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Looking at the Road Ahead: Why the 49ers’ quest for a sixth Super Bowl win still looks promising

Don Atkinson
Feb 16, 2021 at 3:56 PM0

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When the 49ers' injury-driven 2020 season mercifully ended, the team took unwanted claim to the basement of the NFC West at 6-10 and began fielding a litany of questions about its roster future. A few of those questions have been resolved, but many more are still left open, and have become the topic of debate among both football analysts and the team's fan base.

The greatest questions, of course, have revolved around whether the 49ers can ride out another year with oft-injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who spent much of last season either hobbled on the field or watching from the press box. The fervor over whether Garoppolo can raise his play to a level needed to win a Super Bowl has continued to escalate, making his future with the team, at least to observers, seem shaky at best.

Other players and other positions are under scrutiny as well, and with all that intense questioning comes a sense that the team is on the verge of a major rebuild. But the truth is this: what's right with the 49ers is far more significant than what is wrong with them, and that is something that everyone should be embracing.

Indeed, there are problem areas within the 49ers' roster. There are similar roster breakdowns with every NFL team, and immunity from those breakdowns simply does not exist, even in Kansas City or Tampa. But as problematic as things can sometimes seem, there is much to be hopeful about with these 49ers, just one season removed from an NFC Championship. With the NFL draft approaching in late April, the 49ers will begin to look a bit different as they move forward. But there is every reason to believe the team is headed in the right direction.

The Quarterback issues should be fixed. Looking at the simpler problem first, there is at least a strong possibility that neither Nick Mullens nor C.J. Beathard will be in a Niner uniform this coming season. If nothing much good came out of the 2020 season, the 49ers perhaps gained clarity that it might be in the best interests of the team to move on from both.

The 49ers signed quarterback Josh Rosen, acquired toward the end of last season, to a new one-year deal, and that could be a statement that the 49ers will be looking to make some serious adjustments in the quarterback room. Finding upgraded replacement(s) for Mullens and Beathard shouldn't prove much of a challenge for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, and there are options aplenty, above and beyond Rosen.

The larger question, of course, is what the team does at starting quarterback. Publicly at least, Jimmy Garoppolo wants to stay, and Shanahan and Lynch say they want that as well. Whether that's reality or rumor-diffusion will become evident very soon, but the 49ers are certainly going to explore all options regardless of the public statements the team has made.

Big trade scenarios are certainly there for a new starting quarterback, including a daydream deal for Houston's Deshaun Watson. Free agent options are possibilities as well. Much of that will come down to the costs the team would incur in bringing a premium starter to San Francisco, and in Watson's case the price may be an impossible one to meet without giving up an elite defensive player or two.

It would surprise no one, of course, if the 49ers move to draft a top-tier quarterback, but that does not mean Garoppolo will necessarily be gone. Garoppolo's greatest liabilities at this juncture are his health and his salary. But the 49ers win often with him, and lose frequently without him, and that is a fact Garoppolo's detractors cannot get around. Pairing Garoppolo with a talented rookie might be a formula the 49ers can warm to, assuming they decide against a trade or free agent signing.

One way or another, there's little chance that the 49ers will continue with the quarterback trio they were forced to rely on last season, and that will be a huge step in the right direction.

The 49ers are looking elite at running back. It seems almost inevitable that the 49ers will be parting ways with running backs Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon soon. Both are expensive and bloated contracts are not something the 49ers can shoulder at this juncture. McKinnon has additionally made it profanely clear he expects to play elsewhere this year. The 49ers need to welcome this because off-loading the contracts of both is what's needed.

Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, Jr. are clearly the team's best backs. Far more explosive than the pair previously mentioned, both have proven their value many times over. The 49ers are at their greatest with Mostert and Wilson getting the carries, and if the 49ers can fix some issues with the offensive line, those two can devastate run defenses around the league. Both Mostert and Wilson are safely signed, at least for the coming season, and both have Pro-Bowl level skills.

Running backs JaMycal Hasty and Austin Walter have both shown flashes of potential, but picking up another solid back later in the draft or through undrafted free agency to challenge them would be a smart play for the 49ers.

If the front office can get fullback Kyle Juszczyk back under contract, the 49ers should be locked and loaded in the run game.

