2020 NFL Team Previews: San Francisco 49ers
2020 NFL Team Previews
By Professor MJ
San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons as San Francisco’s head coach ended with 6-10 and 4-12 records. The team wildly exceeded expectations last year by finishing as the number one seed in the NFC.
The 49ers rolled pretty easily over the Vikings and the Packers to open the playoffs. However, the Super Bowl left a sour taste in their mouth after squandering a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Can Shanahan’s squad make it back to the big game this season?
2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)
Prior to last year, Jimmy Garoppolo had never started more than five games in a season. He removed all doubts and proved he was definitely a starting NFL caliber quarterback.
Garoppolo was very efficient by completing 69% of his passes, while coming just 22 yards short of the 4,000 passing-yard mark. He also threw 27 TDs passes versus 13 interceptions.
He still has some game-manager tendencies, but he had huge performances too, including a 26-for-35 and 349 passing yards, 4 TDs and 1 pick in a wild 48-46 win in New Orleans. Sure, he had a great running game setting up his passing game, but he still delivered when he needed to (except in the Super Bowl where he couldn’t deliver the knockout punch to the Chiefs).
With one full year of experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, Garoppolo should be more comfortable in year two.
Nick Mullens earned #2 duties last year, but he never saw the field since Garoppolo stayed healthy all year long. His only playing experience occurred in 2018 where he competed in eight games, completing 64% of his passes with a 13:10 TD:INT ratio, while averaging an impressive 285 passing yards per game. He’s an undrafted QB from Southern Miss.
Despite being a former third-rounder, C.J. Beathard lost the backup QB battle in camp last year. He got some playing time both in 2017 and 2018, where he got involved in six and seven games, respectively. His career completion rate is set at just 57% with 12 TDs and 13 interceptions. On average, he has thrown for 206 yards per contest. He is a more capable runner than Mullens, though.
2.2 Running Backs (RBs)
San Francisco’s backfield was a three-headed monster last year. The team picked up the second-most rushing yards in the league. Their running game was devastating.
Raheem Mostert led the team with 772 rushing yards. He had accumulated just 297 yards on the ground in the previous four years!
He became Kyle Shanahan’s favorite back during the Super Bowl run. His 220 rushing yards performance in the NFC Championship Game was the second-best postseason performance of all-time.
To me, Tevin Coleman is an overrated running back. First, let’s look at the yards-per-carry average of the team’s three leading backs: Mostert 5.6, Breida 5.1 and Coleman 4.0. That kind of average in such a well-blocked and well-schemed rushing attack is really disappointing. It also marked his career-low.
Coleman scored six TDs on the ground and one through the air. However, four of them came in Week #8 against the Panthers.
Breida was lightly used down the stretch last year. He seemed like the odd man out in a crowded backfield, and the team traded him to Miami during the draft.
The X factor is Jerick McKinnon. Remember him? If you don’t, that’s probably because he has not played a single down in two years.
After playing four years in Minnesota, he signed a lucrative contract with San Francisco in 2018. He tore his ACL during a team workout, ending his season. In the following year, he suffered a setback from his knee surgery and he missed on the team’s Super Bowl run.
He took a huge paycut this offseason (deservedly so) to stay with the team. He showed a good burst in his first two seasons with a 4.9 yards per rush average. He was used more often the next two years (racking up 539 and 570 rushing yards), which dropped his average down to just 3.6.
McKinnon is more dangerous as a pass catcher in open space. The Niners love rotating their running backs, so I expect McKinnon to be used more specifically on passing downs.
2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)
Deebo Samuel’s rookie season was a resounding success. He caught 57 passes for 802 receiving yards and 3 TDs.
Shanahan had so much confidence in his abilities that he also gave him 14 rushing attempts. Samuel made the most out of those opportunities by scoring three touchdowns on the ground with a whopping 11.4 yards per rush average.
Samuel was an early second round pick out of South Carolina. All signs point towards him being a bargain pick.
The 49ers passing attack took a step forward after trading for Emmanuel Sanders. He did a very good job, despite fighting through a rib injury. Unfortunately, the team let him walk in free agency for cap reasons.
Marquise Goodwin is also gone. He has had an injury-riddled career. After four unsuccessful seasons in Buffalo, he had a breakout year in 2017 with a 56-962-2 receiving line. However, he got hurt again and fell down the depth chart in the two most recent seasons. He was dealt to the Eagles during the draft.
So who will be the team’s #2 WR then?
