Season grade: Below average -- This season started with hope the Niners could enjoy a quick turnaround from 6-10 last year to playoff contention this year. Those hopes were probably a bit misguided based on how the Niners finished last season, but it was reasonable to expect a step forward to a record closer to 8-8. Alas, the Niners were hit with major injuries early, essentially rendering the season over before the first month had passed. Credit to coach Kyle Shanahan for leading his team to some wins late with a youthful roster. But the record is the record and it’s clearly below average.
Season in review: Much of the hopes for this season centered on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his ability to elevate the team as he did at the end of 2017. Garoppolo didn’t really get the opportunity, suffering a torn ACL in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Losing Garoppolo was the one hit the Niners couldn’t afford, not with the rest of their roster rebuild still under construction. Without him, the 49ers turned to C.J. Beathard and then Nick Mullens. Beathard struggled, with a couple of exceptions, but Mullens was a bit of a revelation, offering glimpses of an effective long-term backup. The defense, meanwhile, saw a revolving door, particularly in the back seven, which made it difficult to get any continuity or consistency aside from the continued excellence of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and a strong return from injury by cornerback Richard Sherman.
He said it: "My goal is to get our guys to play the best they possibly can. Whoever is in our building, to get them to play the best they can. I believe that we can get more out of our guys. I believe that's up to myself, I believe that's up to coaches, and I believe it's up to the players. I think there are guys that are doing some good things. But even the guys who are doing the best, I still think there's even more... From all the top guys to the bottom guys, we all can get better, coaches included." -- 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on what he expected after the season was lost.
How will Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon recover from season-ending ACL injuries? Nothing matters more to the Niners in 2019 than the return of their franchise quarterback and starting running back. McKinnon’s knee injury actually happened before the season and Garoppolo’s was also early enough that both should be ready for training camp and, quite possibly, to do at least some limited work in the offseason program. In today’s NFL, players recover from ACL injuries and return to form on a regular basis. Given how little actual game action Garoppolo and McKinnon have had in Shanahan’s system, a return in time for training camp would be significant.
Can the 49ers use their cap space and draft capital to fill big needs at edge rusher and in the secondary? The Niners didn’t do much to address the defense last offseason, which means that many of those resources will likely go to that side of the ball this time around. It’s no secret that San Francisco needs a difference-making edge-rusher. The Niners will likely have to find that player with their first-round pick in a draft that looks deep at the position. A potential No. 2 corner with the upside to be the long-term No. 1 option is another top priority and, given the importance of free safety in the scheme, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Niners seek a veteran starter there, perhaps even Earl Thomas, who is the gold standard for that position.
Which young players can take the next step to solidify starting spots? After a strong finish to the 2017 season, the 49ers put a lot of faith in a number of key young players to make a significant impact in 2018. For the most part, that belief didn’t pay off. For various reasons, young players like linebacker Reuben Foster, safeties Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon were unable to put together a strong enough encore in 2018 to lock down spots beyond this season. The Niners will again be counting on young players like tackle Mike McGlinchey, receiver Dante Pettis and linebacker Fred Warner to build on their strong rookie outings to be even better in 2019. That work will be done in the offseason and if they prove able to do it, it would go a long way in stabilizing the Niners’ nucleus in 2019 and beyond.