Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Deep and Talented Roster a New Challenge for 49ers as Cuts Approach

Aug 25, 2019 at 12:21 PM

The 49ers have had to deal with a roster that was paper-thin over the last few years. The front-line talent was not the best, but once any injuries hit the level of player available to fill needed positions that talent dropped off precipitously.

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have done an excellent job of bringing in NFL-level talent since they took over, a process that takes some time, but one that has resulted in the approaching roster cuts being as difficult as any that even the best teams in the NFL face. In fact, one could argue that they will release three or four defensive linemen who will immediately fit into other teams' rotations. That is a good problem to have, of course - but it makes the decisions that face the administration ones that will likely result in lost sleep and empassioned discussions behind closed doors.

There are a couple of areas that are particularly intriguing and, for many fans, will cause no small amount of outrage and social media explosion. Here are a few areas that I feel bear some attention. I will offer my own thoughts, which many may find close to sacrilege.

Quarterback: The entire front office exhaled long and deeply when Jimmy Garoppolo got himself right against the Chiefs. It appears that he is ready for the regular season, and that the only questions are about who his backup should be and whether the team should keep two or three QBs on the roster. Shanahan seemed to indicate that the team will keep three, meaning Garoppolo, Mullens and Beathard.

Don't get me wrong, I like C.J. Beathard. He is tough, a great teammate, and does not complain. He has taken a brutal pounding when he has played. He also had to start games long before he was ready to do so. However, he has also demonstrated some traits that simply make him a bad fit for this team. He holds the ball way too long, meaning he takes more sacks than he should. He is slow with his progressions. He is not particularly accurate. Shanahan loves him, likely for the reasons I mentioned above, but also because the team traded up to get him and he has the strongest arm on the team, meaning he can take the top off of the defense. Those things, however, do not translate into consistent wins as a starting quarterback, nor do they make someone a reliable backup. A backup should know the offense and not get the team into trouble. That's it.

Mullens has those things and more. Mullens, I would argue, knows the offense far better than Garoppolo does. He is quick with his reads, he is accurate with his throws, he is an ideal backup. If he had a stronger arm and was two inches taller, he'd likely be starting for some other team - but those things, which matter in the NFL, are ones that he will never be able to overcome.

I believe that Shanahan is hoping that some team in need of a quarterback offers the Niners something decent for Beathard. I think they could get a 6th round pick, maybe a 5th if the team is really needing a player, but the reality is that this is not something that the Niners should hope for. They should shop C.J. and, if no one bites, let him go and keep Jimmy and Mullens.

Running Back: Matt Breida is the best back on this team. I don't care that he was a UDFA. I don't care that he doesn't have the textbook measurables. He runs the ball the way a back in this offense is supposed to run. The stretch run game requires a back who can see the cutback lanes and who finds them. He does this incredibly well.

Tevin Coleman, who is a fine back, runs to where the hole is supposed to be, in his mind. if the play says to run off tackle, he runs off tackle. He does not cut back and run behind the guard's block if the play so dictates. This is a problem, because the stretch run game needs a back who can sort of improvise on the fly, as there may be holes one or two running lanes away from the designed running area. Coleman does not seem to be able to make these adjustments, while Breida does so almost without thinking. It's the way he runs - instinctively. I do like Coleman, though, and he should be a great third-down or change of pace back like he was in Atlanta.

I also like Raheem Mostert, who should find his way into the rotation, given his powerful and decisive running and Pro Bowl-level special teams play. That leaves two backs to consider, Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson.

McKinnon is a truly unfortunate situation. By all accounts, he is a hard worker, a talented player and a team-first guy. His knee injury, however, has both opened the door for other players and has not healed as one would have hoped. The team signed him as one of its splash free agents prior to last season, and he still has yet to take a single game snap. Furthermore, he apparently is still not ready to go. The team should give him an injury settlement and release him.

Wilson is a tougher call, as he is a bigger back and has looked good in the preseason. The reality is, however, that Mostert and Juszczyk can carry the ball in short-yardage situations. Wilson also put the ball on the turf twice during the short time that he played last season, which is the biggest no-no for a running back. I believe that Wilson will clear waivers and the team can tuck him away on the practice squad in case one of its three active tailbacks is injured.

These decisions would clear up two spots for the team, which it could use to keep one or two of the numerous defensive linemen who will likely have to be cut if there are no slots available. Kentavius Street, Jullian Taylor, Damontre Moore, Ronald Blair, Kevin Givens are all payerswho have looked good and are valuable players but who each could be part of the last roster cut down. Given the already-existing concerns about the health of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, the team would be wise to keep more defensive linemen to both rotate in and keep the stars fresh and to fill slots when and if there are injuries. This team is going to rely on pressuring the quarterback this season, and that pressure is reliant upon good, healthy defensive linemen.

The team could also hold on to both Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaiir, players who are quite raw but who, with coaching and time, may well develop into quality linebackers for the team for the next decade. If the 49ers release either of these players, it is almost certain that they will immediately find their way onto another roster. It would be a shame if they could not figure into the future plans for the franchise.

