The 49ers Webzone staff takes a stab at predicting the San Francisco 49ers' breakout player for 2018.


Who will be that San Francisco 49ers player to elevate his game in 2018? We asked that question to our staff of writers and received numerous answers. There was just one limitation: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was not an option it could name.

Below are the responses from our writers, in alphabetical order by the potential breakout player's name.

Kendrick Bourne


Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne is my choice for breakout player. The experience he gained from last season, a good offseason, and getting bigger and stronger will lead to success in 2018. Bourne has also been working on his mental game with film study and perfecting his route running. Last but not least, having joined the NFL as an undrafted free agent, he's hungry and eager to prove his value to the 49ers and that he belongs in the league. The additions to the wide receivers group via the draft add fuel to the chip on his shoulder. Bourne has the versatility to play inside or outside, which helps his cause to be a breakout candidate in 2018.

— Sequoia Sims

Matt Breida


I'm going with Matt Breida. The 49ers did not draft a running back but did sign Jerrick McKinnon in free agency. The two are expected to be the two lead backs for the 49ers given the departure of Carlos Hyde. Some think McKinnon will step in and assume the bulk of the carries, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them near 50/50, especially given Breida's familiarity with the scheme and his success as a 49er thus far.

In limited action last season, Breida had 105 carries for 465 yards (4.43 YPC) and 21 receptions for 180 yards (8.57 YPR). His blended yards per touch shake out to 5.12, which is very good for a running back in this offense.

Add to his body of work some truly insane measurables (4.37 40; 42" Vert; 11.2 Broad; and 23 reps of 225), and you have a runner who has the speed, strength, shiftiness, hands, and smarts to make a real impact for the 49ers in 2018.

— A.J. Bolino

George Kittle


I'm optimistic that tight end George Kittle will develop into a solid weapon for the 49ers regardless, but I feel a breakout season will occur almost by necessity. Kyle Shanahan is once again going into the season without exceptional size at the wide receiver position, significant offseason hype around Kendrick Bourne notwithstanding.

Kittle is 6'4" with 33 1/8" arms, and with a season under his belt and the opportunity to focus on actual football training rather than preparing for the draft, he's primed to take a leap forward by being one of the 49ers' only viable "jump ball" targets in the red zone. Of course, there's also his 43 receptions for 515 yards and two touchdowns last season. Fifteen of those catches, for 224 yards and one touchdown, came in the final five games when the offense was starting to click. He's already on the path to showing what he can do.

— Vincent M. Wu

I'm going to go with tight end George Kittle. A year ago, Kittle's catch totals (43) and 515 receiving yards were the most for any rookie tight end taken in Round 5 of the draft during the modern NFL era. Hat tip to Chris Wilson for that great knowledge.

Kittle could wind up being one of those 800-yard candidates this season, particularly if you subscribe to the notion that players make their biggest leaps between years one and two.

— Peter Panacy

Jerick McKinnon


My breakout candidate for the 49ers this year is Jerick McKinnon. Much like Marquise Goodwin coming in last year, McKinnon had minimal production with his previous team. But he is the "perfect back" for this offense and Shanahan has a vision and will know how to use him.

McKinnon has never had more than 570 rushing yards in a season during his career while splitting carries but he could easily double that total this year. He also has a really good chance of hitting 500 yards receiving, which would be a career high. With the potential to hit 1,500 yards of total offense, McKinnon is a clear candidate for breakout player of the year in 2018.

— Chaz Inouye

49ers running back Jerick McKinnon is poised for a breakout season in 2018. Although McKinnon has yet to amass 600 rushing yards in a single season, he has never been utilized in a prominent rushing role at the NFL level — until now. During his four years in Minnesota, McKinnon was considered more of a change-of-pace runner, but over the offseason, 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan signed the speedy running back to a lucrative contract deserving of a feature back.

Those who question McKinnon's strength and durability due to his relative lack of size should note that he currently holds the NFL record for combine bench presses for all running backs. He is also comparable in size to Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, who scored double-digit rushing touchdowns during both of his years under Shanahan in Atlanta. McKinnon is also a standout receiver out of the backfield — as well as an excellent blocker — and should prove to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in 2018.

