2019 NFL preview: 49ers need some wins from Shanahan, Lynch (and Jimmy G too)

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The NFL is not a patient league.

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Of the 32 coaches, 19 were hired in 2017 or later. Every one of the 13 who has been with his team more than two seasons has a winning record and a playoff win, aside from Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins. You’re generally getting three years in the NFL to prove you can win, and you might not even get that long.

San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch don’t appear to be feeling as much heat as you’d expect from a duo that is 10-22 through two seasons. Not yet anyway.

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There’s nothing wrong with patience. If you feel you have the right men in those positions, you ride it out. You give them a pass for losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending ACL injury last year. You figure they inherited a mess and needed some time to build. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with having a six-year plan — both Shanahan and Lynch got six-year contracts — and actually giving it six years to work.

Yet, teams usually don’t wait long if there’s no actual progress and last season wasn’t much of a growth year for the 49ers, Garoppolo injury or not. The 2018 Arizona Cardinals were by far the NFL’s worst team, and they swept the 49ers. Maybe the 49ers’ 4-12 record would have been much better with a healthy Garoppolo — he likely would have been the difference in last-minute losses to the Packers, Cardinals and Giants — but there were other flaws on the roster. The 49ers were 1-2 with Garoppolo (he was hurt late in Week 3), albeit with two road losses to good teams.

How many wins would Garoppolo really have been worth? It’s hard to say, but cornerback Richard Sherman thought they could have been a playoff team.

“I saw (2018) as the year we could,” Sherman said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “but obviously didn’t foresee Jimmy being out for the season.”

It’s fine to excuse the 49ers’ 4-12 season due to Garoppolo’s injury. But that probably won’t carry over to this season.

The memories of that Garoppolo-led five-game winning streak in 2017, which was good but not great when inspected closely, are fading. And that’s the only highlight from this regime (also don’t forget, Shanahan didn’t seem to want to play Garoppolo that season). If the 49ers don’t show clear progress this year, then what?

The 49ers’ personnel moves under Lynch and Shanahan haven’t been great. The 2017 draft, in which Lynch was wildly celebrated for trading one spot down with the Chicago Bears, looks like a bust aside from tight end George Kittle, who was a phenomenal fifth-round pick. No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas was reportedly on the trade block this offseason, Reuben Foster was a gamble gone wrong, Ahkello Witherspoon was Pro Football Focus’ 112nd ranked cornerback, and C.J. Beathard and Joe Williams were reported Shanahan favorites who are now afterthoughts. The 2018 draft looks better, and the 2019 draft is headlined by exciting pass rusher Nick Bosa. The free agent classes from 2017 and 2018 have been unimpressive. A story from Bleacher Report of friction between Lynch and Shanahan isn’t a positive either, though both men denied there are any issues.

It’s hard to know what to make of the 49ers two years into the Lynch-Shanahan era. Garoppolo’s return does make a huge difference, of course. To a lesser extent, losing running back Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL in practice months after signing him to a four-year, $30 million deal also set the 49ers offense back. Lynch and Shanahan did inherit a mess, and things look better now than they did a couple years ago.

Year three will be big for Lynch, Shanahan and Garoppolo. Garoppolo spent 2018 signing a big contract and getting a boatload of hype, but that has dissipated. It doesn’t mean Garoppolo can’t be good, but we’ve just moved onto hyping the next round of quarterbacks. Shanahan is still respected, and for good reason, but what if the offense doesn’t make a step with a healthy Garoppolo? And what if the next batch of players Lynch brought in, highlighted by pass rusher Dee Ford, doesn’t work out?

People in charge of NFL teams generally don’t get a fourth year if the first three don’t go well. Yet, Shanahan and Lynch seem to have escaped a lot of the hot seat talk that would generally follow a 10-22 record. The pressure will grow if this season isn’t more productive.

“This is a production based business and we have to start winning games,” Lynch said, according to the San Jose Mercury News. “We feel really good about where our team is in terms of being set up to do that. We feel great about the progress we’ve made.

