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49ers mailbag: Who replaces Hufanga? Which players need to step up? Did Danny Gray fall out of favor?

Marc Adams
Nov 22, 2023 at 7:47 AM--

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It's an exciting time to be a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. And if you asked fans what they're most thankful for, when it comes to the team, you'd get a variety of answers, mostly players and coaches. But one thing all fans can be thankful for is that Jed York has allowed Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to do what they want. What those two have done has the 49ers far removed from the bleak days in Santa Clara before they arrived.

So there's a lot to be thankful for if you're a fan of the 49ers. Speaking of those fans, we opened up the 49ers Webzone Mailbag to grab your questions. So let's jump in and see what questions we can answer:

Which positional battle on Thursday are you more concerned about: 49ers WRs vs Seattle DBs, or 49ers DBs vs Seattle WRs? - Scott B.

I'm always more concerned about the 49ers secondary than I am the wide receivers. Seattle has some good corners, but the 49ers' passing game just seems to get better each week. The Seahawks have some good receivers, as well. And cornerback could be the 49ers' biggest weakness outside of the offensive line. Mainly, because of depth and the issue at nickel corner. If they use Isaiah Oliver at nickel, he struggles with faster receivers. If they put Deommodore Lenoir at nickel, Ambry Thomas plays on the outside. And though Thomas has played well the last two weeks, his body of work makes me nervous.

So I'll stay with the 49ers' defensive backs against Seattle's wide receivers as my bigger corner of the two. Let's hope the 49ers' pass rush continues to wreak havoc like it has the past two weeks. If that happens, Seattle QB Geno Smith will make some mistakes and the 49ers secondary will have opportunities to pick off some passes.

Such a shame you're too scared to play Dallas or Detroit, and the last time you played Seattle on Thanksgiving, who was eating the turkey by the time the game ended? - Darren S.

Huh? I'm not even sure where this is coming from, but I'm guessing it's a Seahawks fan or just someone who hates the 49ers. Normally, I would just ignore this, in the spirit of the holidays, but just in case it's a Seattle fan, I'll respond.

First, the 49ers, as well as their fans, aren't scared to play anyone. The 49ers can beat any team in the NFL when they play hungry and focused.

Second, they already played Dallas and beat them like an old dusty pillow. And you may not know this, but the 49ers have beaten the Cowboys three times in the last three seasons. Even Jerry Jones isn't crazy enough to think the 49ers are afraid of Dallas.

Third, no one is afraid of playing the Lions. However, they look really good, and I'll be nervous if the 49ers have to play Detroit. But I'm always nervous.

Finally, the Seahawks team that beat Jim Harbaugh's 49ers on Thanksgiving night in 2014, and ate turkey on the 50-yard line, had multiple Hall-of-Fame-level players on it. Guys like Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch, and others. The current Seahawks team probably doesn't even have anyone who knows in which state the Pro Football Hall of Fame resides.

So they're two completely different teams. Different coaching staffs. Different QBs. Different eras.

Speaking of turkeys, which 49ers players need to step up their games for the regular season home stretch? - Ed H.

Here's who I would say needs to really step up their game for the home stretch of the 2023 season:

  1. Ji'Ayir Brown. No pressure, but the rookie has to be able to fill in for Talanoa Hufanga, who will miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear. He looked good in his first real playing time with the defense, other than the big pass play he gave up right away.
  2. The rest of the secondary. This group has to be better. They've played well the last two weeks, but that's mostly due to the pass rush. What happens if there's a game where the pass rush isn't as dominant? Or what happens if they play a team like Philadelphia, with multiple really talented wide receivers and a good offensive line?
  3. Spencer Burford and Colton McKivitz. The right side of the 49ers' offensive line has been up and down. There are games in which Spencer Burford and Colton McKivitz play well, and there are others in which they are bad. In big games, like when you play Seattle, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and in the postseason, you'll be playing against teams that are good and who are good along the defensive line. Burford and McKivitz have to be better moving forward.

Best options to replace Huf? - Niner Jim

Some might say George Odom is a better option, but I still think it's Brown. And I think Brown will be the guy they go with. Now, if teams really start attacking him, and he looks like he's not quite ready, then maybe the 49ers will go with Odom. And they also may call up Tayler Hawkins.

