There might be a silver lining to Jimmy Garoppolo’s absence: It lifts the mask off the 49ers’ faults, some of which were apparent even before the quarterback tore his ACL.
The 49ers (1-4) were punching well above their weight to end 2017 and still have some work to do if they want to take steps towards playoff relevancy in 2019.
Let’s take a look at some of their most pressing needs for the upcoming offseason.
Help off the edge
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It seems forever ago San Francisco cut Aldon Smith prior to the 2015 season following another run-in with the law that eventually led to a lengthy suspension. Yet the team never found an adequate replacement for the talented pass rusher off the edge, which is arguably the most important position on defense.
Oddly, the 49ers decided not address the position in a meaningful way in the offseason, and even traded away one of their options, Eli Harold, in August. Harold has three sacks in four games for the Lions, after logging five in his 48 games with San Francisco. DeForest Buckner (3 1/2) is the only 49er with more than one sack on the year.
Jeremiah Attaochu was brought in on a minimal one-year contract in the spring, but failed to make the team because he struggled to stay healthy enough to produce in training camp. The former second-round pick was expected to be the young replacement for veteran Elvis Dumervil, who retired in August after leading the 49ers with 6 1/2 sacks last season.
It’s forced the combination of Cassius Marsh, Ronald Blair III and 2017 third-overall pick Solomon Thomas to split the load on the outside. Thomas has been a better pass rusher on the inside dating to his Stanford days, but the coaching staff has determined Buckner, Arik Armstead and Sheldon Day are better options at defensive tackle.
That leaves the 49ers with a glaring hole on the outside while the inability to bother opposing quarterbacks has been arguably the defense’s biggest weakness. Lynch has said he made a competitive trade offer for Khalil Mack, who’s the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year with the Chicago Bears, but didn’t want to risk too much draft capital in a deal.
Suffice to say, the 49ers will enter 2019 needing to upgrade the pass rush in a significant way. That could mean using their likely top-five draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. But they might also be aggressive in free agency, where players like Dee Ford (Chiefs), Dante Fowler (Jaguars) and Frank Clark (Seahawks) will all command eight figures per season.
Does Pierre Garçon need to go?
The 49ers had high hopes for their veteran wideout entering the year. After all, Pierre Garçon was on pace for an 80-catch, 1,000-yard season before going down midway through 2017 with a small fracture in his neck (he said, at the time, he could have played through it if needed).
But Garçon, 32, has not played up to his standard in 2018. The team has completed just 48.5 percent of its passes in his direction and he hasn’t caught a touchdown in 13 games with San Francisco.
He has the team’s third-highest cap figure for 2017 ($9.25 million) and would cost another $8.4 to return next season, according to Overthecap.com. It’s looking as if the 49ers would be better off moving on if Garçon continues his current trajectory. He’s on pace for a career-low 38 yards per game and is dealing with shoulder and knee injuries ahead of Monday night against the Packers.
But top-flight receivers aren’t easy to find (the 49ers know this as well as any team in the league). There don’t appear to be any Julio Jones-types in the upcoming draft and the free agent market isn’t teeming with No. 1 options, either. Detroit’s Golden Tate might be the most appealing target, but he’ll be 32 in August and will likely command a hefty salary.
Rookie Dante Pettis showed plenty of promise in training camp and the preseason, and made arguably the team’s most impressive touchdown catch from a receiver this season Week 1 in Minnesota. But Pettis is currently dealing with a knee injury suffered during a Week 4 punt return, stunting the early portion of his pro career.
The 49ers could use a physical, reliable option to complement the small, speedy wideouts already on the roster. Receiver will likely be a focal point in the coming draft even after trading up in Round 2 for Pettis.
Depth across the board
Missing on 2017 fourth-round pick Joe Williams means the 49ers could use another running back — assuming they don’t want 30-year-old Alfred Morris to be in position to carry the load again in 2019 if Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida are injured at the same time. Special-teams ace Raheem Mostert has not proven to be a reliable running back.
The coaching staff has shown little confidence in cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who has been platooned with Jimmie Ward and Greg Mabin. Recent third-round pick Tarvarius Moore hasn’t been part of that rotation, which might mean the 49ers will need to make another investment at cornerback in 2019 if Moore doesn’t develop enough to get on the field during his rookie campaign. He’s transitioning after playing safety in college. And Richard Sherman won’t be around for much longer.
George Kittle is emerging as a true No. 1 tight end and Garrett Celek is a solid second option. But Cole Wick has not played particularly well as the No. 3 — he dropped a touchdown pass last week — which could lead to using another mid-round pick on the position.
Joe Staley will be entering the final year of his contract in 2019 and might be close to retirement. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey will take over on the left side once Staley hangs them up, which means the 49ers will have to think about making another big investment at tackle, either in the draft or free agency.
Has Adrian Colbert played well enough to solidify his standing as the long-term option at free safety? That will be a question the team hopes will be answered throughout the season. But he hasn’t gotten off to a good start. And the only long-term option behind Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety is Marcell Harris, a recent sixth-round pick who’s currently on injured reserve.