San Francisco 49ers 2023 NFL Preview: Super Bowl contenders, even with QB questions

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

Quarterback matters above everything else in the NFL. This idea is constantly reinforced.

QBs have won 15 of the past 16 NFL MVP awards. The top nine highest-paid players in the NFL, in terms of annual value in their contracts, are quarterbacks. We all know that quarterbacks are on another tier from all other players, in terms of fame, money, importance or whatever other measure you prefer.

That's what makes the San Francisco 49ers so unusual.

We're ignoring that the 49ers came to training camp not knowing who their quarterback would be Week 1, or that none of the options are too enticing (unless you are sold on Brock Purdy ... we'll discuss that). At the start of camp Purdy was cleared to practice "without restrictions," as general manager John Lynch said, then it was announced Purdy would be on a pitch count and wouldn't practice three days in a row ... which are restrictions.

Purdy is on track to start the opener and is the unquestioned QB1, though the 49ers can't be certain how he'll perform after elbow surgery. The 49ers had the highest win total in the NFC at BetMGM to begin this offseason, they're one of five teams whose Super Bowl odds are shorter than 10-to-1, and among the top teams in the NFL they have the most uncertainty by far at QB1. Not that anyone seems worried.

"I get how everyone wants something set in stone, but it's not set in stone," head coach Kyle Shanahan said before the start of training camp, via NBC Sports Bay Area. "But I love the options, and I love the experience that Brock got."

Purdy will be the starter if he's healthy. That doesn't mean there aren't any questions about him.

Purdy had a very good run at the end of last season and was an awesome story. He was Mr. Irrelevant in last year's draft, was forced into action when Jimmy Garoppolo got injured, and the 49ers won all five of his regular-season starts. The 49ers won Purdy's first two playoff starts as well. He wasn't just along for the ride either; Purdy played very well in those games. But it's a small sample size for a player who was passed over 261 times in the 2022 NFL Draft. And now it's complicated by Purdy coming back from a major elbow surgery that is rare for NFL quarterbacks. It's hard to know how surgery will affect his throwing. Maybe Purdy is the next Tom Brady, but it seems like less than a sure thing.

The fact that nobody cares about the 49ers' quarterback issues speaks to Shanahan and the overall roster. Shanahan got plenty out of Garoppolo. Then when Garoppolo and Lance — who was traded to the Dallas Cowboys near the end of training camp for a fourth-round pick — got hurt last season, Purdy was a revelation. Maybe the NFC championship game would have turned out differently if Purdy hadn't injured his elbow when his arm was hit on a pass attempt in the first quarter. Most NFL analysis revolves around bloviating about the quarterback situation, and yet the 49ers are exempt. We just assume Shanahan could turn anyone off the street into a top-end quarterback. There are almost no questions if Purdy will have a successful encore after 170 regular-season throws, only if he'll be healthy.

Maybe QB doesn't matter to the 49ers. The team around the QB is phenomenal. The 49ers had a great set of skill-position players before it traded for dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey. The defense, led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, was the best in the NFL last season. The roster is even more impressive when you consider all the resources the 49ers apparently wasted moving up to get Lance.

Christian McCaffrey and Brock Purdy were the big parts of a successful 49ers offense late last season. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Christian McCaffrey and Brock Purdy were the big parts of a successful 49ers offense late last season. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

If it were any other team with this quarterback situation, we'd have more concerns. With the 49ers, plenty of people believe they can be in a Super Bowl. If San Francisco gets even average QB play, maybe they'll be right.

Offseason grade

The 49ers didn't have a great offseason. The 49ers did manage to sign defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million deal to make a scary defensive line even better. But San Francisco lost right tackle Mike McGlinchey, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and pass rushers Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu, safety Jimmie Ward and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. Those players all got at least $6 million per season, and the six got deals worth a combined $219.25 million. Those aren't insignificant losses. Neither is DeMeco Ryans, a fantastic defensive coordinator who is off to be the head coach of the Houston Texans. Ryans was replaced by Steve Wilks and while Wilks is a good coach, it's still not a sure thing that the 49ers' defense picks up where it left off with Ryans. The draft was mostly a zero due to the lack of picks from the Trey Lance and Christian McCaffrey trades. And the 49ers used one of their few picks on kicker Jake Moody, who was selected in the third round and became the highest drafted kicker since Roberto Aguayo in 2016. That's an odd investment for a team that didn't have a pick in the top 86 this year. The 49ers' cumulative GPA from draft analysts was 1.79, by far the worst in the NFL as compiled by Football Outsiders. The 49ers might be great but aside from Hargrave, they didn't add a lot of help this offseason.

Grade: D

Quarterback report

We should assume Brock Purdy will start Week 1. But there are more questions than you'd like this late in the summer, so let's take a closer look at all three 49ers QBs ...

Brock Purdy: There's a difference between being able to play and being back to 100 percent. Torn UCLs are common for baseball pitchers but rare for NFL quarterbacks. Purdy had a complete tear of the UCL, and that doesn't seem good for a quarterback who already wasn't known for arm strength. There should also be some question over whether Purdy is the next Tom Brady/Kurt Warner/Tony Romo after a hot two-month stretch to end last season. That's a small sample size.