The first potential candidate is Kendrick Bourne. He’s a bit inconsistent, but he was one of Garoppolo’s favorite targets in the red zone. Over the past two seasons he has totaled nine TDs, while averaging 36 receptions and 423 receiving yards per year. He’s a good role player, but I’m not sure the undrafted young receiver can embrace the number two role.
The team drafted Brandon Aiyuk late in the first round of this year’s draft. He played just two years at Arizona State after transferring from Sierra College. He started just three games with the Sun Devils in 2018 before taking his game to another level last year where he hauled in 65 passes for 1,192 yards and 8 TDs.
Aiyuk is good at racking up yards after the catch, but needs to be more physical since making contested catches is not his forte. He is viewed as a potential WR3 in the NFL.
Dante Pettis took a huge step back last year. He only caught 11 passes all year.
What’s puzzling is the 2018 second-rounder finished his rookie season on a very high note. Indeed, over his final five meetings he posted a 20-359-4 receiving line, which would translate into 64-1149-13 over a full 16-game season.
Kyle Shanahan ended up criticizing him publicly at some point last year. The team is particularly upset at the mental aspect of his game. 2020 will be a critical season for him.
Jalen Hurd missed his entire rookie season due to a back injury. He’s more of a gadget player. For your information, he was selected in the 3rd round of the 2019 draft.
Travis Benjamin was signed as a free agent. He had a few good seasons with the Browns and the Chargers, but he has caught just 18 passes over the last two years. He’s more of a deep threat, but you have to wonder if he can still do it at 30 years old following a year where he had a quad injury.
Finally, can Trent Taylor have an impact? He was projected to be the team’s starting slot receiver entering the 2019 season, but a foot injury that required five surgeries cost him the season. The former fifth-rounder caught 43 and 26 passes in 2017 and 2018, respectively
2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)
George Kittle is as good as it gets. He is an amazing pass catcher, he is hard to bring down after the catch and he is a bone-crushing run blocker.
His receiving stats have been awesome for the second straight year. In both cases, he topped the 1,000 receiving-yard mark, while catching 88 and 85 passes. He also reached the end zone on five occasions in each of those two seasons.
He is also a very tough guy. He dealt with knee and ankle issues, while also playing through a torn labrum. Hopefully, he’s be fully healthy when the 2020 season begins.
Ross Dwelley took over as the starting TE when Kittle missed a couple of games. He did a decent job which included scoring two touchdowns, but the undrafted 25-year-old won’t be confused with Kittle anytime soon
2.5 Offensive Line (OL)
Weston Richburg is the favorite to land the starting job at the pivot, but Ben Garland will keep pushing him. Richburg missed a few games due to injuries and his play in his two seasons with the 49ers hasn’t been as good as it used to be with the Giants. He graded out as the number 25 center out of 37 qualifiers last year. Meanwhile, Garland has always been a backup, but he does a very sound job.
Left tackle Joe Staley was a true warrior for this organization. He spent his whole 13-year career in the Bay area and he was great in each of them. He announced his retirement on the same day that the team acquired Trent Williams via a trade.
Williams sat out the entire 2019 season after feuding with the Redskins. When he is on the field, he’s a great blindside protector. However, he has not played a complete 16-game season since 2013. And will he be at NFL speed right away after being out of football for a year and a half?
Mike McGlinchey is entering his third year as a pro at right tackle. He missed four games due to a knee injury. The former #9 overall pick out of Notre Dame has received above-average PFF marks in each of his first two seasons, finishing 35th out of 81 tackles in 2019.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson has missed just one game in the past three years. The 28-year-old and former first-rounder graded out as the number 20 guard out of 81 guys. His PFF marks have been remarkably stable over his entire five-year career.
Mike Person played all but two games as the starting right guard in 2019. The team released him during the offseason. He was about to play his age-32 campaign and provided “okay” play last season.
The team acquired Tom Compton, formerly of the Jets, a seven-year journeyman. Daniel Brunskill may have a better shot at earning the right guard starting job. Even though he lacks experience, he did a solid job filling in at LT, RT and RG last season.
2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE
When comparing the 2020 versus 2019 rosters, the only good news I see is at the QB position. Jimmy Garoppolo has a shot to take a leap in his second full season in Shanahan’s offense.
However, I see a possible downgrade at all remaining positions on offense.
