Five non-quarterbacks who must emerge for 49ers to blossom in 2023

Why Anita Marks is taking the under for the 49ers' win total (0:40)

Anita Marks breaks down why she doesn't see the 49ers winning over ten games this upcoming season. (0:40)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The sting of January's NFC Championship Game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles has mostly worn off for the San Francisco 49ers as training camp approaches next week.

"I don't really let it linger," tight end George Kittle said. "Because hey, it's football, it's life, s--- happens and we just got to go on to the next one."

In the bigger picture, the 49ers have advanced to the NFC title game or better in three of the past four seasons but haven't reached their ultimate goal: a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

With players such as Kittle, running back Christian McCaffrey, tackle Trent Williams, receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, linebacker Fred Warner, defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead, cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Talanoa Hufanga in place, it's easy to see why this could be the year the Niners can break through.

For that to happen, the Niners are counting on a handful of young players to take a big step forward. The situation at quarterback will be most prominent but for the sake of this exercise, here are five non-quarterbacks who must emerge.

CB Deommodore Lenoir

Lenoir was supposed to be the primary nickel back last season, but an early-season injury to Emmanuel Moseley moved Lenoir outside, where he seemed to improve as the season evolved.

"The game slowed down a lot for me just with getting the reps all last year," Lenoir said. "So, this year I think it's just time to take that next step and just be one of the best corners in the league. That's my goal."

Lenoir is entrenched as the starter opposite Ward. Entering this season, Lenoir is particularly focused on the deep ball. On passes traveling 20-plus air yards last year, Lenoir gave up seven completions on 13 attempts for 254 yards and a touchdown, yielding an opponent passer rating of 124.7. On intermediate and underneath attempts, Lenoir yielded just 382 yards and one score with an interception for an opponent passer rating of 80.1.

He seemed to get better in the postseason, when he was the team's most effective cover corner, giving up just five catches on 12 attempts for 75 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating allowed of 23.3.

Teams are still more likely to target Lenoir than Ward until Lenoir proves he can consistently cover deep. Since the 49ers made no significant investments at corner, he'll have to rise to the challenge.

RT Colton McKivitz

Right tackle Mike McGlinchey was San Francisco's biggest offseason departure, signing an $87.5 million deal with the Denver Broncos. To replace him, the Niners looked within, giving McKivitz first crack at the job.

McKivitz was a fifth-round pick in 2020 but has bounced between the practice squad and active roster and was even released in 2021. He has fought through it, playing in 28 games with five starts. Seven of those came at tackle with two starts and mixed results, with a 68.4% pass block win rate and 72% run block win rate. For comparison, the league average for tackles last year was 88.7% (PBWR) and 74.1% (RBWR), while McGlinchey posted 89.6% and 81.5%, respectively.

It's a small sample, but the Niners believe McKivitz showed enough to have first shot at right tackle. Much of that confidence comes from an impressive start in a must-win Week 18 game in 2021 against the Los Angeles Rams. Starting at left tackle in place of an injured Williams, McKivitz had a 90% pass block win rate. He has played only 26 regular season snaps at right tackle but has earned the confidence of his line mates.

"I think it's well-deserved," Williams said. "And just to see him continue to grind, not to be discouraged, continue to let his talent show play with confidence, he earned it."

DE Drake Jackson

After drafting Jackson in the second round last year, the Niners hoped he would develop and ascend into a starting role in Year 2.

Jackson started well enough, with three sacks in his first six games, but his production dipped as his body wasn't ready to withstand the rigors of a full season. He weighed around 252 pounds as a rookie, finishing with 14 tackles, three sacks and an interception while averaging 20.1 snaps in 15 games. His 8.5% pass rush win rate and 3.8% pressure rate ranked well south of the Niners' other regular edge defenders.

Jackson eventually became a healthy scratch, a disappointing end to his rookie season. But with Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis leaving in the offseason, the door opened for Jackson to step into the starting job opposite Bosa. He spent the offseason adding about 13 pounds and hopes to play this season around 260-265 pounds.

“He was unbelievable this offseason," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Even when it wasn't voluntary, he was here on his own anyways, just living in the weight room trying to change his body."

In the spring, Williams said he believed Jackson has All-Pro potential. The 49ers don't need Jackson to be that good, but if he can offer a reliable complement to Bosa, San Francisco should continue its recent defensive dominance.

RG Spencer Burford

As a fifth-round rookie in 2022, Burford won the starting right guard job out of training camp. But he also struggled, allowing five sacks and posting an 88.4% pass block win rate (65th among guards with at least 200 offensive snaps) and a 62.7% run block win rate (79th).

Burford rotated with veteran Daniel Brunskill at right guard, though Burford started 16 games and averaged 44.5 snaps per game. With Brunskill off to the Tennessee Titans in free agency, 49ers offensive line coach Chris Foerster has told Burford it's his job to lose, though the Niners brought in veteran Jon Feliciano for depth.

Like Jackson, Burford was a regular at the team facility and knows the importance of making a second-year leap.

"He looks like a different guy, carrying himself differently," Foerster said. "This year I think he's more prepared for the whole process. He knows what it is. I think he's ready to make that step."

The 49ers have received solid offensive line play in their deep postseason runs but have struggled as the competition improved. That puts the onus on Burford to make a big leap forward and solidify a right side of the line that has significant questions.

K Jake Moody

The Niners spent a third-round pick on Moody to replace veteran Robbie Gould. Gould had been the picture of consistency in six years with the Niners, never missing a kick in 40 postseason attempts. But the 49ers wanted to get younger and cheaper at kicker.

Moody boasts a big leg but had occasional struggles in his time at Michigan, making 82.1% of his field goals, including 17-of-27 between 40 and 49 yards and 4-of-10 from 50-plus yards. He impressed in the spring, but the real test won't come until the games begin.

"He's done a good job," Shanahan said. "He's got a hell of a leg and we're going to put him in a bunch of situations and keep challenging him and hopefully he'll be ready to go by Week 1."

Moody won't have a honeymoon period. His ability to produce right away will help shape how this season goes.