Editor's note: This is Part II 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 III (#10-6) and Part IV (#5-1).
#15 Kyle Juszczyk, FB
Juszczyk is one of the 49ers' best players, and he'll be the only true fullback on the 53-man roster in 2018. He also does a lot in Kyle Shanahan's offense as San Francisco's first real "Swiss Army Knife" since the Delanie Walker era. Much like Walker, Juszczyk factors into the run and pass game in about every conceivable way. He's an interchangeable FB/RB/TE for them.
In the run game, he's a good excavator that consistently gets the right angle on his blocks, and in a division with tough fronts. Juszczyk carries the ball, too (he had seven attempts at 4.43 YPA and a touchdown in 2017). Then as a receiver, he's been a high-percentage outlet for Jimmy Garoppolo, while Kyle Shanahan also schemes for him to be the primary target on the empty side of the field.
Juszczyk also lines up all over and is often motioned to create confusion, draw out a mismatch and help decipher the defensive assignments pre-snap. He can run all kinds of routes, and attacks every level of the field with a receiver's mentality. Juszczyk was even the leading receiver for Garoppolo in the team's big win against the Jaguars, and caught multiple deep balls over his first season with the 49ers.
In 2017, the fullback was sixth on the team in receptions (33), he had the best catch rate of eligible 49ers receivers (78.6%), and his YPR was only a half yard shy of Trent Taylor (9.5). That, plus his run- and pass-blocking efforts, and he really staked his claim as an important member of this team. However, he only played 35.8% of offensive snaps last year. So while the quality of his snaps are very good and the need for Juszczyk at times is high, his relatively low volume and primary position keeps him out of the top 10.
#14 Fred Warner, LB
As the No. 70 overall pick and their first defensive pick in the 2018 draft, Warner is a LB/S hybrid the 49ers expect to start as a rookie. With his unique defensive abilities, he brings instant value to this unit. Depending on how Robert Saleh uses him, his insertion in the lineup has the potential to change the dynamics and overall complexion of the defense.
At BYU, the coaches created a one-of-a-kind role for Warner called the "Flash" position, according to David Lombardi of the Athletic. The position didn't exist before him and it's gone now that he's been drafted. Now in San Francisco, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Warner doing some things outside of a traditional linebacker's responsibilities.
While the 49ers have Malcolm Smith, a Super Bowl MVP in another iteration of this system, Warner could become very important to this defense very fast because nobody can replicate what he can do.
And with the emphasis on athletic linebacker play and defending the pass, he may not come off the field much. He received starter reps right away, and has been wearing the green dotted helmet at Mike linebacker, communicating calls from the staff. If Warner's game translates, he could be a catalyst that takes the 49ers' defense to the next level.
#13 Joshua Garnett, OG
Despite the recent extension of Laken Tomlinson, who seems embedded on the left side, the 49ers are still weak at guard and have a huge question on the right side. From a potential standpoint, their best bet for impact-level play is Garnett, the 2016 first-rounder out of Stanford who has yet to take a snap for Shanahan.
He's currently trying to defend his starting role at right guard from newly-signed OL Mike Person, a former player of Shanahan's in Atlanta who graded out as an above-average pass blocker. And there's also Jonathan Cooper, a former first-rounder now on his fifth team, but one who started a career-high 13 games for the Dallas offensive line in 2017.
Unlike Person and Cooper, who have more or less showed what they are at the NFL level, the verdict is still out on Garnett, who still has the potential to be more than just serviceable. The return on him can be bigger than any other guard on the roster. It wasn't all that long ago that he was a star at nearby Stanford. And Garnett has worked hard to be able to excel in Shanahan's system. Spending last season on IR, he's since rehabbed and reshaped his body – he's now in the vicinity of 302 pounds down from 325 – and he's had over a year to study this system and absorb technique from coach John Benton.
Given the raw stage he's at in his career, combined with his intelligence, youth, and bolstered athleticism, there's a real shot Garnett can still be molded into an effective guard. If this weight loss helps and he picks up the nuances needed to play in Shanahan's offense, and breaks through in this souped up O-line group to provide a fourth dependable blocker, San Francisco will be better equipped to control games in the trenches and will be that much better. The upside is big here and the downside is concerning.
#12 Jerick McKinnon, RB
The Niners are paying McKinnon top-five RB money, and intend for him to be a focal point. He's an explosive, versatile back with great speed that can execute the full gamut of Shanahan's offense. And since this isn't a team with a big-time wideout or premier tight end, a lot will go through McKinnon, on the ground and in the air. His all-purpose potential in this system and team situation maybe puts him in the realm of an Offensive Player of the Year candidate, even.
The reason he's misses the top-10 is because if McKinnon were unavailable for any reason, second-year tailback Matt Breida could start, and would be pretty effective. Breida averaged 4.4 yards per attempt last year, which was top-10 in the NFL for qualified rushers. There's also Joe Williams, who is lurking in the background as a stash from 2017. Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin might even be in line for more carries as well to pick up the slack. The point is, the run game would survive without McKinnon, and the offense would still be dangerous.
McKinnon steals a top-15 spot on his projected offensive impact and volume.
#11 Adrian Colbert, FS
The 49ers were lucky to unearth Colbert in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, settling a big need on a newly-installed defense. The single-high safety role is paramount in Robert Saleh's system, and standouts at the position are tough to come by. As a late-round guy, Colbert appeared in 14 games, starting six, in which he had 37 tackles, five batted passes, two forced fumbles and a recovery.
It was a very promising first year. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, with 4.4 speed, he's big and rangy; and with his football acumen and instincts, he flies to the ball with regularity. As a rookie, Colbert excelled covering the deep part of the field, was tough supporting the run, and limited the yards after catch on plays targeting the underneath part of the field.
It's important Colbert builds on last year and proves he's no one-hit wonder. If he stays on his current path and makes that second-year leap, he has the potential to be a terrific centerfielder for this defense long-term, and maybe even a Pro Bowl level talent soon – and at a position that is both critical to the defense and tough to settle from a talent acquisition perspective.
Media courtesy SI, USA Today Sports Images, Getty Images, Dani Jardine/The Daily Universe, AP Images, Icon SportsWire, Stan Olszewski/S.F. Examiner