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2021 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Last updated: Wed, Sep 1

Offensive Philosophy

After serving as offensive coordinator to an MVP campaign from Matt Ryan and a Super Bowl berth from the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, Kyle Shanahan was a hot commodity on the coaching market. He landed with the 49ers and immediately improved their offense from atrocious in 2016 to mediocre in 2017. His plans for 2018 were derailed when an injury to starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo left him playing an undrafted free agent rookie for most of the year. In 2019, Shanahan finally had his system installed and his preferred personnel in place, and the results were spectacular. The 49ers finished in the top 5 in both points scored and yards gained despite ranking 29th in pass attempts. Then, in 2020, more injuries at quarterback derailed the offense once again. When it's operating at its peak, San Francisco features one of the most dynamic and unpredictable rushing attacks in the league despite liberally rotating running backs. Its passing attack is similarly efficient despite spreading the workload around among several talented targets. In fact, other than All Pro tight end George Kittle, the team's top offensive weapon on any given play was seemingly "whoever is most wide-open", and that player varied wildly on a down-by-down basis as Shanahan used a dizzying array of route combinations and formations to seemingly scheme players open at will.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Jimmy Garoppolo
Backup(s): Trey Lance [R], Nate Sudfeld

Starting QB: Garoppolo enters the offseason a true sitting duck atop the depth chart. An average passer who struggles to stay on the field, he'll be hard-pressed to hold off the dynamic Lance, whom the 49ers traded up for. Garoppolo has completed 67% of his throws over parts of 4 seasons in San Francisco, but has never been impactful with them. Over a 16-game season, his numbers extrapolate to just 3,795 yards and 24 touchdowns, and they took a noticeable downturn in 2020. Even if he keeps the starting job, he's a low-upside QB2 option at best. It's more likely he spends 2021 as an expensive backup or somewhere else entirely. Lance is regarded by some as raw, but by many others as unusually bright and pro-ready.

Backup QB: Lance will likely push the mediocre Garoppolo for the starting job off the bat. He may not take the season's first snap, but the overall talent gap between the two is monstrous. Lance comes from lower competition, and he hardly played in 2020, failing to carry over momentum from an astounding 2019. But he ran a lot of Shanahan action in school, and he drew raves by calling many of North Dakota State's plays and protections at the line. His dual-threat capabilities (70 rushing yards a game) make him even more attractive in Year 1, and one of the higher-tier fantasy prospects in recent memory. He'll command sneaky draft attention all summer, even if Garoppolo remains on roster. Ex-Eagle Sudfeld has earned respect around the league as a dependable No. 3.

Running Backs

Starter: Raheem Mostert
Backup(s): Trey Sermon [R], Elijah Mitchell [R], JaMycal Hasty, Jeff Wilson
Fullback(s): Kyle Juszczyk

Starting RB: Mostert just turned 29, but he remains a productive runner in Kyle Shanahan's backfield-friendly scheme. Even in a timeshare, Mostert topped 50 yards in 6 of his 8 games last year. Dating back to 2018, no other running back comes close to his 5.7-yard average. Still, he's an extremely shaky fantasy prospect, even among the RB3 ranks. Mostert is aging and lost half of his 2020 to a nagging ankle injury, and he doesn't catch many passes (just 30 over his last 24 games). Even if he stays healthy and spry, he can't be counted on for real upside, and it will be hard to project any week-to-week consistency at all.

Backup RBs: The team traded up for the Oklahoma/Ohio State prospect Sermon, who dazzled with 636 yards over his last 3 college games. Sermon is an elusive runner on all levels, and he fits the mold of a "Shanahan back" so well it's hard to not project a noticeable rookie role. Hasty saw some rookie run (46 touches), but will have to hold off 4.38 speedster Mitchell for a roster spot. Mitchell has an outside chance to be the third-down back with a good preseason and camp. Wilson closed 2020 on a tear, but will lose at least the start of the season to a torn meniscus.

Fullback: Juszczyk re-signed a five-year deal shortly after free agency began in March, indicating just how much Kyle Shanahan values his versatile H-back. Juszczyk is used as a blocker, short-yardage specialist, and receiver, notching 59 touches and scoring 7 times over the past 2 seasons. It's profoundly meaningful to Shanahan and the 49ers, though not enough to make him a fantasy prospect.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk
Backups: Jalen Hurd, Mohamed Sanu, River Cracraft, Trent Sherfield