“It’s put-up time. We understand that.”

Kyle Shanahan is hoping for better health in 2019 for his quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. (Getty Images)
Kyle Shanahan is hoping for better health in 2019 for his quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. (Getty Images)

If the 49ers’ pass rush isn’t significantly better, it’s not because they didn’t try. San Francisco traded for Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford, then gave him a five-year, $85.5 million deal. Then they drafted defensive end Nick Bosa with the second overall pick. Both should be a huge upgrade. Inside linebacker Kwon Alexander’s four-year, $54 million deal was one of the strangest of the offseason, a fortune for someone at a mostly devalued position who missed a lot of tackles with the Buccaneers and is coming off a torn ACL. Running back was admittedly not a need, but Tevin Coleman was a good value at two years and $10 million. The draft, which included punter Mitch Wishnowsky in the fourth round, was generally considered middle of the road despite Bosa. The 49ers were widely rumored to be in the mix for Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. (John Lynch said the 49ers were interested in Beckham but not Brown) and either would have been a much-needed No. 1 wide receiver. That need wasn’t met this offseason. However, if the 49ers’ new pass rushers are as good as advertised, the rest really won’t matter too much.

GRADE: B

The 49ers might finally see a big payoff fo all of their defensive line investments. They traded for Dee Ford and paid him like an elite pass rusher, then drafted Nick Bosa second overall. They’ll pair with former first-round picks Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner. Buckner has become one of the best interior defenders in the league. Armstead and Thomas haven’t yet lived up to their draft pedigree, though Thomas’ admitted struggles last year after his sister’s suicide understandably played a part. If Bosa can stay healthy (he dealt with a hamstring problem over the offseason), Ford and Buckner play to their normal levels and the 49ers get moderate production from Armstead, Thomas or someone else, it’s not outlandish to think this could be the best defensive line in the NFL.

The 49ers’ defensive front looks good. The back seven might not be. The 2018 49ers defense was historically inept at making plays. The 49ers had just seven takeaways, four fewer than any other team in NFL history. The old record was 11. The 49ers failed to force a turnover in 11 of 16 games. They had two interceptions in 542 passes faced. Two! That’s also an NFL record for futility. A better pass rush will help, and those turnover numbers seem ripe for a positive regression. They’ll luck into a few more, at very least. But the 49ers need playmakers to emerge on defense. The front four will help, but others need to step up.

Even before Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL, his 2018 wasn’t off to a fantastic start. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t $137.5 million great either. He threw three interceptions in a loss to the Vikings. He played better against the Lions, but got a bit fortunate that a potentially devastating fourth-quarter interception was wiped out due to defensive holding well away from the play. Garoppolo had 718 yards, a 59.6 completion percentage, five touchdowns and three interceptions for a 90 rating in almost three full games. It was fine, just not worthy of another offseason of crazy hype.

The story becomes interesting if Garoppolo, coming off an ACL injury, takes a step back in 2019. Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee pointed out that the 49ers can move on from Garoppolo’s massive front-loaded deal after this season with just $4.2 million in dead money and $22.4 million in cap savings. It seems inconceivable that the 49ers would move on before 2020, and there’s good reason to believe Garoppolo can be a very good NFL quarterback, but it will be a key year for him as we figure out how good he actually is.

The 49ers had a rare buying opportunity when Dee Ford was put on the trade block by the Chiefs. Ford had 13 sacks last season and forced seven fumbles. He’s 28 years old and still has prime years left. The 49ers sent a 2020 second-round pick to Kansas City for Ford, a very reasonable price. Ford then signed a five-year, $85.5 million deal, which is expensive. However, good pass rushers cost money. Ford will be under tremendous pressure to produce. He is helped by a lot of defensive line talent around him. But if he doesn’t put up another double-digit sack season, the trade and contract will be questioned.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “We generally like getting invested in Kyle Shanahan offenses, but the 49ers backfield is as muddled as any in the league. The three primary backs — Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon, and Tevin Coleman — all lack the ideal body type you’d want for a true featured back. And the club even has talent behind them; both Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson were effective in small auditions last year.

