Editor's note: This is Part I of a four-part series ranking the 20 most important players for the 49ers ahead of 2018 training camp. Head here for Part II (#15-11), Part III (#10-6), and Part IV (#5-1).
Inspired by NFL Network's annual Top 100 and Niners Nation's list of favorites for 49ers MVP heading into the 2018 season, I saw an opportunity to rank the top-20 players on San Francisco's roster ahead of camp. What I was looking to conclude was who are the *most important* players and why.
If the 49ers were to make a run this year, who would need to be at the forefront of that effort?
The player importance is measured in terms of the team needing them to be available for all 16(+) games, their snaps/usage, their contract, and how much the team needs them to play to their potential (their age/future, role, and what the 49ers have invested in them factors into that). It also considers the depth at the position, as well as adjacent talent, to weigh the ripple effect of a potential absence.
So, keep in mind, while talent matters, this is not merely a list of the best 49ers players ranked. It's more of a detailed look on who must come through in 2018 in order for this team to both compete for a Super Bowl, and look promising in the future.
#20 Arik Armstead, DE
The 49ers at the end of April picked up Armstead's fifth-year option. The former top-20 draft pick from the Trent Baalke regime admittedly has a fair amount on his shoulders this year. He's coming off back-to-back seasons that ended with him on IR, he's never started more than six games in a single season, and he only has six sacks in 30 NFL games. In 2018, the 49ers are asking Armstead to start a full season in what will be his third role in three years, the big end, and they need him to excel.
With his potential, him being penciled in as a starter, the injuries and lack of production to date, and the uncertainty of his future with San Francisco, the expectations are there for Armstead to perform. This is setting up to be a career-defining year for him.
But if he settles in at the left end spot, a position he projects well for, there's a chance he becomes an effective starter, which would help the 49ers' defensive line finally take shape. And like tumblers in a lock, everything can align and the potential of a four-man unit with three thriving first-round picks may begin to show itself.
#19 Jaquiski Tartt, SS
Tartt, similar to Arik Armstead, is a former high-round draft pick by the previous regime with above-average starter talent, but has yet to put it together over the course of a full season. And now with Eric Reid's run in San Francisco seemingly over, the 49ers are depending on Tartt, who is the unquestioned starter playing the "Kam Chancellor" underneath safety role.
There's now pressure on him to stay healthy and be a contributor for them on defense. But the fourth-year pro received a vote of confidence from the current front office, as John Lynch made the "hard" decision to pass on FSU standout Derwin James at No. 9 overall in the 2018 draft and shortly after rewarded Tartt with a two-year extension that keeps him with the organization through 2020.
Beyond supporting the run and pass, the 49ers are counting on Tartt to be the enforcer he's capable of being over a full 16-game season, helping cultivate that unnerving middle-of-the-field presence. And with Robert Saleh's proclivity for blitzing defensive backs, Tartt has to own his pass-rush snaps, especially since they're going with an all-hands-on-deck approach.
If Tartt were unavailable, though, the 49ers would have two safeties they drafted this year in Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris, who could both fill in. There's also high-priced backup Jimmie Ward.
#18 Marquise Goodwin, WR
With true game-breaking ability, Goodwin is a player with on- and off-the-ball value for the 49ers. He's also the returning skill player who had the the most offensive snaps in 2017, and appears to be entering the prime of his NFL career at 27 years old. So he's a valued commodity, and Shanahan will only structure more around him after a successful first year together.
Because of his Olympic speed and position versatility, Shanahan has a lot of use for Goodwin, and the 49ers count on him for big plays. He was third in the NFL last year in yards per reception (17.2), so he'll be a deep option for Garoppolo, if not the primary one. The wideout also ran the ball four times for 44 yards last year (11.0 YPC). All in all, he averaged 16.7 yards per touch last year. So he takes chunks out of the defense, and DBs around the league know it can happen in an instant.
As a result of his top-flight speed, Goodwin has to be accounted for by defenses, which makes him an asset on pre-snap motion. Goodwin can line up in different spots, including the backfield, and motion to throw the defense. After the ball is snapped, another way Shanahan utilizes Goodwin is by tapping his speed to pull the defense out of position, away from where the ball is going, to create for other players. He also functions as the primary target on misdirection plays, such as the Orbit Return Swing Pass that got the best of the Rams in Week 17. So, No. 11 is very much wired into the week-to-week game plans.
With his contract extension, his clear per-snap value, another year in the same system, and the fact that many of the 49ers receivers are young and learning, Goodwin has an opportunity to build on last year and be a centerpiece for this passing offense.
#17 George Kittle, TE
While Kittle shared the load with Garrett Celek at tight end in 2017, he's already stood out with superior athleticism for the position, which means that might not last much longer. Now healthy and bulked up, the snaps could swing in favor of Kittle this year, who Shanahan didn't hesitate to feature last year, even though he was hurt and tight end is typically a tough position to transition from college to the pros.
But the simple fact of it is, Kittle is an athlete that knows how to get open and he can make spectacular catches. He's a natural that visibly got more comfortable as the season progressed, and the 49ers want to feature him because he brings big-play ability to the position.
Kittle finished seventh in the NFL last year in yards-per-catch for qualified tight ends (40 or more receptions). In Garoppolo's starts, he caught 15 of 19 targets for 224 yards and a touchdown. In that sample, he caught nearly 80% of what was thrown at him and was good for 14.9 YPC, which would've placed him third in the league for tight ends with 40+ catches behind only Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis.
While the volume may not be all the way there in 2018, Kittle has the potential to develop into a top-five TE on a per-snap basis.
#16 Trent Taylor, WR
Taylor has been Mr. Third Down for the 49ers, and was one of the very best in the NFL as a rookie keeping his offense on the field. His 18 third-down catches for first downs tied him for ninth in the league last year (the eight players that had more were all Pro Bowl receivers). By extending drives, Taylor's helps the 49ers win time of possession, wear defenses out, and increase the likelihood of a touchdown over a field goal or nothing.
And while it's more of a qualitative stat, Taylor's extremely tough as well, having caught many passes in traffic. That sets the tone for the offense and opens up the field. And of course, he's been the safety net for Garoppolo. When the play is extended or Garoppolo needs to get rid of the ball in a pinch, he has shown a real level of comfortability going to Taylor. The two just clicked and that counts for something.
The only reason Taylor is not ranked higher is because if he were to be absent, the 49ers receiving corps would be fine, and both Kendrick Bourne and rookie Dante Pettis would be able to get more snaps and could likely replicate his slot production.
Media courtesy Michael Zagaris, USA Today Sports Images, Getty Images, AP Images, Icon SportsWire