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Repackaging a Super Bowl Contender: The New 49ers’ Roster May Be Even Better Than It Was in 2019

Don Atkinson
Aug 26, 2021 at 12:55 AM--

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On the last day of August of 2019, no one yet realized what the then-longshot 49ers were about to do to the rest of the NFL. They had won three of four meaningless pre-season games, but few people outside of the 49ers' organization gave them much of a chance to win their division, let alone go to a Super Bowl. Then something incredible happened. They went on an eight-game roll to start the season and found themselves undefeated by the time Halloween had arrived. The NFL doubters were still clinging to weak projections of the team's collapse by mid-November, but the upstart 49ers lost just three games in the remainder of the regular season, all of them close, and they went on to dominate in the playoffs before a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl.

That may seem like a lifetime ago, and perhaps in the world of pro football, it was. But the 49ers went to work following a Covid-impacted and medically challenging 2020 season. They re-signed key players, let some other decent players walk, and drafted well, with the goal of improving on a roster that was already elite. Whether or not they have done that remains to be seen. But a quick look at the two teams in comparison, does provide some interesting, and encouraging signs.

If ever there was an easy call to make in evaluating a position from one season to another on the 49ers' roster, it's at quarterback. Veteran Jimmy Garoppolo returns, healthy and evidently energized, and is now challenged by the addition of a superior rookie talent in former North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. Journeyman Nate Sudfeld rounds out the room at QB3, replacing the backup services of former 49ers' quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. This one is a slam dunk, if only for the quality of the top two spots.

Advantage: 2021

Offensive Line:
Probably the most obvious good news/bad news circumstance for the 49ers is the O-line. The 49ers lost an All-Pro left tackle when Joe Staley retired, but picked up an all-world replacement in Trent Williams. From the 2019 team, center Weston Richburg, right guard Mike Person and backup lineman Ben Garland are all gone. Left guard Laken Tomlinson, right tackle Mike McGlinchey and utility lineman Daniel Brunskill are all back. The 49ers added veteran center Alex Mack, and drafted linemen Colton McKivitz and Aaron Banks in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Lineman Justin Skule remains on the roster but is lost for the season to an ACL injury.

In the end, it's hard to make much of a case for improvement, despite the fact Williams is a star and Mack is an upgrade from the rotational center circus of last year. McGlinchey lost weight last year and is coming off a terrible 2020 season. He's bulked up again this year, but he remains a significant question mark. McKivitz has only been average in relief, and Banks has been underwhelming in the preseason.

Advantage: 2019

Defensive Line
Nearly every unit within the 49ers' defense suffered impactful injuries in 2020, but none so greatly as the team's defensive line. In 2019, the starting front four of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and D.J. Jones, with Dee Ford working off the edge, terrorized quarterbacks around the league. Ronald Blair and Sheldon Day were key backups that season. The chemistry of the line in 2019 was undeniable. Now two years later, Bosa is returning from a season-ending ACL injury, Armstead is coming off a less than stellar year, and Buckner, Blair and Day have all departed. Under a superficial examination, the loss of Buckner alone would seem to suggest the 2021 D-line is the less impressive. But that really may not be the case.

Bosa and Ford played a combined total of three games all season last year, but both seem healthy and ready as the 2021 season begins. The 49ers have since added Javon Kinlaw, Maurice Hurst, Zach Kerr, and Samson Ebukam at the edge, among others. Jones and Armstead return as well. Despite the elite nature of the 2019 line, the 2021 line, if healthy and despite missing Buckner, could prove just as effective, and the backups may be even better than they were in the team's last Super Bowl run.

Advantage: Even.

Running Backs:
Shanahan had the 2019 49ers at the top of their running game, and he also spread the love around with his starting backs. Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida both had several special games during the season, and 2019 saw the emergence of Raheem Mostert as the leader of the running attack that carried the team into the Super Bowl. Two years later, Coleman and Breida have both moved on, and with Mostert returning as RB1, the 49ers added a capable veteran runner in Wayne Gallman, a solid rookie talent in Trey Sermon, and a second-year player with great potential in JaMycal Hasty. Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk returns on a hefty new contract.

Though now injured, the 49ers secured an explosive presence on the roster by re-signing Jeff Wilson, Jr. With all deference to the skill set of the 2019 unit, the running game may have gotten even more lethal in 2021, especially if Wilson returns healthy by mid-season and Sermon develops into the deadly pass catching option he seems likely to be.

Advantage: 2021

Defensive Backs:
Some change has obviously occurred within this unit. The 49ers started 2019 with outside cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon, using K'Wuan Williams at the nickel position. Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt were the starting safeties. Two years later, Sherman and Witherspoon are gone, and Emmanuel Moseley has nailed down a starting corner position opposite veteran Jason Verrett. Both Moseley and Verrett return this year, though Verrett did not start in 2019. Verrett's resurrection from over two years on the IR list has been nothing short of inspiring, and he looks to now repeat a brilliant season from last year. Moseley has benefitted from the experience in a starting role over the last two seasons.

Cornerback D.J. Reed, who was grabbed off waivers by Seattle last year, was an unfortunate loss. The hard-hitting Tarvarius Moore remains on the roster but is out for the season with an Achilles injury. Williams, Ward and Tartt all return, augmented by some great rookie talent in cornerback Deommodore Lenoir and safety Talanoa Hufanga. Rookie Ambry Thomas was drafted this offseason as well, though he has yet to stand out. Veteran defensive backs Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davontae Harris and Tavon Wilson have been added as solid depth pieces. Ward and Williams seem to keep getting better, while Tartt continues to struggle with injuries. Despite the loss of Richard Sherman's leadership, the 2021 unit seems primed to surpass the impact of its predecessors.