Starting WRs: Samuel lost most of his second NFL season to a broken foot and a hamstring strain. He's a gifted, versatile athlete, but lower-body injuries have plagued him dating back to college. When healthy, Samuel is a true difference-maker in multiple facets of the offense. He's built and attacks the open field like a running back, allowing Kyle Shanahan to manufacture touches in space and over the middle. Between his 2020 injury woes, Samuel topped 65 yards in 4 straight appearances, including an 11-catch, 133-yard gem against the stifling Rams. Samuel is hard to count on as a fantasy WR2, but he'll boast the ability to reach that level anytime he's active. Aiyuk, viewed by many as a raw rookie prospect, exceeded most of their expectations in an eye-opening NFL debut. Aiyuk sat out 4 games but still managed to post 60 catches, 748 yards, and 7 total touchdowns as the team juggled quarterbacks. It's hard to pinpoint a target leader here; Aiyuk is a more traditional No. 1 wideout than Samuel, winning downfield and up at the catch point, while the latter is more of a Swiss Army knife. Sometimes Samuel is used as an extension of the run game, taking quick pitches and swing passes that may or may not even be going forward. It's worth noting that, over the 4 games Aiyuk and Samuel shared the field extensively, Samuel narrowly won the target battle (28 to 25) though Aiyuk was more productive overall (266 yards to 223). Both look like upside WR3 plays for fantasy purposes, but Aiyuk boasts the stronger floor.

Backup WRs: The most intriguing name here is Hurd, who lost 2020 to a torn ACL after a camp that had created buzz. Hurd is a massive (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and versatile talent (he played running back in college) who could fit beautifully into Shanahan's mix-and-match system. There's upside for him to earn an inconsistent but exciting role in the offense, provided his quiet recovery has gone well. Sanu may not make the final roster - his hopes are tied to Hurd's recovery and the team's draft plans. Cracraft and Sherfield have both flashed special-teams ability in other teams' camps, which will likely be their best hopes of sticking here.

Tight Ends

Starters: George Kittle
Backups: Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner

At this time last year, most agreed that Kittle was closing in fast on the exclusive "Travis Kelce Only" class of NFL tight ends. Now, it's a fair question as to whether he'll eclipse the Kansas City legend as soon as this season. Kittle missed eight whole games and parts of others in 2020, but remained a playmaking dynamo and the team's de facto No. 1 receiver when healthy. He posted 48 receptions and 634 yards over less than half a season, collecting a robust 24% share of 49ers targets while on the field. Ultimately, it won't matter who's throwing passes for the team throughout 2021. Kittle is the linchpin of the 49ers offense, whether as a playmaker or blocker, and his arrow continues to point skyward. Dwelley is Kittle's direct backup at the moment, while Woerner is more of an H-back prospect as a blocking specialist.

Place Kicker

Robbie Gould: Gould had a small bounceback in accuracy after a woeful 2019, but not enough to put him back on the fantasy radar. The 49ers only let him attempt 23 field goals. He missed four, although two were from 50+. Gould hasn't been a strong fantasy kicker since 2018, and he's unlikely to regain that form this year even though the 49ers have not brought in any competition for him.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Richie James, Ambry Thomas [R], Nsimba Webster

Richie James has served as San Francisco's return specialist since 2018, though the club has given some indications that they'd be open to competition for the role, and they also claimed Rams return specialist Nsimba Webster right before camp. Their third-round pick Ambry Thomas was a good kick returner at Michigan and could get a shot at the job this summer.

Punt Returners: Richie James, Ambry Thomas [R], Nsimba Webster

Richie James has served as San Francisco's return specialist since 2018, though the club has given some indications that they'd be open to competition for the role, and they also claimed Rams return specialist Nsimba Webster right before camp. Thomas again figures in here as he has expressed willingness to return punts. Brandon Aiyuk could figure in here (or at kick returner), but Kyle Shanahan doesn't seem too eager to expose him on returns.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Trent Williams, LG Laken Tomlinson, C Alex Mack, RG Daniel Brunskill, RT Mike McGlinchey
Key Backups: OG Aaron Baker [R], OL Colton McKivitz, OL Jaylon Moore

Few teams have a like left tackle Trent Williams (eight-time Pro Bowler). This offseason, the team made Williams the highest-paid lineman in football. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is also no slouch. The supporting cast further improved when center Alex Mack (six-time Pro Bowler) arrived from Atlanta. The guards of Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Brunskill are upgradable, but it adds up to a notable top ten grade.

Team Defense

There was arguably no team hit with more injuries than the 49ers last season, yet they still managed to grind out the season and make a late run at the playoffs with a tough running game and an opportunistic defense. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has moved on to coach the New York Jets and DeMeco Ryans has come in to fill those big shoes. A few things we can count on coming into 2021 is a healthy Nick Bosa, a lockdown corner in Jason Verrett, one of the best linebackers in the game in Fred Warner, and Arik Armstead continuing to cause problems in the middle of opposing offensive lines. Even with all of the injuries they ranked 11th in total defense and 4th in passing yards allowed. They will need to target some defensive line and defensive back depth in the draft, but they have enough pieces in place to be competitive again this season. Look for this team to build on their 30 sacks from a year ago with a healthy Bosa and Armstead leading the way for this elite defensive line. The 49ers took 3 defensive backs in the draft this off season with only Ambry Thomas expected to make a difference this season. They added much needed depth but the others will serve more on special teams than anything else this season barring injuries.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Arik Armstead, DE Nick Bosa, DT Javon Kinlaw, DT D.J. Jones, DE Samson Ebukam
Backups: DE Dee Ford, DE Kentavius Street, DT Maurice Hurst, DT Zach Kerr, DT Kevin Givens, DE Arden Key, DE Jordan Willis