The team lost Matt Breida, but will (hopefully) finally see Jerick McKinnon on the field. Even though Breida slowed down late last season, he’s less injury-prone than McKinnon and his yards-per-carry average is significantly higher. McKinnon is a bigger threat in the passing game, but overall I believe Breida is a more reliable player.
At wide receiver, losing Emmanuel Sanders and Marquise Goodwin leaves a glaring hole at the WR #2 spot behind Deebo Samuel. Who will step up? The team has a lot of unproven guys (Kendrick Bourne, Travis Benjamin, Dante Pettis, Jalen Hurd, Trent Taylor and rookie Brandon Aiyuk).
George Kittle is a monster. He graded out as the top tight end in the entire league last year, according to PFF grades. There is no room for improvement there.
Finally, on the offensive line, the team’s long-time starting left tackle Joe Staley decided to hang his cleats. Newly acquired Trent Williams certainly has the abilities to fill his shoes, but how will he play after being out of football for a year and a half?
Another source of concern pertains to the right guard spot, where Mike Person was released without any clear-cut replacement. Expect a dropoff in terms of quality of play at this position in 2020.
For these reasons, I don’t believe the 49ers offense has a good chance of finishing nearly as high as last year’s second place in terms of points scored. I foresee a middle-of-the-pack 2020 season from this unit.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)
The 49ers lost a cornerstone of their defense when DeForest Buckner was traded to Indianapolis in return of the number 13 overall pick. Buckner has been good and durable in each of his four seasons as a pro since being drafted 7th overall in 2016. His presence will be missed big time.
The Niners eventually traded down one spot and took Javon Kinlaw at #14 in this year’s draft. This guy has shown a lot of character, both on and off the field. He was homeless for much of his childhood and football was his way out.
Kinlaw improved every single year in college with the Gamecocks. He can be a disruptive force along the interior of the line, thanks for elite physical traits. His overall game tends to be inconsistent, though.
San Francisco also used Sheldon Day and D.J. Jones for about 30% of the defensive snaps last year. Day will be reuniting with Buckner after signing a one-year contract with the Colts. He provided adequate, yet unspectacular play.
As for Jones, he’s more of a run stuffer whose PFF grades have improved in each of his three seasons in the NFL. The former sixth-round pick graded out as the 50th-best DL among 114 qualifiers. He is likely to see increased usage following the departure of Buckner and Day.
3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)
Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead are literally terrifying opposing quarterbacks. They posted 9 and 10 sacks, respectively.
Bosa had an immediate impact in the big league as he finished 6th in terms of QB pressures. He was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year. He defends the run well too, which makes him the complete package. He has a bright future ahead of him.
I’m not a big fan of the lofty five-year, $85 million contract awarded to Arik Armstead. The #17 overall pick from the 2015 draft underachieved for four seasons by posting just 9 sacks during that time frame.
He exploded last year with 10 sacks. Perhaps he’ll keep playing at a high level, but maybe it was just a flash in the pan.
If you look at the numbers, Dee Ford had a down year with “just” 6.5 sacks. In his defense, he played part-time due to a few injuries (knee and hamstring). He only played 22% of the defensive snaps last year. When healthy, he’s an excellent pass rusher.
Solomon Thomas has been a gigantic bust thus far. After being selected with the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, he has picked up just six sacks in three years! He saw a therapist a year ago, which he claimed would help him turn the corner, but it hasn’t been the case.
The team added depth by acquiring Kerry Hyder. He’s a one-year wonder who got 8 sacks in 2016 with the Lions, then missed the following season with a torn Achilles’, and followed up with two straight seasons where he posted just one sack.
3.3 Linebackers (LBs)
The four-year, $54 million contract Kwon Alexander signed prior to the 2019 season was a head scratcher. After his first season with the 49ers, the question marks are even bigger.
Take a look at his PFF grades from 2015 to 2019: 40.2, 68.5, 65.5, 57.4 and 52.6. As you can see, his effectiveness has decreased in each of the past three years.
Also, he has played a full 16-game season just once in his career. In other words, he’s injury-prone and when healthy he’s an average linebacker.
Fred Warner finished at the number 33 spot out of 89 linebackers last year, according to the PFF rating system. His tackle production went from 124 down to 118, but he picked up the first three sacks and the first interception of his young two-year career. The former third-rounder from BYU has made a name for himself.
Dre Greenlaw came out of nowhere and played 70% of the snaps after getting drafted in the 5th round of last year’s draft. He has sound tackling and coverage skills; hopefully he won’t suffer from the famous “sophomore slump.”
