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49ers mailbag: The pass rush, Garoppolo’s next level, Bourne, Foster, Garnett, Le’Veon Bell and what to expect at running back

Al Sacco
Jul 18, 2018 at 7:48 AM0


For the San Francisco 49ers, it's been a while since there's been this much optimism heading into training camp. There are no more questions about who the quarterback should or will be. The head coach isn't on the hot seat, or out to prove that he even belongs in the league. Instead, there's now stability across much of the roster, coaching staff and front office, and as a result you have a franchise that most expect to at least challenge for a playoff spot in 2018. However, even with the arrow pointed up, there are still some concerns about how much the Niners can actually accomplish this season, and whether or not being a true contender is still a year or two away. Let's address some of those, as well as some other topics, in this edition of the mailbag.

Q: Do you see the 49ers trading for a pass rusher if the sacks don't come? (@texas49ers)

A: There's so much young talent on the 49ers defense, but not having someone to give it consistent pressure off the edge is still the issue that could hold back the unit. At the moment, it looks like Jeremiah Attaochu (10 career sacks) and Cassius Marsh (six career sacks) will get the first opportunity to bookend DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas in sub packages, but neither has the track record to inspire much faith. It was a surprise to me that San Francisco completely ignored the pass rush in the draft, and didn't even feel like there was a player to take a chance on at some point. For example, the selection of Kentavius Street over Josh Sweat in the fourth round was confusing to me, although maybe the front office feels Street (who will miss the 2018 season while he recovers from an ACL injury) was the better play long-term. As far as adding someone else to the mix, we'll have to wait and see how the competition plays out in camp. If Attaochu and Marsh struggle, and young guys like Pita Taumoepenu fail to step up, you could see John Lynch look outside the organization for help either via a trade or signing. Maybe he would even entertain the idea of bringing back Elvis Dumervil, who was effective for the team in 2017 with 6.5 sacks in a situational role.

Q: Do you think Kendrick Bourne could develop into our number one wide receiver? (Dwayne Bickelman)

A: Bourne, who joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2017, was impressive in his rookie year with 16 receptions for 257 yards (all of which came in the team's final eight games). Kyle Shanahan is very high on Bourne, and while the second-year wide out will get every opportunity to complete for snaps in 2018, it's hard to say what he'll ultimately become in this offense. If everyone stays healthy, it could be difficult for Bourne to see snaps ahead of Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin and even (possibly) Dante Pettis on the outside. If one of them goes down though, Bourne should be next in line to get an extended look. I think Bourne could be a nice piece to the offense in the coming years, but becoming the top target would seem to be stretch at this point.

Q: Do you think 49ers make a run at Le'Veon Bell either this season or next spring? (sac31584)

A: Bell will be linked to the 49ers because they have the cap space to make a deal work, but I would be shocked if the team had any interest in him. Bell is a tremendous player, but unless a running back is essential to what you do on offense (think Ezekiel Elliot in Dallas) handing out a large contract to one just isn't a good investment given the wear and tear of the position. Bell will be 27 next year and, unless you're Frank Gore, production tends to slide for runners in their late twenties. Bell is coming off a season in which he touched the ball 431 times (337 carries, 94 receptions) including the playoffs. That type of usage has been a theme for him, as he averaged 27 touches a game in 2016, and 23 in 2014. While he only played six games during the 2015 season, his workload was still significant at 23 touches per contest. Has that workload taken its toll? Well, in 2017, Bell had the lowest yards per carry of his career at 4.0, and only managed three runs over 20 yards. Another factor you have to consider when it comes to Bell is his attitude. He was suspended two games in 2015 and three games in 2016 for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He also skipped nearly all of the Steelers' final walkthrough of the season, and showed up much later than head coach Mike Tomlin requested prior to the team's Divisional Round playoff game. These instances are major red flags and should give any team pause when considering an offer to Bell.

Q: Do you think Joe Williams is going to have a role in the offense? Or is it Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida and Williams needs an injury to play? (@_9erpride_)

A: It would take a major upset for McKinnon and Breida not to have significant roles in the offense. McKinnon, obviously, was paid big money and his role is secure. You could argue that Williams could push Breida with a good camp, but I'm not so sure he can unseat Breida. Breida was better than he got credit for last season, as his 465 yards rushing was the fourth most of any 49ers rookie running back in the last 25 years. Only Frank Gore (608 yards in 2005), Kevan Barlow (512 yards in 2001), and Kendall Hunter (473 yards in 2011) had more. Breida was also outstanding in the last two weeks of the season, gaining 146 yards on 23 carries in Weeks 16 and 17 combined. Williams might even have a hard time unseating Raheem Mostert, who provides great value on special teams. Williams has a chance to play his way into a role, but right now it looks like an uphill battle.

Q: With Reuben Foster being out the first two games, who will most likely be on the field to fill his spot? (@MsDebbieDebDeb)

A: The MIKE and WILL linebacker positions are interchangeable in the Robert Saleh's defense, so the second-year defensive coordinator will have some options in filling Foster's shoes. Malcolm Smith will be in one of the spots if healthy, while Brock Coyle, Korey Toomer and rookie Fred Warner will compete to play alongside him. While Coyle performed fairly well in 10 starts with the 49ers last season, my money's on Warner. The third round pick is an ultra-talented, modern NFL linebacker who could end up being a steal. I say he forces his way into the starting lineup in Foster's absence, and takes over for Smith in 2019. If for some reason Warner isn't ready though, Coyle is a solid veteran presence with experience.

Q: Does Joshua Garnett have a legit chance of making the roster? Either way, who's gonna be our starting G in the fall? (@Ninerfan4Martin)

A: Garnett absolutely has a legit chance of making the roster and starting this year. There was some talk that the extension Laken Tomlinson signed was evidence that the team had soured on Garnett, but I'd argue one doesn't have anything to do with the other. Tomlinson was always locked into the left guard spot, and Garnett was never competing with him. Instead, he'll have to hold off Jonathan Cooper to earn a place on the roster. But Cooper hasn't been on the field yet because of a knee injury, so there's no telling what to expect from him. Who knows if he's even healthy? Right guard will be a battle that plays out throughout camp, with the loser probably getting cut. The reason for that is neither Garnett nor Cooper have the versatility Erik Magnuson or Mike Person do, so the backup utility role will go to one of those two (for what it's worth, my money's on Magnuson).

Q: What is a realistic number of wins for this team this year? (@PlayazCanada)

A: In the NFL, there's a fine line between 10-6 and 7-9, and a only few plays can make all difference in securing a playoff spot, or having a disappointing a season. The 49ers will fall somewhere in that line. The one wild card here is Jimmy Garoppolo. If he plays at a Pro Bowl level, San Francisco's a borderline playoff team, but will Garoppolo have growing pains? It's possible he will in his first full season. Another scenario though is that Garoppolo actually improves with an entire offseason under his belt and reaches that next level to become an upper-tier quarterback. If that happens, and he becomes one of the NFL's elite at the position, the Niners are a 10-win team simply because they have him under center.

Al Sacco is the Senior Writer for 49ers Webzone and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. In addition to his writing duties, Al is also the co-host of the No Huddle podcast. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49 or at [email protected].
The views 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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