The YAC brothers will be primed to explode. Both tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel were hampered by injuries in 2020, and their play was mostly limited. Rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk was brilliant, but his efforts were largely swallowed up amidst the 49ers' losing spree. If the three can stay healthy (and provided Lynch and Shanahan can fix what's wrong on the offensive line and at quarterback), 2021 could be the year their lethal talent playing together is finally evident.

Big-framed receiver Jalen Hurd begins his third year of pro football without having played a game that counts, and whether his body is able to handle the NFL will become evident early on. If he can stay healthy, he might be a huge plus for the 49ers' offense in 2021. If not, his time with the team will almost certainly come to an abrupt end.

There are still question marks about the team's depth at wide receiver, but a few roster adjustments could set the 49ers up to draft another YAC candidate in the mid or later rounds that would raise the passing game by more than a few notches. Receiver Kendrick Bourne is a free agent who is still unsigned, and that will play into how the 49ers handle getting more receiving help during the offseason.

The defensive line should be ready to bounce back. Premier defensive end Nick Bosa is well on his way to healing fully from an ACL injury suffered early last season. Defensive tackle Arik Armstead is safely under contract and tackle Javon Kinlaw looks primed to improve coming off a respectable rookie season. The 49ers discovered a gem in defensive end Kerry Hyder, Jr. last season, and may make a legitimate push to keep him around. There's a long list of other free agent linemen, which includes Ronald Blair, Ziggy Ansah and Solomon Thomas, and how the line shakes out will depend largely on how many of those free agents the 49ers are willing and able to get under new contracts during the off-season.

Kinlaw's progress may make defensive tackle D.J. Jones a roster luxury that the 49ers won't be able to afford, and defensive end Dee Ford's chronic injuries may have finally brought him to the end of the road in San Francisco. Signing a healthy free agent defensive end to potentially platoon with Hyder, or perhaps picking up a rookie edge rusher in the draft, may be the best plan for the 49ers, who will need that pressure opposite Bosa.

Regardless, if health can be restored to the defensive line in 2021, the 49ers will likely see a resurgence of the front four pressure that terrorized opposing quarterbacks in 2019.

The 49ers have two of the best linebackers in the NFL. At this point there should be little argument against the proclamation that Fred Warner, at just 24, is the league's best linebacker. Third year linebacker Dre Greenlaw is himself on schedule for greatness and will only be helped by continued play alongside Warner. The 49ers lost linebacker Kwon Alexander to the New Orleans Saints last season, but Warner and Greenlaw's presences on the field are most important to the 49ers.

Azeez Al-Shaair has competently handled the SAM linebacker duties the past two seasons and should continue to do so. The 49ers may well use one of their full slate of draft picks this year (provided they still have them when April rolls around) to grab another fast, aggressive linebacker who can meld quickly into this linebacker group. In essence, the 49ers will be sitting stronger at linebacker in 2021 than they were in 2019 with Alexander still on the roster.

The 49ers will be getting younger. Losing experienced veterans is seldom an advantage, but in the age of rampant NFL injuries, swelling contracts and a shrinking salary cap, getting younger is a good thing. The reality is, the 49ers are on the verge of losing some experienced players on the field and some inspiration in the locker room. Veteran players like cornerback Richard Sherman have a value beyond their years of experience, but when it's time to move on, the teams that do so are the teams that end up winning championships.

With an offensive line greatly in question, 33-year-old left tackle Trent Williams seems to be the only looming "must sign" for the 49ers. The remaining docket of free agent vets can, and likely will, be subject to at least consideration for replacement by Lynch and Shanahan.

Seeing the 49ers draft rookies or pursue younger free agents at cornerback, safety and even along the defensive line again, won't be unexpected. By the time training camp closes in 2021, the 49ers will almost assuredly be a less experienced, but potentially more explosive team.

In the end analysis, things are looking just fine for the 49ers as they push forward. They have a superior coaching staff, even having lost defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and a few others. The front office is experienced and should be able to get the team solidly under the salary cap, with room to allow it to maneuver a bit in the free agent market this spring. It has some brilliant players on both sides of the ball. It has decent depth, even with potential losses to free agency. And it will have a slew of valuable draft picks to use, provided they aren't given up in trade.

The NFL in 2021 has a number of teams looking like they are headed in a downward direction. The 49ers are not among them. And that's something to feel good about.
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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