Starting DL: The defensive line will be a major strength for the 49ers this season. Nick Bosa will be back and healthy after having a rough season last year and Arik Armstead should continue to make strides on the other side. The defensive tackle spot is anchored by Javon Kinlaw and we should easily see the 49ers surpass their 30 sacks from a year ago. There were rumors that the 49ers will target an edge rusher to complement Bosa and move Armstead to the inside, but they did not add any defensive line or linebackers via the draft. Samsom Ebukam was signed to lead the edge rush specialists in snaps and be a primary player on passing downs. D.J. Jones is a wild card that would be the most likely to lose his spot if Armstead is pushed to the inside but look for the 49ers to keep a rotation of linemen going to try and preserve health for a long season. This is still a very strong unit and the health of Bosa is going to dictate how well they do this season. The 49ers seem set with who they have on the roster barring a last minute FA signing.

Backup DL: The most interesting name in this group is Dee Ford. He has not looked like the Pro Bowler that came over from Kansas City in 2019 and has seen limited playing time. His tackle numbers were never truly elite, but he has an affinity for sniffing out the ball and forcing fumbles (7 in 2018). He has gone from playing an outside linebacker position with the Chiefs to defensive end with the 49ers. Kentavius Street is another name poised to make a difference this year. With just 16 total tackles in limited action last year, he should get a better chance this year as they try and keep their stars healthy. Look for constant rotation with Street playing 50-60% of defensive snaps. Maurice Hurst is going to get more of a chance up the middle after the release of Josiah Coatney and Zach Kerr will also see a healthy compliment of snaps. Jordan Willis and Arden Key will also vie to win a roster spot and snaps at defensive end.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Dre Greenlaw, MLB Fred Warner, SLB Azeez Al-Shaair
Backups: LB Nathan Gerry, SLB Jonas Griffith

Starting LBs: It would be hard to bet against a linebacker group led by Fred Warner. He finished last season with 125 total tackles, a sack, and 2 interceptions. He led an oft injured defense that was missing several players and kept them competitive through the season. Dre Greenlaw got a chance this season due to injury and cemented his starting job this season. With 92 total tackles last year he should eclipse the 100 mark this season. The linebackers are a strength for this unit. Their starters have a good blend of speed and run stopping ability. Azeez Al-Shaiir is the favorite to win the limited number of snaps available on the strong side. With a healthy Bosa taking a double team from the opposing offensive line, look for more stunts and blitzes this season and a few more sacks from this unit overall. The 49ers did not add any help at linebacker via the draft and feel confident with the stable of guys they have up the middle.

Backup LBs: The 49ers made a solid depth addition with Nathan Gerry. He comes over from the Eagles and will provide great insurance for Greenlaw and competition for Al-Shaair. Azeez Al-Shaair will not see the field very often as Fred Warner playing 94% of defensive snaps last season and is the unequivocal leader of that defense. The linebacker group is a strength for this team and Gerry offers a great depth piece. The 49ers have an elite starting rotation of linebackers and a solid backup, but they lack depth beyond that. There is a big drop off after Al-Shaair and Gerry and we could still see a late addition via free agency.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Emmanuel Moseley, CB Jason Verrett, CB K'Waun Williams, SS Jaquiski Tartt, FS Jimmie Ward
Backups: CB Ambry Thomas[R], CB Dontae Johnson, SS Marcell Harris, FS Tavarius Moore (inj), SS Talanoa Hufanga[R], CB Deommodre Lenoir [R], S Tony Jefferson

Starting DBs: The loss of Richard Sherman does not feel as big as it may have 5 years ago. He was dealing with injury and was not the same elite corner he was. Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett are more than capable of handling the outside and will often be left on an island so the safeties can provide run coverage, and the team brought back slot corner K'Wuan Williams on a cheap inexpensive deal. Ward and Tartt are back to give the team continuity at safety. This starting group should remain in the top 5 in the league this season after allowing the 4th fewest passing yards last season. Look for new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans to get creative and send extra pressure from the secondary this season with two great cover corners on the outside.

Backup DBs: Much like the rest of the team, the cornerback group lacks true depth behind their starters. The 49ers were a great defense coming into last season and dealt with a plethora of injuries that caused their subpar season. Ambry Thomas was drafted in the 3rd round out of Michigan. He opted out of 2020 but was the Wolverine's defensive skill player of the year in 2019. Deommodore Lenoir was added via the draft as well. His small build makes him most likely to serve as a slot corner, but he should not be penciled in as much more than a special teams contributor this season. Harris and Moore are back to give the team predictable and experienced depth at safety, although Moore was lost to a torn achilles in June. Talanoa Hufanga was drafted out of USC as a hard hitting safety. Much like Lenoir, he will not see the field often this season but could make a name on special teams. The 49ers targeted DBs in the draft this off season and have a better unit overall coming into 2021.