Bee staff writer Chris Biderman’s predictions for the 49ers’ 2018 season:
Jimmy Garoppolo plays like an MVP candidate, Kyle Shanahan garners Coach of the Year consideration and the 49ers become the latest version of the 2017 Rams or Jaguars, who went from bottom of the barrel in 2016 to division winners the following campaign.
DeForest Buckner emerges with double-digit sacks and Reuben Foster solidifies himself as one of the league’s premier inside linebackers by proving reliable after a turbulent offseason. Richard Sherman shows no signs of wear following last November’s torn Achilles and remains one of the league’s premier cornerbacks.
Garoppolo, of course, led San Francisco to a 5-0 record during his time as a starter in December. He would have to build on his play and benefit from a full offseason learning Shanahan’s playbook.
The combination of Matt Breida and Alfred Morris would have to be potent enough to complement the passing attack and full, productive seasons would be required from Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin. The loaded Rams would have to stumble, but if things break right, the 49ers could escape with their first division crown since their Super Bowl season in 2012 under Jim Harbaugh.
Garoppolo falls back to earth, gets little protection from the offensive line and becomes prone to throwing interceptions. The 49ers would enter the offseason wondering if Garoppolo will be able to bounce back in 2019 after signing his massive, $137.5 million contract last winter. Jerick McKinnon’s ACL tear proves costly and the running game is nonexistent. Age catches up to 32-year-old Garçon and health issues prevent Goodwin from backing up his strong 2017. The roster’s biggest flaw, depth, gets exposed.
The pass rush remains the biggest problem on defense, while durability remains a concern for Foster, who never quite gets on track following his suspension to open the season. Sherman ages quickly and the young secondary gets exploited behind an anemic pass rush. This dooms-day scenario includes five or six wins with the fan base wondering about the long-term viability of the Shanahan and John Lynch regime.
DeForest Buckner is one of the few 49ers with All-Pro potential. He racked up 52 quarterback pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus, but registered just three sacks. His sack total should normalize in 2018 with an improved supporting cast (looking at you, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead). Reaching double digits should be within his sights, particularly if the Oregon alum is asked to line up on the edge where he could avoid double teams. San Francisco needs Buckner to live up to his Pro Bowl promise for the defense to take the steps needed to get back to playoff contention.
The statuses of Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward, two first-round draft picks of fired general manager Trent Baalke, are eerily similar. Both have shown upside early in their careers, but both have been hampered by multiple injuries. And both are facing make-or-break campaigns.
Ward is already off to a questionable start. He lost his starting job at free safety and dealt with ankle, hamstring and quad injuries throughout the summer. He’s the team’s highest paid defensive player with an $8.5 million salary as a backup. A myriad of ailments, including a fractured forearm last season, have cost Ward 22 games over his four-year career.
Armstead will line up both outside and inside to push the pocket. But his durability is a chief concern after missing 19 games the past two seasons. San Francisco picked up his fifth-year option for 2019. But the team could part ways before his fully guaranteed salary, upwards of $9 million, becomes guaranteed in March.