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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

3 reasons why the 49ers will be much improved in 2021

Aug 24, 2021 at 9:10 AM--

As he does every year, ESPN's Bill Barnwell presented his list of NFL teams most likely to improve from last season. The San Francisco 49ers have become a safe pick on every list of this type, and there have been many. After all, the team was playing in the Super Bowl less than 19 months ago.

Last season's outcome resulted from what many attribute to some lousy luck coupled with a pandemic that forced the team out of Santa Clara when it should have been focusing on a strong finish and, potentially, a playoff push. Instead, head coach Kyle Shanahan's squad won one of its last five games and finished with only six total victories.

So why the predictions for the quick turnaround? There is the most obvious answer (more on that in a second). However, other factors could come into play and help improve the 49ers' win total in 2021.

Below are three reasons why Barnwell believes the 49ers will be much improved in 2021 with some added context for each.

Improved health

San Francisco endured some pretty poor injury luck last season. The depth chart had completely transformed by Week 2. As the season progressed, the team lost many of its stars for more than just a handful of games. Losses like Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, and George Kittle—just to name a few—were too much to overcome.

Barnwell points out that the 49ers finished the season with 17 players on injured reserve or the physically-unable-to-perform list. In addition, only seven total starters on offense and defense started all 16 games.

The 49ers hope to be healthier this season. Last season's injury-plagued campaign has resulted in Shanahan being very cautious with his big-name contributors this year, keeping many of them sidelined during the team's first two preseason games. Although, the coach hopes to play many of them this weekend against the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Niners also believe they added depth this offseason. The team won't have to rely on Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard to carry the offense should Garoppolo go down again. San Francisco drafted his successor, Trey Lance. If Garoppolo can stay healthy and play at a high level all season, great. If not, a transition from Garoppolo to Lance will take place.

San Francisco bolstered its depth in other key areas too. For example, the team added Samson Ebukam, Zach Kerr, and others to a defensive line that already features Nick Bosa and Dee Ford on the edges.

Strength of schedule

Six wins aren't much to boast about. However, many of the team's 10 losses could have gone either way with a little more luck. San Francisco scored 376 total points last season. Opponents scored 390 total points. That's 23.5 points per game compared to 24.4. And, as Barnwell points out, that was going against the NFL's fourth-toughest schedule.

"The 49ers did dial up some scoring drives in what amounted to garbage time to make some games look closer than they were," wrote Barnwell, "but there were also some genuine crushing defeats on their résumé. Ill-timed turnovers cost them dearly against the Eagles (Week 4) and Seahawks (Week 8), while a pair of defensive touchdowns did the Niners in against Washington (Week 14)."

The good news for the 49ers is that finishing last in the division last season produced the third-easiest schedule in the league this season. That's significantly better than what they had to deal with last year, and the team, if healthy, should be a lot more competitive. Maybe even downright dominant.

The strength of schedule is subjective, though, depending on how it is calculated. The third-easiest ranking is based on the results of last season. As you know, things can change quickly in the NFL.

"Football Outsiders has the Niners going from the third-toughest schedule to the seventh-easiest slate," Barnwell noted. "My own numbers had the Niners facing the toughest schedule in football last season."

However you look at it, the 49ers' road in 2021 should have fewer obstacles outside of the division.

Turnover margin likely to improve

Barnwell presented an interesting statistic: Teams with double-digit turnover margins almost always improve their turnover ratio the next season. The 49ers turned over the football 31 times on offense last year, finishing with a turnover margin of minus-11.

That was with the highest number of injuries in the league and second-most injuries in the past two decades. Still, somehow, the 49ers entered December thinking they might be able to sneak into the postseason if everything fell their way, which it did not.

"Let's lump the 49ers in with teams that posted turnover margins between minus-10 and minus-15," wrote Barnwell. "There have been 103 of them since 1989. The following year, those teams improved their turnover margin by an average of 9.3 turnovers, and their record improved by 1.4 wins in the process."

Last year saw the team's backups turning the ball over and other reserves scrambling for the recoveries, of which the Niners recovered only 33.3 percent of the time. Historically, teams in that recovery range improve to over 50 percent the next season. So cutting down on those miscues will help, too.

Barnwell's conclusion

Despite 2021 looking rosier for the Niners, he doesn't see Shanahan's squad as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Better? Yes. Ready to knock off the likes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Kansas City Chiefs? Maybe not.

Barnwell notes the loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, now the Jets' head coach. He adds that the team is still recovering from trading away DeForest Buckner last year and faces question marks at cornerback.

Then you have the NFC West, easily the toughest division in football. The Los Angeles Rams appear loaded on paper. The Seattle Seahawks won't go away. Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals is always a handful, especially when you have to face him twice a year.

"We can certainly count on them to be better, but it'll take a really healthy season -- or something spectacular from Lance as a rookie -- to get them back into the title game," Barnwell added.

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