. This was a sect of a unit that was exposed in the Super Bowl against Chris Jones, and you would’ve liked to see the front office address it. They didn’t until late in the draft when they added versatile OL Colton McKivitz from West Virginia. I’m expecting inconsistent play and potentially another year of rotations. When they play teams on equal ground and are battling it out till the 4th quarter, this should be the Achilles and the ultimate difference-maker.
Wave of the Future: Four key defensive players whose development I'm eager to see are S Marcell Harris, S Tarvarius Moore, DL D.J. Jones, and DL Kentavius Street. The first three have all made big plays in big games and shown promise for the future, something the Niners need to see because they could play larger roles after this season. Then there's Street, who is just booming with potential. The DL once ran an electronically-timed 4.58 at 281lbs, vertical jumped 40 inches, benched 475 pounds, and squatted 700 pounds. He’s now surrounded by great talent and coaching in San Francisco. Kris Kocurek has his mitts on him, and the reviews are good coming into 2020. In most other organizations with par-for-the-course DL rooms, this is just smoke, but here, Street's development is something to keep tabs on.eep tabs.
Could This Be The Year? I've been in the Solomon Thomas camp since he arrived, and now that he's had a strong offseason and the 49ers finally seem to be making an effort to play him at his natural 3-tech position, I'm not jumping ship now. When Thomas has to shed the IOL in front of him and go in a straight line, he's been effective. On top of that, he's added in the vicinity of ~20 pounds of muscle. With Buckner vacating 800+ regular snaps, Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick from 2017, will have an opportunity to fill in.
Biggest Obstacle: The New Orleans Saints are going to be the biggest problem. Adding Emmanuel Sanders in free agency and Cesar Ruiz in the draft was significant to a team that was already stacked. They kept Alvin Kamara happy by making him a rich man. They also brought back tight end Jared Cook, who, if he had not gotten hurt last year against the 49ers, might've been the difference in that shootout in New Orleans. Cook had two scores on his only two catches of the game before exiting.
Forecast: To me, the 49ers have an easier schedule this year than they did last year, plus a better roster, and a litany of players in different stages of their development that have matured. They've also made a dozen or so bets on super-talented players, a few of which you would expect to hit. I see San Francisco winning double-digit games again and coming in first or second in the division; Seattle being the threat still. 12-4 or 13-3 would not be a surprise. It's, of course, contingent on health. This offense, especially when Deebo Samuel returns, should be next level, and on the other side of the ball, Dee Ford being healthy and being more involved than a situational player, would make San Francisco's defense championship-level.
Media courtesy Michael Zagaris
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