The 49ers got a jump start on their 2018 offseason changes by trading for Jimmy Garoppolo in October. After locking up the franchise QB with a long-term contract in February, San Francisco is focused on supporting its grand investment.
John Lynch’s first year as general manager was more of a feeling-out period than anything; finding the team’s biggest weaknesses and working to get the essential building blocks. This year has been about piling on some strengths and adding leadership to lift a young team.
That mindset led to significant roster moves that shook up the depth chart at five key positions. Here is a deep dive into the 49ers’ fine work toward becoming a playoff contender.
How well Garoppolo played at the end of last season, considering he had been given only a crash course in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, can’t be taken lightly. The QB was accurate and aggressive right away, looking comfortable firing the ball quickly out of the pocket. He is now incorporating his natural physical skills and confidence while he fully absorbs the system.
A full offseason also has provided Garoppolo a chance to build chemistry with Pierre Garçon, who was injured for the season last year before the new QB’s first start in San Francisco.
In his five winning starts to end the 2017 season, Garoppolo often carried the offense. He has a lot more help on which to lean in 2018.
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Shanahan was not sure Carlos Hyde was the right player to run behind the 49ers’ zone-blocking system, so the team did not pay to bring back the 27-year-old rusher. That opening allowed the coach to hand-pick his type of feature back, Jerick McKinnon.
Shanahan has been turning McKinnon into a workhorse from the get-go. The 26-year-old was exceptional as a receiver in OTAs, but in the past, he also has proved he can run with power to finish drives, a la Devonta Freeman. Hyde simply didn’t offer the same versatility.
The 49ers believe second-year undrafted free agent Matt Breida can be a strong complementary back in the Tevin Coleman vein. Although there’s some optimism around second-year fourth-rounder Joe Williams, he is coming off a rough rookie season lost to an ankle injury.
McKinnon and Breida will give the 49ers a consistent, dual-threat attack regardless of down. McKinnon’s mileage was limited behind Adrian Peterson and others in Minnesota, and his fresh legs for a veteran will be put to use in every situation. For Garoppolo, it will feel like sharing the backfield with New England’s James White and Dion Lewis all over again.
Before Garçon went down with a neck injury last season, he continued to be the reliable, savvy route-runner he was in Washington. San Francisco expects him remain its go-to guy despite his age (32 in August) and long recovery. Marquise Goodwin surprised many by being much more than a speedy deep threat; he clicked with Garoppolo and got a contract extension worthy of a high-impact No. 2 receiver.
Trent Taylor had been tabbed as the No. 3 in the slot, but he is dealing with both a back injury and some serious competition from Dante Pettis. The rookie second-rounder profiles a little like the Rams’ Cooper Kupp with the ability to line up anywhere in three-wide sets. Pettis will be the 49ers’ primary return man while he gets used to the NFL, but he has a solid baseline to contribute to the offense if needed.
The 49ers also have a new option in rookie seventh-rounder Richie James, whose toughness and quickness are attributes made for inside routes. Aldridck Robinson was miscast as a No. 3 last year and disappeared at times when trying to replace Garçon.
Shanahan doesn’t have a Julio Jones in San Francisco like he did as offensive coordinator in Atlanta, but given how strong the 49ers’ starters are, the coach needs only parts of Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu from his three youngest wideouts.
Given Joe Staley’s stellar play at left tackle in his 11th year, the 49ers in the offseason were able to address two other key positions in front of Garoppolo. The signing of center Weston Richburg and the drafting of right tackle Mike McGlinchey meant San Francisco wanted to shoot for elite blocking upside over the adequate work of Daniel Kilgore and Trent Brown at those respective positions.
A healthy Richburg will help both the pass and run blocking. McGlinchey at first will provide steadiness and increased athleticism on the right side, and he projects well as Staley’s eventual replacement on the left. San Francisco had the No. 21 rushing attack in the NFL last season and also allowed 43 sacks, tied for 10th most. Garoppolo and McKinnon both will be beneficiaries of the upgrades on the line.
The 49ers needed to be great at the tackles and at center in order to make up for their deficiencies at guard. Left guard Laken Tomlinson is a weak link who is unsigned beyond 2018, and right guard Joshua Garnett, a 2016 first-rounder, has struggled to round into shape after missing all of last season with a knee injury. That has opened the door for free-agent journeyman Mike Person, who was with Shanahan in Atlanta, to be a stopgap.
Because the 49ers have fewer concerns about their skill-position players, their incorporating three new starters and creating cohesiveness on the line will be key for their offense.
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The 49ers jumped at the chance to sign former Seahawk Richard Sherman, who just turned 30 and is coming off a half-season lost to a ruptured Achilles. Although the team will need to wait well into training camp to see him fully healthy and part of the defense physically, it already has seen Sherman lead a young secondary mentally and emotionally.
The bonus of Sherman, beyond his still-strong coverage and run support, is that he is a coaching extension of coordinator Robert Saleh. Sherman’s savvy has rubbed off immediately on rising second-year corner Akhello Witherspoon. With the big frames of both Sherman and Witherspoon made for the team’s zone coverage, their combination of experience and exuberance is bound to make them a special duo. For San Francisco, it’s a monumental upgrade from the likes of Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson.
The 49ers are also counting on another 2017 draftee, seventh-rounder Adrian Colbert, at safety. He is line to replace Eric Reid next to Jacquiski Tartt, a strong run defender and an even better cover man at strong safety. Colbert, a converted college cornerback, is comfortable covering receivers inside, as well; he proved that in his six starts filling in for an injured Tartt last season. K’Waun Williams is a good nickel corner, leaving 2014 first-rounder Jimmie Ward to scramble for snaps in the secondary.
San Francisco offensively has raised its big-play quotient around Garoppolo, but its defense will need to limit those kinds of pass plays and increase its takeaway potential after recording only 10 interceptions last season.
The 49ers are well equipped for complementary football. That should lead to better overall football in 2018.