San Francisco 49ers

On the 49ers: Why isn’t season a complete loss? Pay attention to these players

San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Chargers: Chris Biderman’s five players to watch

Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee highlights five players to watch in Sunday’s game when the 49ers travel to play the Los Angeles Chargers, September 30, 2018.
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Chris Biderman of the Sacramento Bee highlights five players to watch in Sunday’s game when the 49ers travel to play the Los Angeles Chargers, September 30, 2018.

Losing Jimmy Garoppolo for the season doesn’t mean the 49ers have lost their process. Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch still have a long-term goal in mind: build out a roster that can regularly compete for division titles.

With Garoppolo going down for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee, the time table for San Francisco’s return to contention doesn’t change.

Sure, the team could have hit its stride later on, similar to the way it did late in 2017, and try for a playoff run with Garoppolo in his first full season as the franchise cornerstone. But they were more likely to be on the fringes of contention.

They still need another offseason to continue adding depth and developing its young core of players, such as Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, George Kittle, Mike McGlinchey, Matt Breida, Dante Pettis, Ahkello Witherspoon and Fred Warner.

Those players are all in their first or second NFL seasons. The 2019 campaign was a more realistic target. But the development of those players is why the rest of this season is worth watching closely.

Opinion

“We were really excited about this year with Jimmy, just to go through the whole thing with him,” Shanahan said this week. “I knew there would be ups and downs because you’re going through his first full season, and I thought Jimmy had been solid in these first three weeks, and I thought there were a lot of things that he could get better from and learn from, also.

“Unfortunately, you don’t get to do that, which I know he’s very disappointed about, so are we. But, Jimmy is still the same guy. Quarterbacks can come back from knee injuries. They do it all the time. I don’t think this will affect him going forward. Yeah, he’ll have a long recovery. He’ll have to heal. But, right when the offseason starts, I think he’ll be there.”

Consider: Even with Garoppolo, San Francisco’s defense ranks 27th in opponents’ scoring. They’ve missed more tackles than anyone else in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, with 43. The offense was 28th in third-down conversion rate (30 percent) and 26th in red-zone efficiency (42 percent).

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Garoppolo was the rising tide that lifted all boats last season. The 49ers will have to find a new way out to sea now that he’s on crutches.

Sunday’s game against the Chargers will offer the first test case without the franchise quarterback since signing his mega five-year contract last February.

Breida is leading the league by averaging 8.4 yards per carry. He burst on the scene as an undrafted rookie last season, at times supplanting starter Carlos Hyde, and has helped fans forget the team whiffed on 2017 fourth-round draft choice Joe Williams, who missed all of last season with an injury and failed to make the team out of training camp this summer.

Kittle is the team’s leading pass catcher with 12 receptions for 191 yards. His 64 yards per game are nearly double his average as a rookie (34). He has asserted himself as a blocker and is difficult for linebackers to keep up with in space, though he’s still looking for his first touchdown catch this season.

Foster lived up to his billing as a top-five college prospect while on the field as a rookie. But chronic shoulder issues and his off-field transgressions mean Foster still has a lot to prove before he can be called reliable. His slide to pick No. 31, for now, appears justified.

Shanahan is also optimistic about Garoppolo’s replacement, C.J. Beathard, whom the team traded up for in Round 3 of the 2017. Beathard should have a better supporting cast than when he took over the winless club from Brian Hoyer last season. He went 1-4 as a starter, but earned respect of his teammates for his toughness while taking 17 sacks.

“He got the crap kicked out of him a bunch and never flinched, didn’t change who he was, still wanted to be in there and was disappointed when we took him out and put Jimmy in, because that’s the competitor he is and he believes he can do it,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan is known for developing quarterbacks. His plan for Beathard is the same as it was when he was integral in drafting Kirk Cousins with Washington in 2012, even after using a first-round pick on Robert Griffin III: develop him and possibly trade him to a quarterback-needy team down the road.

Cousins began 2-7 as a starter during his first three seasons, before becoming good enough to earn a full-guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract from the Vikings last spring.

Beathard will have 13 games this season to begin traversing down that path.

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