— Chris Wilson

Richard Sherman


My pick for the breakout player of 2018 is Richard Sherman. Last year was obviously a down year for him, not only due to the Achilles injury, but also because he was part of an aging and declining defense that has since been blown up.

Sherman is the clear Alpha dog of a young, up-and-coming secondary and defense. He has embraced the role as a leader on the team, acting as a vocal on-field coach during OTAs and also as the organizer of off-field outings with team members to help solidify camaraderie. And when others perhaps felt they needed to distance themselves from Reuben Foster until the dust settled from his off-the-field incidents, Sherman showed up to Foster's arraignment--just a few weeks after joining the team--and discussed how he looked forward to being a shoulder for Foster to lean on. This leadership role, I think, will rejuvenate and inspire him.

But I think perhaps an even a bigger reason Sherman is going to have a breakout year: the dude has a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rainier after being released. I can't remember a player--in any sport, not just the NFL--who is more self-motivated by sleights (real or perceived) than Richard Sherman. I think he is going to will himself to play at a higher level. Look no further than the incentive-laden contract that he negotiated when signing with the team to prove this point. He's on schedule with his rehab, knows Saleh's defense like the back of his hand, will be energized by the role as a leader on a young defense, and is ready to force-feed crow to all the nay-sayers. By the end of the season, look for Sherman to be a strong candidate for comeback player of the year.

— TJ Bice

Solomon Thomas


On a beautiful Washington, DC afternoon last fall, rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas tallied nine tackles and a quarterback sack. Two of his tackles were for a loss. His performance earned him his third Pepsi Rookie of the Week nomination in the first six weeks of the NFL season. Thomas would earn a total of four nominations during his rookie season.

Thomas wasn't consistent but had bursts of quality play during his rookie campaign. Throughout the season, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh used Thomas as an edge rusher, which was not his natural position. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas averaged one pressure per 14.5 rushes while playing on the edge. However, when Saleh played Thomas inside, he had one pressure per 4.3 rushes.

A full offseason is going to benefit Thomas' understanding of Robert Saleh's scheme and to prepare for the weekly slogs in the trenches. I'd like to see Saleh bring Thomas back inside, as opposing teams are going to be forced to double team DeForest Buckner, allowing Thomas to showcase his pure talent.

— Bret Rumbeck

Ahkello Witherspoon


My choice for the breakout player is Ahkello Witherspoon. After having a very respectable rookie campaign, with some veteran leadership now present in the defensive backs meeting room (hello Mr. Sherman!), he could be poised to make a big splash in his sophomore season. Furthermore, with the assumption that a four-time All-Pro will be manning the other side of the field, Witherspoon should see a sizable number of footballs thrown his way providing ample opportunity to build his resume. If the pass-rush improves, this could be a real game-changing season for the young defensive back to stand out among not only his own teammates but the entire league.

The 49ers will really need him to step up also. Looking at just the first four games of the season (three of which will be on the road), Witherspoon and the 49ers defense will face Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Patrick Mahomes, and Phillip Rivers. Cousins and Mahomes could be more vulnerable as they're both new starters with their respective teams, but both are capable of being highly productive and will be a good test for a young defense. The 49ers will face Aaron Rodgers, David Carr, and Russel Wilson (twice) further down the schedule, and if the 49ers are going to scare any teams in January, they'll need to show up well against these opponents. 

— Jesse Dumas

Witherspoon has been under the tutelage of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman since Sherman arrived in the Bay Area earlier this offseason. Witherspoon and Sherman have the same measurables - both are 6'3" - and have developed a strong bond off the field.

Witherspoon finished the season strong after being inactive for the first four games of the season and totaled two interceptions with seven pass breakups. He seems to have a different attitude heading into camp this year as the starter opposite Sherman. Expect big things out of Witherspoon going forward.

— Zain Naqvi


Poll

  • Of the names listed here, who do you believe is most likely to have a breakout 2018 season?
  • Kendrick Bourne
  • Matt Breida
  • George Kittle
  • Jerick McKinnon
  • Richard Sherman
  • Solomon Thomas
  • Ahkello Witherspoon