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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

5 X-Factors for the 49ers in 2020

Gilbert Brink
Aug 4, 2020 at 9:07 AM

Imagine this, the San Francisco 49ers have won Super Bowl 54. Jimmy Garopppolo is the new NFL golden boy, Andy Reid is still notoriously snake bitten by the football gods and the 49ers are tied with the Patriots and Steelers for most Super Bowl wins ever.

This easily could have been the case if a a few things broke the 49ers' way in Super Bowl 54. In 2020, the 49ers have carried over the vast majority of their roster from 2019. Only 3 starters from that Super Bowl team are not present on the roster in 2020: LT Joe Staley, DT DeForest Buckner and WR Emmanuel Sanders. The big names to replace those 3 players have been well-touted. Veteran star LT Trent Williams will fill the gap left by Staley while 2 first-round draft picks, DT Javon Kinlaw and WR Brandon Aiyuk, will be tasked with replacing 2 team leaders.

It is easy to focus on the marquee players. The guys whose names jump off the page immediately, but championships are often delivered by the unsung hero. The 2019 Chiefs had RB Damien Williams. The 2016 Patriots had RB James White.These players weren't superstars, but they played integral roles at putting their team over the top and putting a ring on their fingers. Though the 49ers came up just short in February, these 5 players may be just what the 49ers need to secure that elusive sixth championship in 2020:

DE Ronald Blair

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Kick in the door and wave in the 6'4, 270lbs defensive end who has wreaked havoc in a relief role for the 49ers for the past 4 seasons. Blair completed 8 games for the 49ers in 2019, and in the 9th he tore his ACL while sacking Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on Monday Night Football. With Blair on the field, the 49ers were 8-0 and allowed only 12.75 ppg. Without Blair, the 49ers were 5-3 and allowed 26.6 ppg, more than double the scoring output.

These numbers aren't directly attributed to Blair's individual production, rather it's the effect his presence has on the fellow defensive lineman. Blair brings the heat and gets to the quarterback. When defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Dee Ford & Arik Armstead need a break, not only can Blair fill in, he flourishes. In his 47 game careeer, Blair has registered 13.5 sacks, 88 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss and 27 QB hits. In 2019 Pro Football Focus graded Blair a 77.5, which was higher than Jagurs ED Yannick Ngakoue (72.), Ravens ED Matthew Judon (70.5) and Chiefs ED Frank Clark (63.0). Returning from an ACL injury isn't an easy task, but players have a history of returning from the injury and continuing previous success.

With DT DeForest Buckner playing in Indianapolis, and rookie DT Javon Kinlaw learning the position, one can imagine that the 49ers would continue to use the heavy line rotations that were so effective 2019. A healthy Ronald Blair III will keep the devastating duo of Ford & Bosa fresh, while wearing down opposing offensive lines with waves of effective pass rushers.

RB Jerrick McKinnon

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In 2 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Jerrick McKinnon has played a total of zero snaps. Placing faith in McKinnon may seem misguided at this point, but the lack of a pre-season and any semblance of a regular training camp only increases McKinnon's chance to make an impact on the 49ers in 2020. It's hard to imagine any 49er more motivated to get on the field than McKinnon at this point.

Signing with the team in 2018, McKinnon was pegged to be the perfect back for head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense. His pass-catching ability would marry perfectly with Shahnahan's creative play design and supposedly, magic would ensue. That hasn't happened yet. An ACL injury sidelined McKinnon in 2018 and attempting to return too early caused him to re-injure the same knee in 2019. Heading into 2020, McKinnon's spot on the 49ers was fading, until he decided to restructure his contract. Working on a 1-year deal, McKinnon looks to prove all of the doubters wrong and make good on the promise of his 2018 signing.

In 2019 fullback Kyle Juszczyk was the most productive pass-catching back. As talented as Juszczyk is, your fullback should never be more of a receiving threat than your running back. The 49ers running backs, both Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, were tied with 180 receiving yards. Thoroughly unimpressive. The ability to threaten the defense with a pass catching running back has always been coveted by Shanahan. With a healthy McKinnon on the field, the 49ers might just have what they need to turn a dynamic offense into a dominant one.

