The 49ers enter the 2020 season with a loaded roster and sky-high expectations of getting back to the Super Bowl and finishing the job. But even the best-laid plans can go awry.
Yes, the 49ers are in win-now mode, with a stacked defense led by a dominant defensive line. But that unit will have to stomach the loss of DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in March. On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers lost Emmanuel Sanders, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency, and Deebo Samuel is out 12 to 16 weeks with a Jones fracture in his foot.
Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson sees wide receiver as an issue for the 49ers if two young stars don't show up and contribute early.
"We know what Deebo Samuel is," Tomlinson said on "NFL Total Access." "We know that he's coming off a foot injury, and hopefully he'll get back healthy, but I'm talking about the other guys. They drafted Jalen Hurd a year ago, and he spent the entire season pretty much injured. Now, he's the bigger body type of guy that can help them in the red zone, where they struggled a bunch last year. But, I like Brandon Aiyuk. I think it may take him some time to develop considering the climate we're in with the pandemic, and you can't get on the field. So, depending on how quickly Aiyuk adjusts to the offense, this could be the Achilles' heel for the 49ers in production out wide. We know Jimmy [Garoppolo] in the past has struggled throwing the football. He needs those guys outside to step up a little bit more for him."
Samuel has said he would be back in 10 weeks, but that's an optimistic take on an injury that is known to cause setbacks. The 49ers still will have once of the best-receiving weapons in the NFL in tight end George Kittle, but they will need others to step up in Samuel's absence, or else the passing attack could falter.
The 49ers drafted Aiyuk with the No. 25 overall pick in this year's draft, moving ahead of the Green Bay Packers to select the Arizona State wide receiver. But rookie receivers normally take time to adjust to the NFL, and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic only will slow his development with teams unable to hold official practices. Once up to speed, Aiyuk's ability to break tackles and take the top off the defense is something that should make a fully-functioning 49ers offense all the more dangerous. But if he struggles to find early success in the NFL, the 49ers' offense could be less potent until Samuel returns.
Hurd is an intriguing option. After missing all of last season with a back injury, the Tennessee/Baylor product is healthy and ready to contribute to the 49ers. Hurd was a running back at Tennessee before switching positions and transferring to Baylor. His versatility and strength should be something coach Kyle Shanahan can utilize right away, If Hurd can have some early success then that could take some of the pressure off Aiyuk, who will be expected to slot in as the No. 1 receiver until Samuel returns.
The 49ers also have seventh-round pick Jauan Jennings, Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor, who will be asked to shoulder the load in Samuel's absence. Kendrick Bourne has shown himself to be a reliable receiver on third down and in the red zone, as well. If the 49ers can get good contributions from two of Aiyuk, Hurd, Taylor, Jennings and Pettis, then the offense should be able to keep humming until Samuel returns.
But if the young group of wideouts can pick up the slack, the 49ers' offense could see a dip in production early on. As we found out last year, the margin between the No. 1 seed and a wild-card spot can be inches in the loaded NFC.
That's something the 49ers can't afford.
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What LaDainian Tomlinson believes could be 49ers' Achilles heel in 2020 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area