The 49ers open their 2022 season in Chicago on Sunday. It’ll be time for the speculation to end and the analysis of what we’re all seeing on the field to begin.
That being said, there’s still some room for speculation, which means it’s time to make some predictions. We sat down and went through everything we know about the 49ers based on last season, this offseason and the preseason to jot down a handful of predictions that are almost certain to be correct.
(Note: We recommend they still play out the season just in case)
Here are our Niners Wire staff predictions:
Brandon Aiyuk emerges as top WR
(AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
The long-awaited Brandon Aiyuk breakout will become a reality in 2022, and it will be spectacular.
Having had his rookie year during the COVID season of 2020 and then had to fight his way out of Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse in 2021, Aiyuk is finally in the ideal environment to vindicate the 49ers’ decision to trade up for him two years ago.
Aiyuk quickly built an outstanding rapport with Trey Lance in the quarterback’s limited time on the field last year and that has only been furthered during a training camp in which the former Arizona State star has been a standout.
Lance’s superior arm strength compared to Jimmy Garoppolo should help unlock Aiyuk’s underrated ability as a downfield weapon — he averaged over 18 yards per reception in his final year of college. Aiyuk is the best route-runner of all the 49ers’ receivers and he dispelled talk of struggles making contested catches during his second-half surge last year. His understanding with Lance puts Aiyuk in a position to take over from Deebo Samuel as WR1 on the 49er offense. — Nicholas McGee
Nick Bosa scares sack record
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
The NFL record for sacks is 22.5, set by Giants DL Michael Strahan back in 2001. There’s a very good chance Bosa pushes that number this season.Bosa last year in his first season back from a torn ACL posted 15.5 sacks. This offseason he got quicker, faster and stronger, and will be flanked by the deepest defensive line the 49ers have had since Bosa arrived in 2019.
He’ll get to open the season against the Bears and their shaky offensive front. The Seahawks no longer have Russell Wilson scampering around behind their offensive line, and the Rams’ front looked abysmal in Thursday’s regular season opener vs. the Bills. Bosa will face the latter two clubs twice. Perhaps he draws too much attention and doesn’t quite get over the hump, but his pursuit of the record will be a story line this season. — Kyle Madson
Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't play a game
(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
The 49ers may have kept Garoppolo as the NFL’s best backup plan, but that does not mean they will be in any rush to use him.
At no point during his brief time on the field last season did Lance produce play that would have merited a benching. To the contrary, he gradually improved during his second start against the Houston Texans and his upside is such that the famously stubborn Shanahan will likely be willing to ride out any struggles knowing the team around Lance is good enough to keep the Niners in the mix.
Garoppolo is still a member of the 49ers, but things are unlikely to get bad enough with Lance for Shanahan to turn back to the man he replaced. — Nicholas McGee
Rare rushing repeat
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Kyle Shanahan as been the 49ers’ head coach for five seasons. Each of those five seasons has featured a different leading rusher for San Francisco. The 2022 season and running back Elijah Mitchell will change that.
Mitchell last season battled some health issues that limited him to only 11 games. He still managed to crank out 963 rushing yards. More importantly he established himself as the team’s No. 1 back. That’s not something another RB has accomplished in the Shanahan era. Assuming Mitchell is relatively healthy this season, he’s a shoo-in to be San Francisco’s leading rusher for the second consecutive season.
Rookie class makes huge impact
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All the signs are that a draft class in which the 49ers did not have a first-round pick will turn out to be an extremely good one.
Second-round pick Drake Jackson was highly impressive in preseason, displaying athleticism and a pass rush armory to suggest he will make an instant impact as part of the rotation at edge rusher. Fifth-rounder Samuel Womack won the starting nickel job and was a turnover-forcing machine in the exhibition schedule while fourth-round pick Spencer Burford will start at right guard, with his supposed struggles in the preseason finale against the Texans extremely overblown.
With Tyrion Davis-Price, UDFA Jordan Mason and Danny Gray each flashing potential to indicate they can be contributors on offense in year one, there is substantial evidence this group of rookies will play a significant bearing on the Niners’ success in 2022. — Nicholas McGee
49ers defense finishes No. 1
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Defensive rankings fluctuate depending on the outlet and measurement, so this prediction requires some specificity. They could well be first in PFF’s defensive grades or Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but we’re looking more traditional. San Francisco will lead the NFL in points allowed on defense this year. They finished No. 9 in that category last year, and No. 8 in the 2019 season.
This year the 49ers’ defensive line is deeper than it’s ever been, and their secondary is as reliable as ever following the addition of cornerback Charvarius Ward and the continued development of CB Emmanuel Moseley. Their linebacking corps is also perhaps the NFL’s best and spearheaded by All-Pro Fred Warner. This is a super talented group, and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans should put them in position to be the stingiest defense in the NFL when it comes to points allowed. — Kyle Madson
Lance's first season a success with playoff run
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How Lance will perform is of course the overarching question for the 49ers. It’s an impossible one to definitively answer given his lack of time on the field, but the glimpses have been promising.
Lance has showcased the big-play impact he can have in both preseason and regular-season games, but he has also demonstrated the development he still needs to make, particularly in setting up yards after catch opportunities.
But when he has received extensive playing time Lance has not produced a level of play that would sink the 49ers’ hopes of a postseason run. Starting a full season is a different proposition, but Lance is a quarterback who should continue to get better playing on a talent-laden team. That is a recipe for a playoff berth.
Whether Lance is ready to navigate the Niners through the playoffs is another matter, but tangible progress from Lance and a season that ends in the playoffs would be a success for the 49ers, even if their aspirations are higher than that. — Nicholas McGee