TE Jordan Reed

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The 49ers' latest signing is a controversial one. TE Jordan Reed, who has suffered 7 listed concussions during his career, will be paired with megastar TE George Kittle to form a dangerous 2 tight-end set. Reed is familiar to the Shanahan system, as Kyle served as offensive coordinator for the Washington Football Team in 2013, the year Reed was drafted.

Injuries have plagued his NFL career, out of 112 possible games played, Reed appeared in 65. In those games Reed accounted for 329 receptions, 3371 yards, 184 first-downs and 24 touchdowns. As TE2, Reed would be bringing a 51 ypg average to the 49ers offense. Pairing this production with best TE in the NFL and you would have by far the most dangerous tight end room in the league.

The numbers paint a clear picture for the reasoning behind signing Reed. If he can stay on the field for 16 games, there isn't a defensive coordinator in the NFL who will have an answer for the 49ers passing attack. The if in that statement is a gargantuan one, almost as large as the reward the 49ers will receive assuming the gamble on Reed pays off.

CB Ahkello Witherspoon

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A final chance can bring the best out of a person. Ask 49ers DE Arik Armstead, a player who lingered around average production for his entire career and then became a dominant force during his contract season in 2019. 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon finds himself in a similar situation headed into 2020.

During his rookie season Witherspoon flashed moments of brilliance, while recording a Pro Football Focus grade of 74.5. It had appeared that the 49ers found a promising young cornerback to build around, then 2018 and 2019 happened. In 2018 Witherspoon recorded an abysmal PFF grade of 44.5 and in an inconsistent 2019 he earned a 61.0. Though he struggled on the field, the 49ers kept the faith in Witherspoon as long as they could. It wasn't until the 2020 Divisional Playoff game vs. Minnesota that the 49ers finally lost faith in Witherspoon. With CB Emmanuel Moseley nipping at his heels, Witherspoon got burned badly early by then Vikings WR Stefon Diggs, and that was the end of Witherspoon as a starting cornerback.

Witherspoon, who has exhibited the traits to get mentally lost in games, didn't let this setback tear him down. No, upon hearing the news of his benching, Witherspoon asked special teams coach Richard Hightower to be inserted into Moseley's special teams responsibilities because he wanted Moseley to be the best cornerback he could be. An honorable move by a player who was truly committed to the team's success. There may be more chapters to Witherspoon's story as a 49er. In 2021, many of the 49ers defensive backs will be free-agents. Injuries happen all the time, and Witherspoon may have a chance to wrestle back his cornberback job from Emmanuel Moseley or even step into a spot that CB Richard Sherman may soon relinquish (whether it be to free-agency, retirement or a switch to safety). Don't be surprised if this talented cornerback finds a way to get his head back in the game, and his feet back on the field.

WR Jalen Hurd

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There is nobody better in the league at using hybrid players than 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. Players like fullback Kyle Juzsczyk, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, running back Raheem Mostert and tight end George Kittle are great examples of how well Shanahan employs multi-faceted talents in his offensive gameplan. The more you can do, the more valuable you are to Shanahan.

WR Jalen Hurd may be the 49ers' best kept secret. As a rookie, Hurd struggled through 2019 with multiple back injuries, Today, Hurd is finally healthy and ready to contribute to a Super Bowl ready roster. In his one appearance as a 49er, Hurd scored two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys in an August 2019 pre-season contest.

This big-bodied wide receiver played running back in college and measures in at 6'5, weighing 230 lbs. Larger than any wide receiver on the 49ers roster, Hurd's athleticism and ball carrying ability are straight from a Kyle Shanahan fever dream. Imagine Hurd lining up in the backfield next to Kyle Juzsczyk, with George Kittle at tight end and Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk on the outside. The mismatches will be spread all over the field. Now it's just up to QB Jimmy Garoppolo to decide who he wants slice a defense up with.
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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