Sam Darnold: Darnold failed quickly with the New York Jets, then didn't do much with the Carolina Panthers. Darnold's 55 interceptions in 56 games speaks to the problem. It's possible he turns things completely around in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but we wouldn't trust any other team with Darnold starting to be one of the best in the NFL.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The 49ers are +1000 to win the Super Bowl at BetMGM, +400 to win the NFC (the second favorite behind the Eagles), -165 to win the NFC West (tied for the shortest odds of any team to win their division) and their win total is about 11. I can't sign off on any of those bets or the over on the win total (over 10.5 is -140 odds and over 11.5 is +125). The 49ers are good but I have more questions than most about them this season. As crazy as it sounds, +375 to miss the playoffs isn't outrageous. We'll discuss why in the "nightmare scenario" section.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "George Kittle and Brock Purdy went off on the league late last year, hooking up for seven touchdowns in their seven complete games together. But it’s probably wishcasting to expect something close to a repeat.

"Kittle is one of those all-out performers who invites plenty of injury — he’s missed multiple starts in four straight seasons — and of course Purdy is also coming off a major injury. And a bunch of those Kittle touchdowns were from sizable distances (39, 32, 28, 54, 34, and 33 yards); we love when those splash plays happen, but they’re not a repeatable business model, especially for a tight end. Kittle represents a cruel part of fantasy football — he’s more valuable in the real-life game than he is in our side enterprise."

Stat to remember

From Christian McCaffrey's second game with the 49ers — he got limited snaps the first game after joining the team following a blockbuster trade — through Week 17 he had 212.6 fantasy points in PPR leagues. No other running back scored more than 189 in that stretch. This isn't the fantasy section but even if you don't play fantasy it was easy to see the effect McCaffrey had on the 49ers' offense. Even in an offense which has a lot of other talented players that command the ball, McCaffrey was dominant. He had 1,210 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in a little more than 10 games with the 49ers, then another 299 and three in the playoffs. Deebo Samuel was one of the NFL's best non-quarterbacks two seasons ago, George Kittle has a reasonable argument as the NFL's best all-around tight end, Brandon Aiyuk has been very good and it seems like he has a breakout season coming soon, but there's no question the 49ers offense will revolve around the spectacular McCaffrey.

Burning question

Will the 49ers' defense be No. 1 again?

Even though DeMeco Ryans was very good after taking over defensive coordinator duties from Robert Saleh, maybe losing him won't be so bad. Steve Wilks has been a good coach for many years and is coming off a strong showing as the Carolina Panthers' interim head coach last season. And, the 49ers' defensive foundation is set. Wilks isn't going to change much. Why would he?

"I think it is a foundation that we all agree we wanted to keep," Wilks said, according to the 49ers' site. "I think it is an opportunity as we go through the process, which we already have, to try to tweak things a little bit. I still think there's room for improvement."

The 49ers will still rely on the defensive line to get pressure and play plenty of zone coverage behind it, with top linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw covering a lot of ground in the middle. The defensive line is scary with Nick Bosa on the edge and new addition Javon Hargrave providing an interior pass rush. The 49ers led the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed last season, and while nothing is guaranteed from year to year, it's hard to believe San Francisco won't be at least in the top five again.

Best-case scenario

Maybe Brock Purdy is the next Kurt Warner and his elbow injury is no big deal. If we figure on top-15 quarterback play from Purdy or Darnold this season, the 49ers can obviously win a Super Bowl. They were close last season before that disastrous luck in the NFC championship game. Any team with Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams, Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga can do damage. No matter what you hear, you don't need an elite QB to win big in the NFL if other pieces are in place. And the 49ers have enough other elite pieces to win a Super Bowl.

Nightmare scenario

Among the 2022 NFL preseason power rankings, the Los Angeles Rams were the consensus No. 2 team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers were No. 3 (both were ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 4) and the Green Bay Packers were No. 5. The Rams and Packers didn't make the playoffs and the 8-9 Buccaneers didn't deserve to. At this time last year, it was inconceivable that any of those teams would finish under .500, yet they all did. The Baltimore Ravens were in the top five of many power rankings before the 2021 season and they missed the playoffs. In 2020, one of the consensus preseason top five (49ers) didn't make the playoffs, and that happened in 2019 as well (Rams). Nobody believes right now the 49ers will have a bad season, and for logical reasons. They're very good on paper. But what if Purdy doesn't play well (due to his elbow or regression), injuries hit key players like Christian McCaffrey, Kyle Shanahan doesn't have the magic beans to make any QB an instant star and the defense isn't quite as good without DeMeco Ryans? The 49ers probably won't be under .500. But it's not like that never happens to highly touted preseason teams, and San Francisco has issues to resolve.

The crystal ball says ...

This is difficult. The 49ers are stocked with stars and were on a roll late last season. Kyle Shanahan is a good coach. I'm just concerned that, due to the quarterback situation and a rough offseason, this might be the top-five team that disappoints this season. Yet, how can you possibly look at the 49ers' roster as a whole and predict them to be mediocre? If the quarterback situation looks good early in the season, this could be the best team in football. I'll be more skeptical until I see it and will probably pick the Seattle Seahawks as a surprise division winner, but I don't think I could pick the 49ers to finish out of the playoff bracket. Though it consistently happens with some team in the preseason top five.

Other team previews

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31. Houston Texans

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28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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5. San Francisco 49ers

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1. Kansas City Chiefs