The regular season is finally here. The 49ers will travel to Minnesota this weekend to open the 2018 campaign against the Vikings, who are coming off an NFC title game appearance and have Kirk Cousins as their new quarterback.
Let’s get to another edition of our mailbag where we field your questions from Twitter. You can follow me (@ChrisBiderman) and ask questions for future mailbags.
There’s no doubt losing Jerick McKinnon is a major blow. The 49ers made him one of the league’s highest-paid running backs this season because they believed he would be a focal point of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, both as as runner and receiver. McKinnon is an elite athlete with good hands. The hope was he would provide mismatch issues for defenses on critical downs, like third down and in the red zone.
Shanahan was planning to move McKinnon all over the field to get him matched up against linebackers and safeties where he could use his advantage in speed and quickness. Shanahan believed he was a far better fit than Carlos Hyde in the running game.
No one on the roster can replicate McKinnon’s skill set. However, the 49ers have players who could mimic separate parts of McKinnon’s game individually. But the offense is slightly more predictable and less versatile with McKinnon on the sideline.
For example, Trent Taylor offers quickness, route running and sure-handedness from the slot, much like McKinnon would. Matt Breida has similar speed and can run the outside zone well. Dante Pettis might be used in the screen game because of his work with the ball in his hands. Shanahan will have to be more creative to utilize those skills.
Early in the season, my guess is Morris gets more playing time in early downs. He’s familiar with Shanahan’s running scheme and averaged 4.8 yards per carry in a similar zone system with the Cowboys last season (although Dallas had arguably the league’s best offensive line). Breida is the likely option on throwing downs, though neither are the same lethal threat as McKinnon out of the backfield.
The good news for San Francisco: Those players complement each other well and fit within the parameters of the offense. But having Morris and McKinnon atop the depth chart, rather than Shanahan’s hand-picked running back in the prime of his career, will create a noticeable drop off from the team’s initial plan.
@Niner808 asks: Do you see us picking up any RBs that will be active on game days? If so who are the ideal targets that might be available?
Aloha! I think if the team was going to add a new running back, it would have done so already. The 49ers already had their first practice of the week and began installing their new game plan for Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean new players won’t be added down the road.
The 49ers during the 2017 draft traded for Broncos running back Kapri Bibbs, who’s currently on Washington’s practice squad and could be grabbed at any point. Joe Williams, although he clearly didn’t make a great impression during his 17 months with San Francisco, has also gone unsigned after getting released over the weekend.
On the trade front, I’d be curious to see if the 49ers would be interested in Cleveland’s Duke Johnson. He’s a threat in the passing game (188 receptions the past three seasons) and might be available after the Browns new regime added Hyde and Nick Chubb in the offseason. Additionally, Cleveland brought in Jarvis Landry, who should be its top option in the slot. San Francisco made a trade with the Browns over the weekend, netting tackle Shon Coleman for a late-round 2019 draft pick.
Corey (@tomuch2eazy) asks: Does the lack of a standout pass rusher concern you? Will this make it harder on Sherman and the secondary?
Before McKinnon’s injury, the pass rush was the biggest question facing San Francisco this season. There’s no doubt the team is heavy on interior players while lacking an established option coming off the edge. They only kept one true option, Cassius Marsh, while deciding to let go of Jeremiah Attaochu, who signed with the Jets this week.
I think the 49ers would have kept Attaochu if they thought they didn’t have another alternative: Try DeForest Buckner on the edge. There’s a good chance Buckner is the best edge rusher on the roster, and San Francisco might try taking a page out of the Jaguars’ playbook when they put a similarly sized player, Calais Campbell, on the edge in throwing downs last season. Campbell had a career-best 14.5 sacks and was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Buckner is every bit as talented as Campbell, he just hasn’t put it all together yet.
Buckner would have a better chance at avoiding double teams on the outside and would be a menace for tackles given his unique combination of power and quickness. Additionally, former Jaguar Sheldon Day has looked strong as an interior pass rusher at Buckner’s typical three-technique position. The 49ers on throwing downs could try Buckner and Arik Armstead/Marsh on the edges, with Solomon Thomas and Day on the inside.
That has the potential of a viable pass rush, assuming Thomas makes a leap after his underwhelming rookie campaign and Armstead can stay healthy. Armstead showed signs of becoming a valuable pass rusher early in his career before injuries kept him off the field. But it’s safe to say adding a pass rusher off the edge will be the team’s primary focus next spring.
I.G.E. (@mazel7ov) asks: Be honest... As much as you can tell on the environment, practices, coaches, etc... how far the team will go?
There’s an entirely new vibe surrounding this team under Shanahan and John Lynch. And having a face of the franchise in Jimmy Garoppolo has everyone in Santa Clara feeling optimistic. I believe the 49ers will be in the hunt for a playoff spot until late in the season, which would mark a significant step in the right direction in Year 2 of the new regime.
There are still questions about the running game with McKinnon out, although Shanahan seems equipped to piece together a good-enough ground game to complement Garoppolo and the passing attack. The most important aspects for the running game are converting short-yardage situations and setting up play action. I think Morris and Breida could do that, though I don’t expect the 49ers to rank anywhere near the top of the league in rushing.
The pass rush is the biggest question on defense. But the young, unestablished secondary still must prove itself. Then there’s the health of Richard Sherman, who turned 30 in the spring and had to shake off rust for the first time in his career following his November Achilles tear. Finally, can Reuben Foster prove he’s reliable?
The difference between winning eight and 10 games will come down to a handful of plays. Which is another way of saying good health and a few breaks could lead to a playoff berth. But the NFC is loaded and the 49ers still seem a year away from making noise in January. I thought the ceiling was 10 wins before McKinnon’s injury.
Now that’s harder to attain, and it’s looking as if it will take double-digit wins to get a wild-card berth. There could be as many as 10 teams in the running for the six playoff spots come December. I have the 49ers them coming up just short, finishing 9-7 and a game or two out of the postseason hunt.