We are less than one week away from the start of NFL training camp for most teams, with everybody but the Hall of Fame Game participants starting on July 27th. We’re running through all 32 teams in reverse order of our power rankings, which means we’re getting into the serious Super Bowl contenders.
Today, we look at a contender that has shown as wide a potential variance of outcomes as anybody the past two years — the San Francisco 49ers. They entered the 2020 season with high expectations coming off a Super Bowl loss the season prior. However, injuries ravaged both sides of the roster as they lost countless players for some or most of the year. Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas tore ACLs, Jimmy Garoppolo dealt with a high ankle sprain, Richard Sherman injured his calf, George Kittle broke a bone in his foot, Raheem Mostert missed time with an ankle injury, and the list goes on.
The 49ers tried to make lemonade out of lemons, opening the season 4-3, but things went south and a 2-7 finish to the season left them in last place in the NFC West.
6-10, 4th in NFC West
Points: 24.4 points per game, rank 17th
Yards: 5.0 yards per play, rank t-2nd
Football Outsiders Ranking: 6th
Points: 23.5 points per game, rank 21st
Yards: 5.7 yards per play, rank t-12th
Football Outsiders Ranking: 20th
Super Bowl: +1400
NFC Champion: +625
NFC West: +190
Win Total: 10.5 (Over +107, Under -130)
The 49ers had a busy offseason due to a huge number of internal free agents. They re-signed some key names including cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive lineman D.J. Jones, and nickel back K’Waun Williams. It does not appear cornerback Richard Sherman will return, and they also saw wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, edge rusher Kerry Hyder, and backup quarterback Nick Mullens all depart in free agency.
But there are two moves that are the “biggest” and one is decidedly bigger than the other. Early in free agency, the team signed former Falcons center Alex Mack. He had worked with head coach Kyle Shanahan in two prior stops at Atlanta and Cleveland, and considering Weston Richburg’s retirement due to injury, the 49ers needed to find a stable presence for the center of their offensive line.
The biggest move though was in the 2021 NFL Draft. The 49ers held the No. 12 pick but in late March they packaged it plus two future first round picks to the Dolphins to move up to No. 3. Shanahan and GM John Lynch kept pundits guessing until draft day before selecting North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. The team has not unloaded Garoppolo so it’s unclear who will start Week 1 of the 2021 season, but Lance is the future.
Biggest question entering training camp
There are plenty of interesting position battles on the 49ers roster, but when you draft a quarterback No. 3 overall while retaining a quarterback you gave a nine-figure contract, you’ve got yourself quite the question heading into training camp.
By all accounts, Lance impressed in the team’s post-draft offseason program. He has not signed his rookie contract as of this article publishing, but odds are pretty good it gets done in time for the first day of training camp. If he retains his spring work well, it could create a spirited competition. This team is a Super Bowl contender if they can stay healthy, so it seems a good bet Garoppolo is the starter Week 1 given how he has performed when healthy. But, it’s no sure thing.
If you’re looking for a secondary position battle to watch, rookie running back Trey Sermon has the experience and skillset to excel in the system favored by Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner. Given Raheem Mostert’s injury history, watch out for Sermon.
What needs to happen for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl?
The quarterback position and health are the two big areas of concern for the 49ers. Health applies to every team, but given how badly things went last season, the 49ers have to stay at least moderately healthy if they want to win the Super Bowl. If Nick Bosa can return to pre-injury form in short order, the defense gets a boost after putting together a solid enough season even without him. He is the best player on that defense by a long shot and if healthy can carry that unit.
The biggest issue with Jimmy Garoppolo is that he has been unable to stay consistently healthy. He’s far from the best quarterback in the league, so debates will rage about his worth on a nine-figure contract, but he was solid enough to help them get to Super Bowl 54. If he retains the starting job and gets hurt at some point, the question then becomes whether or not Trey Lance is ready as a rookie. If the team can stay healthy, Lance would be surrounded by plenty of talent. So it becomes a matter of how quickly he can make the transition to the NFL after playing one game since the end of the 2019 season.
Any predictions are predicated on the team staying relatively healthy. Everybody loses players to injury, but few have the kind of year the 49ers had in 2020. If the 49ers can stay relatively healthy and Jimmy Garoppolo is their Week 1 starter, they’ll be in the thick of the NFC West race and have a shot at making noise in the playoffs. A healthy Nick Bosa raises this defense from good to great and potentially elite if they find consistent cornerback play. They would be one of the better teams in the playoffs if healthy.
If the 49ers stay healthy and Trey Lance claims the starting job in Week 1 or sometime in the season, all bets are off on what to expect. Lance has a ton of upside, but it’s near impossible to predict what to expect from rookie quarterbacks. Maybe he unlocks Shanahan’s offense to an insane degree or maybe he’s not ready and makes the usual rookie mistakes that slows down the team. A healthy Bosa could be enough for this team to be a better than .500 team even with a rookie quarterback. It comes down to how good you think Lance can be his first year.