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How the 49ers can find value in a lost season

Nov 11, 2020 at 5:29 PM


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Unprecedented is an understatement when describing the first half of the 2020 NFL season, and that rings especially true for the San Francisco 49ers as they find themselves in an unparalleled situation in regards to the decimation of a roster that entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations. According to Spotrac, the 49ers currently have $79.43 million worth of player salaries on injured reserve, accounting for 38.43% of their 2020 salary cap, by far the most in the league with the next closest being the Dallas Cowboys at 23.62%. Factoring in the rate at which the injuries are piling up, combined with the ever increasing difficulty of competing in the toughest division in football, and it makes the 49ers' path to a playoff spot exceedingly difficult and unrealistic as the weeks go on. As the unsettling reality of a season ending without a playoff birth sets in, the 49ers must now pivot and find some sort of tangible value in a year that slipped away from them.

Talent evaluation is a fluid thing in the NFL, as teams are constantly assessing their rosters and planning for the future while gauging their expectations in the present. The precarious position the 49ers currently find themselves in does lend them the advantage of being able to analyze the performance of players who otherwise would have had a difficult time getting meaningful snaps without the injuries to the incumbent starters at their position.

The 49ers have 29 players set to hit unrestricted free agency in the coming offseason. Thus, the ability to evaluate the performance of players who could be cheaper alternatives in 2021 is invaluable as the team navigates the coming uncertainty surrounding the future of its roster and the NFL as a whole, as money is expected to be tight due to the likelihood of a decreased salary cap caused by the lost revenue from playing a season largely without fans and the gate revenue that accompanies them. Immediately, players like Marcell Harris and Jordan Willis come to mind as those who have a chance to showcase they should be given the opportunity to play a role in the 49ers' future plans by being substantially cheaper alternatives to players like Jaquiski Tartt and Kerry Hyder, whose high level of play might make it difficult for the 49ers to retain their services due to the money they will command on the open market if they hit free agency. Finding key contributors on bargain contracts over the next couple seasons has become an imperative task for the 49ers' front office due to the limited cap space it will have to work with, and having some internal options to evaluate gives it an edge to make those decisions with a bit more clarity than it would have pursuing players who haven't spent time with the organization.

While on the topic of finding veterans at a discount price, it is important to remember the 49ers have a pair of rookies on both sides of the ball who are under contract for at least three more years on rookie deals and who will be depended on heavily to have key roles moving forward. The development of 2020 first-round picks Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk becomes the preeminent priority should the 49ers fall out of the playoff race they somehow have managed to remain a part of.

Aiyuk has put together an impressive rookie campaign thus far as he currently ranks 3rd out of all rookie wide receivers in receiving grade per PFF, and has displayed sure hands as evidenced by his 86.9 drop grade, which ranks 10th out of 197 wide receivers in the NFL. Aiyuk's combination of sure hands and his massive 81-inch wingspan provides an extremely large catch radius for whoever is throwing him the football. He has also demonstrated the ability to get open downfield, which has to excite the front office and coaching staff who traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to select him. It's still very early in his career, but Aiyuk clearly has the potential to blossom into a true number one receiver at the NFL level and give head coach and play caller Kyle Shanahan another explosive weapon in his arsenal while also being a safety blanket for whoever is under center for the 49ers.

On the surface, Kinlaw's rookie season hasn't produced the same immediate dividends and has led many to become concerned about a player who essentially replaced fan favorite and All-Pro talent DeForest Buckner. The issue is looking at his production through a lens of comparison with a player like Buckner creates a false sense of panic, as it is unrealistic to expect a rookie player with no OTAs and a severely shortened offseason to come in and contribute at the same level. When Kinlaw is compared to his own draft class, his numbers are actually quite favorable as he currently ranks second in pass rush snaps, total pressures, quarterback hurries, and quarterback hits among rookie interior defensive lineman.

Kinlaw's massive frame and high powered motor have been on display all season. However, the issue has been that he has registered pressures without finishing with sacks, of which he has 0 in his professional career. I truly believe that is a product of being raw and used to dominating opposing linemen with the bull rush generated from his natural size advantage. While that worked at the collegiate level, the athletes on NFL offensive lines aren't going to be bullied in the same way. With the adjustment of refining his technique and adding pass rush moves to his arsenal, I genuinely see a path to Kinlaw being a game-wrecking defender in the coming seasons. You can always teach someone how to improve his footwork, or how to use his hands but you can't teach the intrinsic motor that accompanies Kinlaw and his enormous 6-foot-5, 311 pound frame.

Great teams can never afford to be stagnant, so while the 49ers may struggle down the stretch and appear to lose the battle that is this season, they can still manage to win the war of the coming years by focusing on the progression of their talented youngsters, while evaluating their prospects of retaining veterans at an affordable price next season. A top-15 draft pick being added to a roster returning key pieces in 2021 certainly feels like a silver lining in what has felt like a nightmare season.
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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