The “Faithful” doesn’t have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, particularly with franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo spending most of the 49ers’ 2-8 season on crutches and not under center.
But as we pass around the turkey, watch football, throw gravy on everything and get tackled by that tryptophan-induced coma, those optimistic 49ers fans can still have a few things to be thankful for in an otherwise miserable campaign.
A coach in line with the times
If you watched the shootout on Monday night between the Rams and Chiefs, you know the elite teams in the modern NFL need to have coaches who can figure out creative ways to get points on the board. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has figured out how to maximize quarterback Patrick Mahomes with a contemporary scheme and elite talent around him. Sean McVay of the Rams has developed Cal alum Jared Goff into an MVP candidate. He’s done it running the system he learned largely while working under San Francisco’s second-year coach Kyle Shanahan with Washington.
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The 49ers should feel good about having a coach who can design an offense, call plays and develop quarterbacks. Shanahan is still widely regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the NFL.
Those traits are proving to be the most important commodities for head coaches in the league today. The teams with the three best records – Saints, Rams and Chiefs – are examples. Perhaps with another full offseason, including a new batch of free agents and a draft class, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch can find the talent for a return to competitiveness in 2019, which was the goal this season before Garoppolo’s knee injury in September.
One of the NFL’s best tight ends
With Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon on the shelf, tight end George Kittle has been the team’s most dynamic offensive player, who’s on pace to shatter team records for the position.
The second-year pro from Iowa has been stellar in the passing game, averaging 77.5 receiving yards per game, putting him on pace for well over 1,200. No 49ers pass catcher has eclipsed that threshold since receiver Terrell Owens in 2002. The last player to come close was Anquan Boldin in 2013 when he logged 1,179. Kittle would be the first tight end in club history to have more than 1,000 yards.
But he’s also dynamic in the running game as a blocker. He’s Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked run blocker, according to their grading system, and has become a cult favorite on social media for clips burning defenders.
Combine that with his 535 yards after the catch – far and away the most among all tight ends – Kittle offers the 49ers a unique blend of skills. He’s the 49ers equivalent of leftover Thanksgiving sandwich that includes turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes drizzled with gravy.
The ammo to continue building
The 49ers are expected to have roughly $68 million in cap space next spring spring, according to Overthecap.com, which should allow Shanahan and Lynch to continue to be aggressive in targeting free agents.
The club’s need for game-changing pass rushers has been well documented. And with Garoppolo’s cap figure shrinking from $37 million to $19.35, the front office will have the ammo to make a move for a key player off the edge, should one become available in free agency.
Pending free agents such as Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Frank Clark (Seahawks), DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), Ezekiel Ansah (Lions), Dante Fowler (Rams), Bruce Irvin (Falcons), Trey Flowers (Patriots) and Dee Ford (Chiefs) are among possible options should they avoid getting the franchise tag from their respective teams.
The 49ers could make significant improvements at arguably the most important position on defense if they make a sizable investment in a free agent and add another pass rusher in the draft, perhaps with their first pick that’s likely to come in the top five.
Mike McGlinchey – San Francisco’s No. 9 overall pick in the recent draft is off to a very encouraging start and looks every bit a cornerstone at a key position. The question becomes: can the 49ers find another tackle to pair with McGlinchey once Joe Staley inevitably retires?
Matt Breida – The second-year running back is on pace for 1,000 yards despite dealing with ankle, knee and shoulder injuries throughout the season. The 49ers could have one of the more dynamic combos at the position in 2019 if McKinnon returns fully from his ACL tear.
Fred Warner – A rookie being a steadying force is a good sign. That’s what Warner has been as the “Mike” linebacker relaying the play calls despite not doing it in college. Warner’s future seems bright.
Robbie Gould – Sure, a kicker might be the football equivalent to a Thanksgiving dinner roll, but Gould has been good and the rest of the league really hasn’t. His 95.5 percent hit rate is tied for the most among kickers with at least 20 attempts.