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Five good things, and five disappointments, from the 49ers’ 2021 season

Marc Adams
Feb 2, 2022 at 1:51 PM

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The San Francisco 49ers had a very up and down season, especially early on. I described the 49ers as "Jekyll and Hyde" in late December, breaking down the team's inconsistent play throughout the season. Even though the 49ers had plenty of bi-polar moments this season, they were still able to overcome so much to make it within a few minutes of going back to the Super Bowl.

I am extremely proud of this team and what they accomplished throughout the 2021 season, and I feel it is important to look back at what went right—and what didn't. I can't do it to the extent the coaches, players, and Front Office will, but I can list some things I liked and didn't like.

Here are five good things and five disappointments from the 49ers 2021 season.

Let's start with the good.

Five Good Things

1. Finding Elijah Mitchell
Elijah Mitchell was a great draft selection, especially for a sixth-round pick. Mitchell was the 49ers leading rusher, becoming the team's all-time single-season rookie rushing leader with 963 yards (4.7 yards per carry). He also had five rushing touchdowns.

No one expected Mitchell to lead the team in rushing. But when starter Raheem Mostert went down in Week 1, someone was going to have to step up. Many expected it to be fellow rookie Trey Sermon (more on him below), but Mitchell was the one that was called upon. And he delivered in a huge way.

Mitchell dealt with multiple injuries throughout the season, and he plays a position that takes a toll on the body. If he can stay healthy, I believe he can have a great career. What the 49ers do with Mostert, a free agent, may determine how much of a load Mitchell carries next season.

2. Deebo Samuel became a star
49ers fans already loved Deebo Samuel. But this season, Samuel went from being a really good and much-loved player to a bona fide star. It's hard to put into words what he accomplished this season. What Samuel gave the team was more than statistics and strategy. His leadership raised the level of play and inspired his teammates.

But those statistics weren't too shabby either. Samuel was named First-Team All-Pro, and made the Pro-Bowl as a wide receiver, catching 77 balls for 1405 yards, and six touchdowns. And he averaged 18.2 yards per reception. That's Pro-Bowl-worthy for sure.

But Samuel also ran the ball. He rushed for 365 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Even more impressive was the fact that he averaged 6.2 yards per rushing attempt.

So for 2021, the All-Pro wide receiver/running back gained 1770 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns. And that doesn't even include the touchdown pass he threw.

Samuel has not only become one of the NFL's brightest stars, but he has also become one of its most popular.

3. Nick Bosa came back better
Seeing Nick Bosa go down with a season-ending knee injury was the low point for 49ers fans in 2020. But Bosa returned this season as a man possessed. Not only did he surpass his sack totals from previous seasons, with 15.5, but he also played in every game.

Bosa was a force, constantly being double-teamed or chipped. Despite that, he finished the regular season with 32 quarterback hits, 49 pressures, 52 total tackles (40 solo tackles), which included an astounding 21 tackles for loss. And he was credited with hurrying the quarterback 17 times, as well.

Bosa was named to the Pro-Bowl but, surprisingly, was not named an All-Pro.

In the playoffs, Bosa passed Hall of Famer Charles Haley for most postseason sacks in 49ers' history. And Bosa did it in half the games as Haley, compiling eight sacks in only six games. It took Haley 12 games to get 7.5 sacks.

4. Jauan Jennings became the number three wide receiver
Jauan Jennings took a while to establish himself this season, but the 2020 seventh-round draft pick stepped up and became the 49ers' number three wide receiver. Jennings only had 24 receptions for 282 yards, but he had five touchdowns, including two in week 18, a must-win game against the Los Angeles Rams.

One of the things that made Jennings stand out was that, of his 24 receptions, 15 of them went for a first down. Add that to the five touchdowns and that means 20 of his 24 catches resulted in a first down or touchdown. That's extremely efficient. When Jennings touches the ball, he converts it into something good for the 49ers.

