Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN predicts big things for 49ers’ Dee Ford, Brandon Aiyuk, sees Trey Lance starting by Week 11

Sep 7, 2021 at 8:22 AM--

Some wondered if Dee Ford would ever take another NFL snap after a back injury sidelined the veteran pass rusher for all but one game last season. Today, Ford feels healthy, and he's ready to show everyone why the San Francisco 49ers surrendered a second-round draft pick for him in 2019.

Ford's recovery this offseason has been a pleasant surprise, and the defender could be primed for a bounceback campaign. That's what ESPN's Nick Wagoner is predicting.

"But Ford has slowly been rounding back into form in training camp, and showed his usual burst off the edge," wrote Wagoner as part of ESPN's most-recent Football Power Index (FPI) ranking, which landed San Francisco at No. 8. "If Ford is healthy, he won't be asked to play more than roughly 20 snaps per game, but those should put him in position to do what he does best and get after the quarterback."

On Monday, Ford said he expects to be on a pitch count against the Detroit Lions this weekend. He and the team's other defensive-line bookend, Nick Bosa, also returning from injury, look to once again create a formidable pass-rushing combination off the edges.

"Like any injury, we're going to start with a pitch count, a standard for any injury," Ford told reporters. "My role is to do what they brought me here to do—make big plays."

Ford sounds confident, and that bodes well for the Niners.

ESPN also picked a breakout candidate for the Bay Area team. That would be second-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk, who amassed 748 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns on 60 receptions through 12 games while adding two rushing touchdowns.

"Aiyuk flashed plenty of potential as a rookie, but he played in only 12 games because of an early hamstring injury and a late stint on the COVID-19 list," wrote Wagoner. "A bulked-up Aiyuk established himself as a favorite target of all San Francisco quarterbacks during camp, catching almost everything thrown his way -- save for a couple of hiccups in preseason games. With a full offseason under his belt, Aiyuk has all the ingredients to become the Niners' No. 1 wideout."

The biggest storyline this season might be at quarterback, though. The 49ers traded up to the No. 3 overall pick to select Trey Lance as veteran Jimmy Garoppolo's eventual successor. Garoppolo is slated to start Week 1 and could hold onto the job if he stays healthy and plays well.

Of course, eyes will remain on Garoppolo's mentee, Lance. When will he finally get onto the field, finalizing the team's transition from Garoppolo?

ESPN predicts that will happen during Week 11 while noting that predicting the timeline was difficult due to Garoppolo's injury history. The reasoning behind the selection has to do with the 49ers' opponents exiting the bye week.

"A change for Week 7 is plausible, but the Niners should have a winning record going into that game," noted Wagoner. "Out of the bye week, the Niners play the Colts, Bears, Cardinals and Rams, which could bring some bumps and bruises -- setting the stage for Lance to take over. Lance will have played plenty situationally by then, and things should have slowed down enough for him to take the controls for what the Niners hope is a stretch run to the postseason."

That Week 11 matchup, by the way, is a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That might present the perfect opportunity for the rookie's first start.

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