49ers mailbag: Will Kwon Alexander return in time for NFL playoffs?

Matt Maiocco

The 49ers on Saturday will play their most-important game of the season.

Next week, the 49ers will play their most-important game of the season.

Then, the 49ers' next game will be their most-important game of the season.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

And so on. And so on . . .

You have questions, here are some answers in this week's edition of 49ers Mailbag.

Coach Kyle Shanahan described the possibility of Kwon Alexander returning in the playoffs as a "long shot." But the organization is not going to completely rule out his return. They do not want to discourage Alexander because they love how focused he is, and how much work he is putting in to get back.

The earliest Alexander could possibly play for the 49ers would be in the NFC Championship game. So this is not a decision that has to be made any time soon. And that's the approach the 49ers are taking. They are not spending too much time thinking about it because any decision would be several weeks down the road.

Two players can return from injured reserved for each team. The 49ers have already brought back Kentavius Street. They are keeping one spot open. (Tight end Garrett Celek was on physically-unable-to-perform, not IR.)

The 49ers considered bringing cornerback Jason Verrett off IR, but opted to re-sign Dontae Johnson, instead. So, at this point, all options remain open.

Nose tackle D.J. Jones sustained a severe high-ankle sprain. There is damage to the ligaments that connect the tibia and fibula, which means there is a painful and immobilizing separation at the place where those bones connect.

It is my understanding that Jones is definitely out for the playoffs because he is required to spend at least eight weeks on IR, and eight weeks eliminates the possibility of returning even for the Super Bowl.

As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft, every penny of Solomon Thomas' four-year contract was guaranteed. The 49ers save nothing by cutting him. If he is one of the team's top eight defensive linemen next season – and I expect him to be – then I believe he will be on the team. That said, the 49ers will not pick up the fifth-year option for the 2021 season.

Dee Ford is an edge rusher who takes the 49ers' defense from being very good to Super Bowl level. He is a dynamic, explosive pass-rusher. Because he is such a fast-twitch athlete, he is also like a sportscar who needs constant fine-tuning. If there is a procedure he needs in the offseason, that will happen. But I don't see him going away after just one season. And I also do not expect to see the 49ers invest heavily to bring another outside pass rusher. The 49ers are still counting on him to return and be a major factor in the postseason.

Here's one thing I know for sure: Jerick McKinnon will not be back at his scheduled pay of $6.8 million.

Here's another thing I know for sure: The 49ers would be very open to re-signing him to a low-level contract that takes into account the money paid to him over the past two years when knee injuries kept him out of action.

McKinnon would be a valuable piece of the team's third-down offense due to his skills in the passing game. While Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman can all catch the ball out of the backfield, none has the change-of-direction and route-running skills of McKinnon.

Maybe the 49ers add a running back that fits that description in the draft. If not, they will make an effort to re-sign McKinnon on a one-year deal.

So, yes, they will save some money on McKinnon's scheduled contract. Sanders is a player they will certainly consider bringing back. A lot of that might depend on how they feel Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor are progressing from the injuries that kept them out this entire season.

The top two targets for lucrative multi-year extensions are DeForest Buckner and George Kittle.

As well as Arik Armstead has played this season, I do not believe the 49ers will do whatever it takes to bring him back if it reduces the chances of keeping both Buckner and Kittle around for a long time. Teams simply cannot pay everyone. Difficult choices must be made.

Breida is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. The 49ers will certainly tender him, and then they will have the right of first refusal if another team signs him to an offer sheet. I think he'll be affordable to retain, but the market will decide.

Mostert will certainly be back. He is probably the only one of the 49ers' running backs that I would make that guarantee. Mostert, Breida and Coleman have given the 49ers three 500-yard backs for only the second time in franchise history. But I would not be surprised if there is some degree of shake-up within this group.

It seems unlikely that Dante Pettis can work his way back into the picture this season. Currently, he is the fifth wide receiver on a team that has found roles for only three.

But, for the future, the team has not given up on Pettis. The 49ers were extremely disappointed that he did not put in the kind of offseason work to increase his strength and durability coming into his second NFL season.

Pettis' ability to run "choice" routes is elite. It's why coach Kyle Shanahan had such high hopes for him when they moved up to select him in the second round of the 2018 draft. Pettis' ability to set up defenders and then break off those routes against man coverage is better than anyone on the team, other than Trent Taylor.

Pettis has a chance to bounce back in 2020, but he must put in tons of work in the offseason to get there.

I believe Jordan Matthews is an insurance policy at this stage. He is the team's sixth receiver. So if there is an injury or two, he could be called upon. Part of the issue with Matthews is that he does not bring much value to special teams. That versatility is important for backup wide receivers.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could receive some attention for head-coaching openings. Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel could be attractive candidates for full-fledged offensive coordinator positions. LaFleur is the 49ers' passing game coordinator. McDaniel is the run-game coordinator. It's possible other teams could go after those three 49ers assistants, in particular.

Just curious, did you feel this way immediately after the 49ers' win in New Orleans?

My guess is probably not. So that means you're basing your feeling on the team's lackluster Week 15 performance against Atlanta. And that is completely understandable.

I don't think they're regressing. In fact, I think Jimmy Garoppolo is playing the best football of his season (and career). But the 49ers' defensive backfield was down three of their top five players, and the outside pass rush is clearly not as strong without Ford.

I do not believe the team is regressing, but I also believe the team is not as strong as it was earlier in the season when everyone was healthy.

[RELATEDWhy Bosa will be key for 49ers to beat Rams on Saturday]

The NFC is wide open.

The 49ers can certainly benefit from holding one of the top two seeds and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. Is there any other way to the Super Bowl? Of course. A third seed or a fifth seed does not eliminate them from the Super Bowl picture, but it does make the road a whole lot more difficult.

Yes.

A lot of pieces would have to fall into place for the Seahawks to lose to the 49ers in Week 17 and still win the NFC West.

The 49ers' game Saturday night against the L.A. Rams is still very important, though. The 49ers really need a first-round bye in the playoffs. The only way they can guarantee that would be to win both of their remaining games.

If the 49ers lose to the Rams and beat the Seahawks, they would still likely win the NFC West. But they could fall to the No. 3 seed (if both Green Bay and New Orleans win their final two games). Only the top two seeds earn first-round playoff byes.

49ers mailbag: Will Kwon Alexander return in time for NFL playoffs? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

What to Read Next