Oliver has played some safety, but I just don't think the 49ers would go that route midseason. So I really believe it will be Brown. And really, he's the most like Hufanga among any of the safeties.

Hi Marc, is there any team right now that's kind of the Niners' kryptonite? - Jose

The Eagles are their biggest test. They have a quarterback that can beat you on the ground and through the air. They have a really good offensive line, and their defensive line is elite. The Ravens will be a good test for the 49ers, mainly because of Lamar Jackson. But Baltimore is good all the way around.

I also think Detroit could be an issue. They're physical and play a style that's similar to the 49ers.

Do you think Jason Verrett can & will contribute this year? - Jay B.

As of Wednesday morning, the 49ers still haven't signed Jason Verrett. So he may end up not even being on the team this season, much less contributing. There is speculation that the 49ers want to sign Verrett to the practice squad, but that he's dragging his feet in hopes of another team signing him to their active roster.

It's hard to say if Verrett would play much if the 49ers signed him. If they do, he will likely be added to the practice squad. And if Verrett is then added to the active roster, would he be able to pass guys like Thomas and Darrell Luter, Jr. on the depth chart? Passing Luter, Jr. may not be that hard. He's a rookie who was just added a week ago. But passing Thomas midseason may not be easy, especially if he continues playing well.

Then again, Verrett is a special talent, and when healthy, was one of the top corners in the NFL.

Did Danny Gray fall out of favor with the 49ers? - Sasha R.

No, I don't think Danny Gray has fallen out of favor or is in Kyle Shanahan's doghouse. Gray, of course, has been injured, and although it sounds like he's eligible to return, the 49ers still have not opened his practice window. Shanahan spoke about Gray last week, saying, "Danny's good to go. He's getting right there. He's in that same situation. We'll see how it goes with these numbers, but I think he's right around now able to come back and help us, so we'll see when we need him with the numbers."

I really think the issue with Gray, beyond the injury, is that he doesn't block well enough in the run game. This is something the 49ers coaching staff stresses. Many still believe that's why Brandon Aiyuk was "out of favor" for a while in 2021. It's why the receivers say the coaches preach, "No block, no rock." If you're going to be a receiver in Shanahan's offense, you need to be able to block.

That's likely what's holding Gray back. And it's probably what has kept Ronnie Bell from playing as much, too.

Marc, do you see the 49ers being able to keep both Aiyuk and Deebo? If so, would they have to cut someone or how could it work? - Dr. Phani T.

I think they'll figure out a way to keep both. The question is, if you had to move on from one of them, which one would you let go of? Aiyuk is the better receiver, but Deebo Samuel changes the 49ers' offense.

I asked Tracy Sandler this question back in June, and she said, "That remains to be seen." Then I asked her which player she would keep. She reluctantly said she would keep Aiyuk. I tend to fall the same way.

The bigger question may be can the 49ers keep Aiyuk and also bring back Chase Young? This was actually a question in last week's mailbag. After responding to it in the mailbag, I decided to do a video response. I had several fans reply to the video, giving their opinions. Most said they would let Aiyuk walk and bring back Young because a wide receiver is easier to replace than an elite edge rusher.

While that may be true, the 49ers have shown a willingness to pay their homegrown stars. And Aiyuk is becoming a star wide receiver in the NFL. So that makes me think they will keep Aiyuk, and figure out a way to keep Samuel. That also means Young may not be returning.

What's your favorite side to eat with a Niners win? - 49ersHive

If we're talking Thanksgiving sides, it has to be the dressing for me. Not that crap that comes in a box. I'm talking homemade dressing that's made with cornbread, and several other ingredients, and then baked to perfection for about an hour.

I grew up with that every year for Thanksgiving, and often at Christmas. My grandma made it. My mom made it. And now my wife and I make it. Cornbread dressing is a Southern staple. And notice, I didn't call it stuffing. That's what it's called when it's inside the bird. When it's on the side, it's dressing. Sorry, that could be a Southern thing, too.

So I hope to be eating some dressing and watching the 49ers win on Thanksgiving night. But then again, if the 49ers win, even that nasty green bean casserole will taste good.

Thanks for your questions. We'll be back with a new mailbag next week.
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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