Though the San Francisco 49ers' hopes of playoff contention were effectively ruined by the torn ACL suffered by Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3, a disappointing 2018 season has still led to criticism of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and to questions over their talent evaluation.

What had looked like an extremely positive 2017 class now looks majorly flawed. Fifth-round pick George Kittle is a bona fide star, but Reuben Foster's release for his off-field troubles, the struggles endured by third overall pick Solomon Thomas, C.J. Beathard being outshone by Nick Mullens and the likes of Ahkello Witherspoon and Trent Taylor taking steps back have combined to place scrutiny on the Niners head coach and GM.

Yet that scrutiny should be much less intense after the last two weeks, in which the 49ers have damaged the playoff hopes of two teams by beating the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks with a pair of excellent performances sparked largely by players Shanahan and Lynch drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

While questions abound about the 2017 class, the 2018 class could hardly have looked better in recent weeks. First-round pick Mike McGlinchey has enjoyed a stellar year and allowed only one sack going up against Von Miller, while day-two selections Dante Pettis and Fred Warner have emerged as big-time contributors. Warner has helped lessen the blow of losing a talent of Foster's caliber by racking up 105 tackles and establishing himself as San Francisco's Mike linebacker.

A knee injury restricted Pettis' impact for much of the year, but he has produced a hugely impressive four-week spell that has seen him total 338 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Using his craft as a route-runner to gain separation and his ability after the catch, Pettis now leads all 49ers wide receivers in yards (446) and is tied with Matt Breida for most touchdowns with five.


Another day-two pick, Tarvarius Moore, held his own admirably when pressed into service at cornerback by an injury to Witherspoon against the Seahawks, and the energy brought by fourth-rounder D.J. Reed and hard-hitting sixth-round strong safety Marcell Harris has provided a spark to help the defense put together its two best performances of the season. Seventh-rounder Richie James' 97-yard kick return also gave the 49ers life versus Seattle, with San Francisco's December resurgence leaving plenty of reason to be excited about the 2018 class.

Yet members of the 2017 class have also done their part. Kittle's 210-yard extravaganza against the Broncos was the high-point in revelatory, record-setting season in which he has become the best tight end in the NFL in the eyes of many and been named to his first Pro Bowl. Witherspoon had begun to right the ship and replicate some of the 2017 displays that led him to garner plenty of hype going into 2018, and there has been no drop-off since sixth-rounder D.J. Jones was given his shot ahead of veteran Earl Mitchell at 1-technique defensive tackle in Week 14. Most promisingly, the widely maligned Thomas played a big part in the defense's success in stymieing in the Seahawks. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas logged two pressures and forced a pair of holding calls -- including one that brought back a Seattle third-down conversion in overtime -- as he begins to show signs of flourishing, having finally been given more playing time as an inside pass rusher.


The biggest testament to the front office and Shanahan, however, may be the production the Niners have gained from undrafted free agents. Only injury has prevented Breida from being in a position to top 1,000 yards rushing and, when he went out with an ankle problem on Sunday, the 49ers were able to call on another UDFA in Jeff Wilson to salt the game away and set them up for the game-winning field goal. Kendrick Bourne is in reality a third or fourth receiver pushed into a starting role, but he too has been able to produce at a decent level and make a difference, particularly in the red zone.

Then, of course, there is Mullens, who is now unbelievably .500 as a starter. Credit for the feel-good story of the Niners season goes to quarterback coach Rich Scangarello, who brought Mullens to their attention, but Shanahan is also worthy of great praise for taking him on board, developing him and getting an undrafted third-stringer into a position where he is comfortable in the scheme to such an extent that he can take down playoff contending teams.

Lynch and Shanahan are a long way from having hit on every pick or signing, and the 2017 draft at this stage is closer to a bad class than a good one. However, what the last two shocking results have proven is that the Niners front office has a much better eye for talent evaluation than it has being given credit for. Throughout the year Shanahan has done an excellent job of putting the talent identified on offense in a position to succeed. The difference is that in Weeks 14 and 15 the execution has been much improved and the defense has finally followed suit.

Fans may have had their faith shaken by the downturn of the 2017 class, but this recent turnaround should inspire confidence that the Niners have the people in place to put together a more experienced and more talented team in 2019 that can execute at a playoff level throughout the year rather than when it is already too late.