Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Cynthia Frelund lists 49ers among contenders despite 2-2 start

Oct 6, 2021 at 12:05 PM--

San Francisco 49ers fans appear to be in a bit of a mini panic regarding the fate of their favorite NFL team. The Niners entered the season viewed as a playoff contender and a strong candidate to emerge as the NFC West champions. However, stumbling out of the 2021 season gate with a 2-2 record has generated some concern. Were the offseason expectations for San Francisco too high?

It's a topic discussed at length in the latest episode of the 49ers Webzone No Huddle Podcast.

It's also a topic touched on by NFL Media analytics expert Cynthia Frelund, who, in her latest column for NFL.com, projects the playoff fates of all seven 2-2 teams. She divides them into two groups — contenders and pretenders.

Despite their .500 starts, the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, and Washington Football Team are lumped into the "contenders" group, as are the 49ers.

Frelund doesn't see things as dire as some of the most critical fans speculate them to be.

"Ahead of the season, the NFC West was projected to the most competitive division in football -- and four weeks in, that continues to be true (yes, I checked this group against the AFC West)," wrote Frelund. "Still, the Niners make the playoffs in 52.4 percent of simulations, even with uncertainty at the quarterback position."

That doesn't mean things don't need to change. While wide receiver Deebo Samuel leads the league in receiving yards, one of the 49ers' other YAC stars hasn't yet been utilized to his full potential.

"Star tight end George Kittle has not been targeted on his routes as often as he has been in previous seasons, logging a target on 26.5 percent of routes in 2021 after reaching marks of 30.1 percent in 2020 and 33.5 percent in 2019," Frelund explains. "But based on the [Next Gen Stats] numbers, there is reason to believe Kittle will be targeted more frequently in the future: He's been open (meaning, he's gotten 3-plus yards of separation) on more than half of his targets (51.7%)."

Involving Kittle more could be the key to increased production on offense. The team also hopes to get others, like second-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, more involved as the season progresses. On paper, San Francisco still has several offensive weapons for Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance—whoever ends up being the quarterback—to target.

While the naysayers would have you believe that things are quickly falling apart, analytics tell Frelund that the playoffs are nowhere near out of reach for head coach Kyle Shanahan's squad.

Oh, and it might please The Faithful that the Seattle Seahawks, who beat the Niners this past weekend, fall under Frelund's "pretenders" group.

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