Wide Receiver: I saved the best for last. The 49ers have somehow gone from having no receivers that they can count on to a stable full of them, with a need to let at least one and maybe more walk away. The receivers in the mix are Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Deebo Samuel, Jaylen Hurd, Kendrick Bourne, Jordan Matthews and Richie James, Jr. That's 8 receivers, and the team wants to carry 6 or 7 at the most. That means that at least one has to go.

Common wisdom has been that James is the most expendable, since he plays the slot, which Taylor and Matthews, and likely Hurd and Samuel, all play. He is a small receiver, meaning that he cannot play outside. He is not the best blocker. He returns punts and kickoffs, but so do Samuel, Pettis and Taylor (as well as Hurd). He was a low draft pick. However, he has been the most consistent player this summer, not just in preseason games but in camp, according to reports. He shows up.

Matthews has apparently had an excellent camp, is a veteran and a big red zone target. Bourne led the wide receivers in yardage last season, is reliable and is a phenomenal blocker (as is Matthews). I cannot stress how important it is for receivers to block in this offense, as the run game tends to find the second level, where a cornerback or safety can mean a play that either goes for 8 or 10 yards or a play that finds the end zone.

Taylor is the best route runner on the team, and is Jimmy's favorite target. Samuel and Hurd are untouchable given that they were just drafted and have both shown that they should be valuable members of the team going forward. Goodwin is the deep threat and has played quite well this summer. That leaves Dante Pettis.

Pettis showed flashes of brilliance last season, particularly over a three-game stretch later in the year. He also missed a number of games due to injury, and has a problem both with creating separation and with dropped passes. He was a fantastic punt returner in college, but that has not translated into the NFL. He does not possess elite speed, and he is a below-average blocker. He does not like to go over the middle and has not shown himself to be an aggressive receiver on contested balls. He is, however, a second-round pick. This brings me to a realization that I had as I watched the preseason game against the Chiefs.

Many teams, the 49ers among them, seem to have an extreme reluctance to move on from players they have drafted, particularly high draft picks. Joe Williams stayed around a lot longer than he should have. Reuben Foster got more chances than someone putting for a car on The Price is Right. I understand that General Managers are supposed to hit on their draft picks, but the reality is that drafting is an absolute crap shoot. Players who dominated in college turn into pumpkins in the NFL. Some players, although this is far less common, are not drafted and wind up being valuable members of the teams they join. Nick Mullens was not drafted, and he is at this point a much better pro quarterback than C.J. Beathard, who was drafted in the third round (and a trade-up at that).

Dante Pettis was a second-round pick, yet he is demonstrably the worst of the 8 receivers in the mix for making the team. Shanahan and Lynch need to swallow their pride and pick the players who give their team its best chance to win, now and in the future, no matter how those players found their way onto the team. If they handle this right, they could trade both Pettis and Beathard and receive decent compensation in return, helping them to continue to build this team in the future.

This team is on the brink of being relevant in the NFL and, with the proper moves and decisions, could make a real leap into the upper-tier of teams in the league. If they play this right, that leap may result in a run of success that could be sustained for years to come. They need to put their egos aside and do what is best for the team, without thought of whether the players they keep are high draft picks or guys who came in off of the street. As a fan, I hope their decisions are the right ones.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.
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.


  • Kell Baker
    Pettis has such a tremendous upside and is always open when he gets in games. Samuel and Hurd on the field with Pettis are going to open up this offense. No way would I cut Pettis or package him in a trade at this early stage of his career. We’re giving up on a 2nd in just his second year? I just don’t see that with Lynch and Shanahan. Trent Taylor and Jordan Matthews should be the two cuts at WR.
    Aug 28, 2019 at 9:58 PM
  • Michael N. Taylor
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    Aug 26, 2019 at 8:57 AM
  • Soothsayer
    Deep and talented roster? Are you high?
    Aug 26, 2019 at 3:13 AM
  • Mike Kenney
    We’re all concerned about Pettis reticence to go for the ball. But, there’s a reason he is open so often" His unorthodox breakdown and direction change make him impossible to mirror. Very foolish to think he isn’t of value
    Aug 26, 2019 at 12:04 AM
  • Jimmy G
    How is Pettis worse then Trent Taylor when Trent can’t even sniff the game field?
    Aug 25, 2019 at 7:09 PM
  • Paul
    Completely agree on all counts. Liking a guy cannot play into decisions like these. All of these guys have either had opportunity to step up, or with McKinnon, simply cannot perform. Time to put the best possible team on the field.
    Aug 25, 2019 at 5:29 PM
  • Ted
    Excellent article. Not sure I agree about Pettis, though. He hasn't played much, like Jimmy G. I'd like to see what he can do.
    Aug 25, 2019 at 5:07 PM
  • rodrigo
    I like the Pettis conclusion, but not MicKinnon's. We need to see what he can do before radical moves, and Wilson is nothing special to justify taking Jet's place.
    Aug 25, 2019 at 3:34 PM
  • J Dubb
    Excellent article man! ????
    Aug 25, 2019 at 1:29 PM

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