49ers vs. Colts: Three players to watch in Week 5
Welcome, 49ers shareholders. I’ll get right to it: We really took it on the chin this last quarter. No wins. Four losses. Our offense ranks 25th. Heck, the only thing we lead the league in is penalties! But I think if you look closely – Marlene, can you turn off the lights? – at this item-by-item list you’ll see some signs of progress and some reasons for hope. Rest assured, our second-quarter projections are much brighter.
Quarterbacks. It’s perhaps the 49ers’ biggest mystery. Brian Hoyer’s greatest asset was his familiarity with Kyle Shanahan’s system, but at times it’s looked as if he’s running it for the first time. That’s odd for someone who got off to a hot start under Shanahan in Cleveland in 2014 and who has made a career out of landing in a new city each year and being efficient right away. Shanahan is being patient with Hoyer now but likely will want to see what he has in rookie C.J. Beathard before the year is out. A loaded quarterback draft class – and perhaps a Shanahan favorite in free agency? – await the 49ers in the offseason. Grade: D+
Running backs. Carlos Hyde is off to the best start of his career and at his current pace will surpass 1,000 yards – something he’s never done – in Week 13. Hyde, however, is not signed for next season and the 49ers won’t get to evaluate fourth-round pick Joe Williams, who is on injured reserve. San Francisco has all sorts of salary-cap space to accommodate a new deal for Hyde, but the Shanahans – father and son – have gotten great mileage in past from unheralded and inexpensive runners. Grade: B+
Wide receivers. San Francisco overhauled this unit entirely in the offseason. They were looking for a jab-haymaker combination from Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin but mostly have been punching with one hand: Garcon has been steady with a team-high 20 catches; Goodwin has been more notable for drops than big plays. That Trent Taylor has become Hoyer’s go-to target in critical situations shows how valuable the rookie already is. The 49ers need better depth and a reliable big-play target. They lead the NFL with 12 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Focus. Grade: C
Tight ends. The 49ers have high expectations for fifth-round pick George Kittle after he showed so much promise in the offseason. He’s dealt with an array of injuries – groin, hamstring and calf – so far, and is just now getting back to full health. Garrett Celek and Logan Paulsen are strong blockers, but don’t offer much in the passing game. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has been an excellent lead blocker and has six catches for 66 yards so far. But his four-year, $21 million contract suggests he should be used more. Grade: C-
Offensive line. This was supposed to be a soft spot but has turned out to be a team strength to start the season. Tackles Joe Staley and Trent Brown have been excellent in pass protection and Hyde ranks sixth in rushing yards. New left guard Laken Tomlinson has been solid, especially considering his late arrival. Like any NFL team these days, depth is an issue and some of the interior blockers may not be as mobile as Shanahan prefers. Grade: B+
Defensive line. It’s like paying a mint to refurbish your kitchen only to realize you still have to add a refrigerator. The 49ers’ young defensive line has been good, and the backbone of the unit, DeForest Buckner, is emerging as a Pro Bowl candidate. But there’s still a missing piece – an every-down edge rusher. For all the attention the 49ers have given the defensive line in recent years, it still ranks 15th in stopping the run, 20th in sacks and 24th in points allowed. Grade: B
Linebackers. The team’s best-looking linebackers during the offseason have played a total of 11 snaps. Malcolm Smith suffered a pectoral tear in training camp and is out for the season. First-round draft pick Reuben Foster is coming back from a Week 1 high ankle sprain and still seems to be a couple of weeks away from returning to action. The 49ers don’t have any issues with depth at this spot. But if Smith, Foster and NaVorro Bowman are all healthy next year, they will have a big decision to make. Grade: C
Cornerbacks. The 49ers’ defensive scheme puts a lot of responsibility on the cornerbacks in general, including the task of taking away long throws down the sideline. Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson have struggled in that regard. Per Pro Football Focus, Robinson ranks 106th out of 111 NFL cornerbacks. Johnson has been better – he ranks 65th. Meanwhile, third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon has been inactive so far this season, but like Beathard at quarterback, he should get some seasoning before the year is over. Grade: D-
Safeties. This has become one of the 49ers’ deepest positions, though it could use more big plays. San Francisco’s defense, for example, has two interceptions this season; Colts first-round pick, safety Malik Hooker, has three. Still, Jimmie Ward, Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt have been solid so far. With rookies Lorenzo Jerome and Adrian Colbert in reserve – and with another rookie, Chanceller James, on injured reserve – the team is set up nicely for the future. Grade: B+
Special teams. Everyone on these units has been productive, from kicker Robbie Gould (11 for 11 on field goals) to punter Bradley Pinion (44.3-yard net average) to gunner Raheem Mostert. Of the 49ers’ three units, special teams has been the best and most consistent. Grade: A.