San Francisco signed Joe Walker, formerly of the Cardinals, to add some depth. He was one of the worst linebackers in the NFL last year. The team hopes they won’t need him on the field in 2020.
3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)
Richard Sherman is the leader of this group. As a matter of fact, he led all NFL cornerbacks with a 90.3 PFF grade last season.
You may not like him as a person, but he’s a consistent producer on the field. Sherman has 35 career interceptions during his nine-year career.
He received PFF marks above 90 in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Then, he never got above 80 for the next four years before rebounding nicely last season.
K’Waun Williams has been a revelation for the Niners. He was one of the league’s top slot corners last season. His 80.3 PFF grade put him in the 7th spot out of 112 cornerbacks. The undrafted 29-year-old has truly found a home in San Francisco.
As a former third-rounder, Ahkello Witherspoon is supposed to be the superior CB over undrafted Emmanuel Moseley. However, Moseley outperformed Witherspoon last year, and by a good margin. He did well both in coverage and against the run.
As for Witherspoon, he’s now had two straight so-so seasons after a promising rookie year. The 2020 campaign will be critical for him as he needs to elevate his game. He has also failed to play more than 14 games in each of his three seasons.
3.5 Safeties (S)
Both starting safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, missed time due to injuries last year. They played 13 and 12 games, respectively.
Ward has had just one problem thus far in his career: staying healthy. He has missed 3, 7, 9, and 5 games in the four most recent seasons. When he is on the field, he does a good job, although he’s a much better run defender than a coverage man. He played the most snaps of his career last year (989) and he responded nicely with the 6th overall rank among 87 safeties based on PFF grades.
Jaquiski Tartt has received average PFF marks throughout his five-year career, except in 2017 where he fared significantly better. Much like his teammate, he’s had trouble staying on the field recently. Indeed, he has missed 19 of the team’s past 48 games.
Tarvarious Moore is an option when any of the starting safeties goes down. He was a third round selection in 2018, he did well in last year’s preseason and did a fine job in backup duties in 2019.
The team also has Marcell Harris in the mix. He was a 6th round pick in 2018 and he received respectable grades in 2019 (while playing 33% of the snaps) after getting abysmal marks in his rookie season.
2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE
I anticipate this group to be significantly weaker in 2020 as they were a year ago.
First, the interior of the defensive line suffered a big blow with the losses of DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day. The team hopes rookie Javon Kinlaw can produce immediately, but asking him to fill Bucker’s shoes right away is asking too much.
At edge, Armstead’s year may turn out to be an outlier. He more than doubled his four-year sack production within one season. Granted, Dee Ford could compensate with more QB pressures if he can stay healthy this time.
The linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties remain the same. For continuity reasons, that’s a good thing for sure.
Can Richard Sherman retain the #1 spot among all cornerbacks despite being 32 years old? That’s another unlikely scenario. His play could drop off a little bit.
For all of the reasons above, I’m calling a moderate downgrade from 2019 to 2020 for Robert Saleh’s unit.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
4. Regular Season Wins
According to sportsbooks, the San Francisco 49ers are expected to win 10.5 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?
I'll answer this question via two different methods.
4.1 Professor MJ's Prediction
I won't go into the mathematical details, but here is a summary of my own personal pick (based on my analysis above and my estimated spreads for the Cowboys' 16 games):
Tip: Bet OVER 10.5 wins
4.2 Based on BetOnline's Point Spreads
Here is the methodology I used here:
- Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
- Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
- Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
- Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
- Count the proportion of seasons where the 49ers won more or less than 10.5 games.
Here are the results:
Tip: Bet OVER 10.5 wins
In summary, both analyses recommend betting the OVER. That being said, I can't say I'm overly confident about this play. I'm afraid the 2019 season might have been a fluke year for the 49ers. The numbers are pointing in the direction of betting the OVER, but my offensive and defensive breakdown above don't like San Francisco's 2020 outlook so much.
Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the 49ers’ 16 regular season games:
- HOME: -7.5 vs ARI, -7 vs BUF, -6.5 vs GB, -7 vs LAR, -13.5 vs MIA, -5.5 vs PHI, -6.5 vs SEA, -14.5 vs WAS.
- ROAD: -5 @ ARI, 0 @ DAL, -2.5 @ LAR, 0 @ NE, +2 @ NO, -7.5 @ NYG, -5.5 @ NYJ, 0 @ SEA.
Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.
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