Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN identifies two irreplaceable players on the 49ers roster

Jul 15, 2021 at 1:57 PM--

The San Francisco 49ers endured a league-high number of injuries last season in what was supposed to be a year dedicated to avenging their Super Bowl loss. Instead, the injuries quickly transformed the team's roster by Week 2.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed 10 games. Tight end George Kittle missed eight. The then-reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Nick Bosa, was done by Week 2. The team went on to win just six games, finishing last in the NFC West.

The 49ers hope 2020 was an outlier. On paper, the roster is talented. Players have to stay on the football field, though, for the team to reach its potential. It's difficult to win without your best young pass rusher or your top receiving threat. It's a challenge to put the hopes of a season on the shoulders of less-talented backup quarterbacks. That's what hurt San Francisco last season.

ESPN's Bill Barnwell recently looked at six "against-the-grain NFL predictions" for 2021, noting that he expects San Francisco to get a boost from some uncontrollable factor. One might be limiting defensive touchdowns. The 49ers offense turned over the football 31 times last season, the second-highest mark in the NFL. Better quarterback play should help in that area.

Another factor could be special teams. Opposing kickers made 33 of 37 attempts, generating 12.8 EPA against the 49ers in 2020, the third-most of any team. Barnwell expects that to improve in 2021.

Also noteworthy are Barnwell's comments on the aforementioned three players who missed significant time last season. The writer names Bosa and Kittle as the team's two irreplaceable players, and their health will be a big factor in the success or failure of the team's 2021 campaign.

As for Garoppolo, well, the 49ers have Trey Lance now. With that — they hope — comes more competent backup play and a future successor to Garoppolo.

"Rookie first-round pick Trey Lance might be able to step in for Garoppolo at quarterback, but there's nobody on the roster who can fill in for Kittle or Bosa," wrote Barnwell. "Injuries aren't totally random -- some players are more susceptible to injury than others -- but the Niners can't really control whether a player like Bosa stays healthy in a given season."

Bosa is returning from a torn ACL but has shown significant progress in offseason rehabilitation videos.

The losses of Bosa and Kittle were devastating for the 49ers last season. The team could never get a potent pass rush going without Bosa and missed Kittle's production and leadership on offense. Yet, despite missing eight games, the All-Pro tight end still managed to record 48 catches for 634 yards with two scores. At that rate, a healthy Kittle might have approached 1,300 receiving yards and posted his third consecutive year of more than 1,000 receiving yards.

Remaining healthy through 17 games has been one of Kittle's offseason focuses.

"A big thing for me this offseason was just foot health, ankle health," Kittle said in May. "... You know, doing whatever I can just to be as healthy as I can be, and as strong in those areas that have been my weakness, and just focus on that because you can't do the same thing and expect different results. So, just trying to add as many new different things that I feel like are making positive influences on my life and on my body."

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