“A committee feels imminent, and that isn’t necessarily a kill shot for fantasy purposes — so long as we can figure out where the projectable volume is. McKinnon is the player I trust the least, coming off a blown ACL and a mediocre 2017 season besides. Coleman showed flashes of being a receiving weapon in Atlanta and yet was often underutilized in that role; look for Shanahan to proactively get Coleman a boatload of targets. And if you follow the fresh money — Coleman signed a two-year, $10 million deal — it’s easy to put him at the top of this list.

“If you want to push play on Coleman at his reasonable ADP (95.4 Yahoo, 70 NFFC), I can see it. I’ll probably be focusing on the cheapest of the three, Breida; you can grab him about three rounds later in Yahoo, and several rounds later in NFFC. The key for Breida will be outshining McKinnon in training camp; Mostert is a special-teams contributor and will probably be active more often than not. But if Breida plays anywhere close to last year’s efficiency level, he could be a home-run pick.”

In some ways, what Kyle Shanahan did with the 49ers offense last season was impressive. Despite losing running back Jerick McKinnon before the season and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo three games in, without a wide receiver who would surpass 500 yards and a middling interior offensive line, the 49ers managed to rank 16th in yards and 21st in points. With C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens playing quarterback most of the season, the 49ers still had the seventh best yards per pass and 12th best yards per rush in the NFL. They turned it over way too often but considering what Shanahan had to work with, it wasn’t that bad. It gives hope for much better days with Garoppolo, Tevin Coleman, McKinnon and rookie receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd included this season.

CAN GEORGE KITTLE COME CLOSE TO REPEATING HIS HISTORIC 2018?

A lot of great tight ends have come through the NFL, and none have ever had more yards in a season than Kittle. Travis Kelce broke Rob Gronkowski’s single-season record for receiving yards during Week 17, then Kittle broke Kelce’s record a few minutes later. Kittle finished with 88 catches for 1,377 yards, amazing numbers considering he was working with backup quarterbacks most of the season. He was incredibly efficient, with 15.6 yards per catch. It’s hard to believe Kittle can get 1,300 yards again, but without any standout receiver to siphon targets away and better quarterback play with Jimmy Garoppolo’s return, 1,000 yards seems realistic and 1,200 yards wouldn’t be too shocking. Kittle is a tremendous talent and should be one of the NFL’s best tight ends for years.

A lot of people were very high on the 49ers before last season, and that was before the breakouts of George Kittle and DeForest Buckner and the additions this offseason of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, among other positive developments. Maybe it really is just as simple as having Jimmy Garoppolo instead of Nick Mullens at quarterback. Kyle Shanahan had a passable offense even with some key injuries and deficiencies. If the 49ers can find that formula that led to the winning streak at the end of the 2017 season, a big jump could be in order. It’s still hard to envision them passing the Rams in the NFC West, but maybe a wild-card spot is possible if everything goes right.

There’s nothing wrong with believing John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo are all very good, but they’ve just caught bad breaks. It’s also fair to say Lynch and Shanahan have a 10-22 record together and Garoppolo has a very small sample size of 10 NFL starts to judge (for comparison, C.J. Beathard has 10 and Nick Mullens has eight). It’s unlikely but possible the 49ers have the wrong man in each of those three key jobs. We really can’t know for sure heading into the 2019 season. If the 49ers aren’t much better this season they might have some very difficult decisions to make, especially if Garoppolo doesn’t play up to his contract.

The best of Jimmy Garoppolo has been quite good. Kyle Shanahan clearly has a great offensive mind. There are issues with the roster, but it seems the 49ers are getting closer. The NFL isn’t patient, but maybe more teams should make confident hires and let it play out over five or six years. It seems this 49ers team could make some incremental progress, perhaps to seven or eight wins, and then John Lynch and Shanahan get another offseason to fix issues like receiver and defensive back. Then 2020 might finally be the season the 49ers break out.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab




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