He may not be used the way Jalen Hurd (more on him below) was going to be used, but Jennings has become that red zone and first down threat we had hoped Hurd would be. And Jennings should only get better.

Of course, we also can't forget how good he was as a blocker.

5. DeMeco Ryans became a star in his rookie season as a defensive coordinator
There was plenty to be excited about when DeMeco Ryans was named Defensive Coordinator. 49ers' players hinted that the defense would be more aggressive. But there were some concerns, as well.

Ryans did not have any coordinating experience. He was still relatively new as a coach, too. And he was following a very successful defensive coordinator in Robert Saleh, who had built a great defense in San Francisco.

In the first few games of the season, it looked like Ryans might not be ready. But as the season went on, you could see him maturing as a coordinator. Not only did his game plans improve, but his in-game adjustments really impressed me.

Take the Divisional Round Playoff Game in Green Bay. The Packers dominated on the first drive, easily scoring a touchdown. Ryans adjusted, and the Packers struggled the rest of the way, especially in the second half.

After only one season as a coordinator, Ryans was already receiving interview requests for head coaching positions. Many believed he was the front-runner for the Minnesota Vikings job. But Ryans decided to stay on as the 49ers Defensive Coordinator.

That's a smart move for Ryans. It gives him time to become even more ready. And it is great news for the 49ers, who get to keep a rising star for at least one more season.

Five Disappointments

1. Season-ending injuries to key players
Season-ending injuries are always tough to deal with. By and large, the 49ers overcame them and almost made it to the Super Bowl. But there were three big losses that may have made a difference in the NFC Championship Game, and probably would have had the team in a better position going into the playoffs.

Javon Kinlaw missed most of the season following an ACL surgery to address a right knee injury sustained during the 2020 that wasn't healing properly. Kinlaw played in only four games this season and finished with only eight combined tackles, and one quarterback hit. He wasn't very effective when he was playing, because of the injury.

The defensive line played very well, especially down the stretch. But they seemed gassed in the NFC Championship Game. A healthy Kinlaw might have been able to help that rotation.

Jason Verrett is a talented, number one cornerback when he's healthy. But in his three seasons with the 49ers, Verrett has played in only 15 total games. In 2020, when he played in 13 games and was mostly healthy, Verrett was great. He was the top corner San Francisco needed.

This season, Verrett played in only one game, suffering a torn ACL in his right knee. It happened late in the Week 1 game against the Lions, and the 49ers had to play the season without any proven depth at cornerback outside of Emmanuel Moseley. If Verrett had been healthy, he would have solidified a secondary that was shaky at times. And in some key games, especially in the playoffs, would have been able to slow down the opponent's top wide receiver.

I doubt Cooper Kupp would have had the game he had in the NFC Championship if the top two corners were Verrett and Moseley.

Raheem Mostert was also lost in the first game. In fact, he was lost for the season after only two plays, with a season-ending knee injury. Though it originally did not look like a season-ender, Mostert made the decision to have surgery, ending his 2021 campaign before it really even started. Mostert had two carries for 20 yards before going down.

With what Mitchell accomplished, imagine what a healthy Mostert would have been able to add to the 49ers' running game. Mostert and Mitchell would have been a dynamic one-two punch. Then add Samuel on top of that, and this offense could have been very dangerous.

The 49ers struggled to run the ball in the conference championship, as the Rams clogged the lanes. Would a healthy Mostert, with his speed, have made a difference? I tend to think it would have loosened the defense a bit, and perhaps been enough to get the 49ers over the hump.

One thing is for sure, losing Mostert and Verrett probably cost the 49ers another Super Bowl title.

2. Jalen Hurd
I won't spend much time on Jalen Hurd, mostly because he never played a regular-season down for the 49ers. And he's been written about perhaps more than any player who has never played in a regular-season game.

Hurd was drafted for a specific purpose. His rare combination of speed, size, and strength had head coach Kyle Shanahan excited to find ways to use him, be it in the backfield, in the slot, as a tight end, split wide. 49ers' fans were excited to see how Shanahan was going to employ Hurd.

