Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

5 potential “roadblocks” for the 49ers in 2021

Rohan Chakravarthi
Sep 2, 2021 at 5:20 PM--

The 49ers have been one of if not the most hyped teams heading into the 2021 season because of their return to full strength and 2019 Super Bowl run.

Last season, the team was marred by injuries, as key players like Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, K'Waun Williams, Raheem Mostert, and Dee Ford all missed significant time, essentially killing their chances at making any run like they did the year prior.

However, in 2021, all of those players are still on the team and expected to be ready for Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, where they begin their first 17-game season, so the buzz around them isn't unwarranted.

With that said, let's get into the top five potential roadblocks for the 49ers in 2021.

1. Travel

Perhaps one of the most underrated aspects of the NFL, travel is a serious concern for the 49ers in 2021.

They will be traveling over 28,000 total miles in 2021, which is the most in the NFL, and even more than teams that are making trips to London: the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Falcons.

In addition, the team will be traveling the most net miles of any NFL team by a significant margin, which takes into account each team's total travel miles and subtracts its opponents' miles traveled for home games.

Why is this important? Well, the enormous amount of travel to different time zones could force the 49ers to alter practice schedules to preserve bodies during the week, potentially leaving them more vulnerable on game days with lesser conditioning.

In addition, the 49ers are traveling 14 of their 17 game weeks, with their longest home stand being only two games long, and have an early bye week, leaving them more susceptible for the second half of the season.

With the already concerning injuries from last year, the schedule and travel are not playing to their favor.

One of their more crucial games, Week 16 at Tennessee, will be one to watch because it comes on a short week with a Thursday night game, and the team has to travel again.

2. Cornerback Depth

The six corners who made the team originally on the 53-man roster were: Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, K'Waun Williams, Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas, and Davontae Harris.

Harris went on IR earlier yesterday, paving the way for Dontae Johnson, who was cut for what seems like the millionth time, to come back to the roster and serve as the sixth cornerback.

Verrett has only played more than six games twice in his career, which serves for durability and depth concerns, especially with this group.

Moseley has never been a full-time starter in his career, Williams played in just eight games last season, and the two rookies have not seen any NFL experience yet.

Lenoir looked great in his first two preseason games, but hasn't gone up against starting-caliber NFL receivers for the most part yet, so he will need some adapting. Thomas has struggled in his limited offseason action, so it wouldn't be great for him to be thrust into the game plan immediately for a win-now team.

The cornerback depth is especially glaring with the new 49ers scheme: defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is urging for a more aggressive attack, which has been seen in the preseason, but pushing the front-seven forward puts more pressure on the secondary, especially in short-yardage situations.

Verrett needs to stay healthy to serve as that dominant outside force for this team to really reach its potential in 2021.

3. DT Javon Kinlaw

Disclaimer: by putting Kinlaw here, I am by no means saying he's a bust or a detriment to the 49ers team, but rather stressing how his improvement is vital to the team's success.

The 49ers traded defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for Kinlaw in essentially a one-for-one swap, and Kinlaw had a subpar rookie season, although he had no offseason like rookies normally do to acclimate to the NFL environment.

Kinlaw finally got that offseason opportunity this year and has been praised in camp by coaches for his improvements and has high expectations from them this season.

However, Kinlaw needs to become a better pass-rusher to be that interior force for the 49ers in their attacking defense. While the defensive end depth is great with players like Arden Key, Dee Ford, and Jordan Willis behind the starters to name a few, the interior depth is not as great behind Kinlaw and D.J. Jones currently, with Maurice Hurst on IR.

With Jones being that run-stopping nose tackle preference, Kinlaw has to improve as a pass-rusher to raise the ceiling of this team.

4. The Division

Perhaps the most obvious potential roadblock other than injuries, the 49ers are in the toughest division in the NFL, and have to play the Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals each twice, as usual.

With all four NFC West teams being playoff-caliber teams, having a good division record is extremely vital in order to maintain tiebreakers and the higher seed in the standings, as only one of these teams will get home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The detrimental part, however, is where these games are placed.

San Fransisco gets its first taste at its division rivals in Weeks 4 and 5 in a brutal three game stretch. In Weeks 3-5, the team plays Green Bay at home, Seattle at home, and travels to Arizona on the road.

Then, it faces the Cardinals and Rams back to back in Weeks 9 and 10 after a travel week to Chicago in Week 8, shaping to be two more hard battles in a row.

In Week 13, the 49ers travel to Seattle for a matchup with the Seahawks after continuous weeks of travel; they play Week 10 at home against the Rams, Week 11 on the road against the Jaguars, Week 12 at home against Minnesota, and travel to Seattle in Week 13.

Then, their final showdown comes in Los Angeles against the Rams on the final week of the season in a match that could have serious playoff implications.

With tough schedules around their division games, the 49ers must pull out a majority of these high-intensity matchups to remain relevant in postseason talks.

5. Special Teams

At the moment, with receiver/return specialist Nsimba Webster being cut and then claimed by the Chicago Bears, the 49ers don't have a solidified or experienced player at the kick/punt return position.

If you think special teams is of low value, think differently, as the 49ers actually lost 52.6 points to their opponents last year solely because of special teams, which ranked 30th in the NFL.

As shown, they were the worst team on expected points added on kick returns, and second-worst on punt returns, and now have no NFL-experienced player at either place. Head coach Kyle Shanahan likely gives punt returns to receiver Brandon Aiyuk and kick returns to running back Elijah Mitchell, so it will be interesting to see if they can play make better at the position than last year's group.

In addition, kicker Robbie Gould made only 74% of his field goals in 2019 and 82% in 2020, both below his prior numbers in 2017 and 2018, when he kicked over 95% and was amongst the best in the league. The team needs to capitalize on those opportunities for it to be the best version of itself in 2021.

With the five potential "roadblocks" for the 49ers out of the way, stay tuned for the five reasons why the 49ers could return to the playoffs in 2021.
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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