The 2017 San Francisco 49ers were very good at scoring in the red zone, doing so on 88.2 percent of their trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line.
Scoring touchdowns, however, was a different story. The offense converted only 47.1 percent of their opportunities into six points, which ranked 27th in the league. By comparison, the team’s opponents scored 87.7 percent of the time inside the red-zone but scored touchdowns on 59.6 of those trips.
The 49ers didn’t turn the ball over a lot. There were only three interceptions – C.J. Beathard had two, Jimmy Garoppolo one – and one fumble in 51 red-zone opportunities this past season. Instead they were hurt by penalties, which were common in the red zone and ranged from run-of-the-mill false starts to pass interference against 49ers receivers for running picks on defensive backs.
“We had way too many penalties,” Kyle Shanahan said after a win against Chicago in which the 49ers had to settle for five field goals on trips inside the 20-yard line. “But it wasn’t just the number of penalties, it was the time we got those penalties. I feel like that cost us two touchdowns down there, so that was disappointing.”
The team also lacked a reliable red-zone threat, a tight end or wideout to whom they could lob passes in the corner of the end zone for relatively easy, risk-free scores. Their leader in red-zone touchdown catches was tight end Garrett Celek, who had three – from 1, 5 and 6 yards out.
Some have suggested the 49ers go after Seahawks free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 10 touchdowns in 2017, all of them from inside the red zone.
Shanahan also has noted the team’s lack of size at wideout. The upcoming draft will feature a number of wideouts listed at 6-foot-4 or taller, including SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Florida State’s Auden Tate and Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown.
Of course, there’s also reason to believe the team’s touchdown efficiency inside the 20 will improve even if there are no major additions.
After all, the Garoppolo-led offense got steadily better at scoring red-zone touchdowns over his five starts. After going 0 for 5 against the Bears, the team was 2 for 4 against Houston, 1 for 4 against Tennessee, 4 for 6 against Jacksonville and, finally, 4 for 5 against the Rams.
“I’ve said this in the past, it’s a process,” Garoppolo said after the Jaguars game. “That’s probably the hardest place in the field to execute. One little thing goes wrong and the whole play goes to waste. The extra time that we’re putting in at practice and everything is starting to pay off. Just being with those guys, talking the same language, seeing the same thing. It’s all coming together now.”