But a back injury cost him his rookie season. A knee injury cost him his second season. And he wasn't able to practice much in 2021, during the offseason, or for part of training camp. Once he did get into training camp practices, and even in a preseason game, Hurd just didn't look the same. The speed wasn't there, and the tenacity he showed in the 2019 preseason and training camp, was missing.

He was placed on Injured Reserve on September 11, 2021, and then released on November 11, ending his time with the 49ers. It's disappointing that such a promising start was never able to be fulfilled. At least in San Francisco.

3. The lack of development from some highly drafted rookies
Offensive lineman Aaron Banks was drafted in the second round of the 2021 draft. He was supposed to challenge Daniel Brunskill for the right guard spot. But Banks never really challenged for that role, and only played five offensive snaps all season.

Whether it was due to an early injury, or that he is simply a project, it's disappointing that Banks didn't contribute more. Shanahan has shown a propensity to lose patience with rookies. So is this just a rookie who needs more time to develop, or was Banks a day-two miss? The 49ers cannot afford to miss on a highly-drafted offensive lineman. Let's hope Banks becomes the player they expect him to be in year two.

A lot was expected of running back Trey Sermon this season, especially after Mostert went down. But Sermon seemed to be in a similar situation as Banks. Sermon only played in nine games, finishing with 41 rushes for 167 yards. That's 4.1 per carry, so it wasn't bad. But for some reason, he could not get going, even in games when Mitchell was hurt.

Sermon's first shot came in week three against the Green Bay Packers. But he only rushed for 31 yards on 10 carries. That was not what the 49ers needed to see from him in his first start.

In Week 4, Sermon would start again, this time, against the Seattle Seahawks. Sermon was much better, rushing for 89 yards on 19 carries (4.7 yards per carry). But the following week, he only carried the ball once. Then he wasn't even active for the next two games. It will be interesting to see what happens with Sermon moving forward. He has a lot of work to do, but as a third-round pick in the 2021 draft, he should get plenty of chances to prove himself.

I would like to have seen these two players develop more. Hopefully, season two will be the year.

(I intentionally did not include rookie quarterback Trey Lance in this spot, because I believe it was the 49ers' plan all along to let him watch and learn. Even though many fans wanted him to play more, I tend to agree with what Shanahan decided.)

4. The lack of good depth at cornerback
As I mentioned above, the loss of Verrett really hurt. And Moseley missed six games. This forced the 49ers to have to rely on rookies Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas. Lenoir started the first two games but didn't play much the rest of the season. Thomas did the opposite. He barely played early on but started the final seven games (including the playoffs).

Thomas played well once he broke into the starting lineup. And Lenoir looks promising, as well. But it's hard for a team with Super Bowl aspirations to have to rely on rookie corners.

The rookies were mostly a bright spot. The biggest problems with the lack of depth came in the form of veteran cornerbacks Josh Norman and Dontae Johnson. Norman and Johnson had some good plays, but there were more bad plays, especially from Norman, who seems to attract pass interference penalties when he plays.

I think the 49ers had it right with Verrett and Moseley lined up as the starting corners. But they should have been more proactive in anticipating injuries, especially considering Verrett's history. They should have had another good, starting corner ready to jump in instead of relying on rookies and bad veterans.

5. Losing in the NFC Championship Game
This one is obvious. Getting to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons (and the fifth time in 11 seasons) could have been part of the list of good things. But losing the game is an automatic insert into the list of disappointments. Especially when the team had a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter. Wow, that sounds familiar.

And especially since there were multiple self-inflicted wounds, and questionable decisions late in the game that cost the 49ers a chance to win a sixth Super Bowl. As proud as I am of how this team turned things around, it is always disappointing to end the season with a loss, especially when you're that close.

Those are my five good things, and five disappointments, from the 49ers 2021 season. Here's the hoping 2022 brings a sixth Lombardi trophy back to the Bay Area.
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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