Advantage: 2021

Wide Receivers:
Veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne, both of whom played key roles in the 49ers passing game enroute to the Super Bowl, are gone from the 2019 team. Speedster Marquise Goodwin also departed. Playmaker Deebo Samuel returns for his third year. Richie James and Jalen Hurd, technically on the roster in 2019, are here in name, but both are hanging on by a thread. Hurd has been a medical wreck, and James seems to be pushed farther out into the brush with every dropped pass in practice. The 49ers have since added capable veterans Mohamed Sanu and Trent Sherfield, and in 2020 drafted an elite wideout in Brandon Aiyuk. Also drafted last year was Jauan Jennings, who seems primed to take Hurd's spot as the team's big-bodied red zone threat. Overall, and despite the talents of Sanders and Bourne being lost, the unit seems more vibrant and even more dangerous.

Advantage: 2021

In 2019, it seemed hard to imagine a more solidly underrated linebacking group than Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Kwon Alexander and Azeez Al-Shaair. Two year later, Alexander is gone, and Warner has risen to be arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL. Greenlaw continues to be an imposing presence, and Al-Shaair is more than capable. The 49ers added rookie Justin Hilliard and second year player Jonas Griffith to the roster as depth. Marcell Harris, playing as a safety for the 49ers in 2019, was converted to linebacker this year. In retrospect, the loss of Alexander has proven to be a non-factor in the effectiveness of the unit, and Warner has become terrifying for opposing offenses. Greenlaw should continue to improve with experience and Griffith has played well in a backup role so far.

Advantage: 2021

Tight Ends:
George Kittle is, well, George Kittle. He had an impressive year in 2019, was injured much of 2020, and comes back this year healthier and ready to resume his harassment of defenses once again. Ross Dwelley is solid and returns as Kittle's principal sidekick. 2019 backup Garrett Celek has since retired. The 49ers added a younger backup in Charlie Woerner and brought converted ex-wideout Jordan Matthews back as a tight end. Not much has changed except that there is a bit more depth at the position, but Matthews pass catching ability is intriguing, so there is at least a thin edge to the new guys.

Advantage: 2021

Special Teams:
With Robbie Gould (now the NFL's oldest place kicker) and punter Mitch Wishnowsky returning, the kicking game has remained solid, though Gould has blown a few short kicks during the preseason. Long snapper Taybor Pepper was added in 2020 and brought solid play there. Kicking and kick coverage teams have, as they always do from year to year, swapped out names. The cagey former-Rams wideout Nsimba Webster came on board this year as a return specialist, possibly in replacement of Richie James. It's too early to tell whether this year's special teams will gel more effectively than in 2019. There are some aggressive backup players on the roster this year that could increase the strength of special teams.

Advantage: Even

Coaching Staff:
The biggest coaching personnel change from 2019 to this year was the loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who left to take the reins as head coach of the New York Jets. He is replaced by former linebacking coach DeMeco Ryans. Ryans seems to be a skilled and involved presence, whose background as a career NFL linebacker may give him some added credibility with his young defense. Whether he can adequately fill Saleh's shoes remains to be seen, but it looks promising so far.

Shanhan relinquished offensive coordinator duties to assistant coach Mike McDaniel, to focus on more traditional head coaching duties and game planning. 2019 passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur rode Saleh's coattails to New York. Quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello was rehired. Assistant coaching standouts Richard Hightower, Kris Kocurek and Wes Welker all return from the 2019 staff.

Overall, Shanahan's crew still looks solid and it mostly survived the post-Super Bowl coach poaching that is common in the NFL. The newly anointed guys (Ryans and McDaniel principally) are in-house promotions, and those usually are better transitions than outside hires. But the revised staff is still a bit unproven and that's a knock against the 2021 team until it demonstrates otherwise. Losing Saleh takes them down a notch, at least on paper, but promoting the bright-minded McDaniel could prove a big asset. Plus, Shanahan is wiser and even more devious than he was 24 months ago and that has to count for something.

Advantage: Even

In the final analysis, there's no doubt that the 2019 version of the 49ers was special. They caught teams by surprise early on, and by the time the rest of the league realized what was happening, it was too late to stop the forward momentum. The 2019 49ers were about confidence, and they used that confidence to roll teams up. It was often a mugging in football form, and the players, coaches, and of course the fans, ate it up. They were talented, but they did more with what they had than most teams likely ever could. Yes, they had a few stars, and an elite rookie or two as well, but what kept the 49ers on top in their games were their unheralded players and how they all gelled as a team. Players like Emmanuel Moseley, Dre Greenlaw, Raheem Mostert, Ronald Blair and Daniel Brunskill were the grease that helped the 49ers slide on into the Super Bowl.

No one knows for certain yet what the 2021 49ers may do once the final roster is set and things begin to come together. But in analyzing the team unit by unit, the potential for greatness is there and that's not a small thing. The 2019 49ers had a large degree of football magic about them. That cannot be denied. But from what the 2021 squad looks like, at least so far, a new brand of 49ers football is about to be played. And it could very well be the perfect chemistry. Because Bosa, Ford, Mostert, Samuel, Warner, Greenlaw, Juszczyk, Kittle and Ward are about to be joined by Lance, Aiyuk, Sermon, Sherfield, Verrett, Williams, Ebukam and Sanu. And that should have other teams in the NFL more than a little bit worried.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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