Veteran receiver Pierre Garçon of the 49ers needs arthroscopic knee surgery and will end the season on injured reserve, coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday.
It could also mean Garçon has played his last game with San Francisco, but Shanahan knows Garçon wants to continue his career.
“I know he plans to play,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers could save some $6 million in 2019 by releasing Garçon and clear $18.5 million combined the following two seasons. Moving on would make sense given the team’s movement toward younger players on top of Garçon’s injury issues since joining the team.
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Garçon hasn’t played since Nov. 1 in the victory over the Raiders, when he caught his only touchdown since signing with San Francisco in 2017. He had 40 catches for 500 yards last season but missed the final eight games after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his neck.
Garçon wasn’t able to replicate that production this season with 24 catches for 286 yards while rookie second-round pick Dante Pettis has come on of late, scoring four touchdowns in three games, giving him a team-leading five.
Pettis, 23, is averaging 19.1 yards per catch following his performance Sunday, when he snagged a 1-yard touchdown pass from Nick Mullens and converted a crucial third down late in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory over the Broncos.
Pettis has worked at the “X” and “Z” receiver spots while Garçon is more limited to the “Z” role, which doesn’t stretch the field as often and is considered more of a possession option.
Garçon’s uncertain future mirrors two other notable veterans from the 2017 free-agent class who didn’t see playing time Sunday: linebacker Malcolm Smith, 29, and nose tackle Earl Mitchell, 31, who could be at a similar tipping point next spring. Given their ages and the possibility of already having younger replacements on the roster, Shanahan said those players are aware of the implications.
“Those guys understand the business, and they understand how it works. That’s stuff that you don’t ignore,” he said.
In the cases of Garçon and Smith, Shanahan indicated he doesn’t want to make assessments late in the season because of their nagging injuries.
“To let them go out and play so you can truly judge them because they are getting older, yes. But, they do still have some good football in them if they’re healthy,” Shanahan said. “Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to get healthy throughout this year.
“It’s very hard to do that when you’re not healthy, especially the age these guys are at. Hopefully, they can get healthy this offseason and then you’ve got to make decisions. You don’t just get rid of people to get rid of people.”
Smith has dealt with an Achilles’ injury this season, which led to former Vikings seventh-round draft pick Elijah Lee, 22, playing all 74 snaps at the “Will” linebacker next to rookie Fred Warner. Lee has seen the majority of snaps there since the team released Reuben Foster on Dec. 3.
The 49ers signed Smith to a five-year, $26.5 million contract but haven’t received the fruits of that investment. The guarantees in Smith’s contract run out after this season, according to Overthecap.com, allowing San Francisco to clear more than $4 million off the books in 2019 if he’s released with a post-June 1 designation.
Mitchell signed a four-year, $16 million contract structured in a way that could save San Francisco some $3.7 million with his release, which could allow them to give 2017 sixth-round pick D.J. Jones, 23, the full-time job at nose tackle.
Jones (6 feet, 321 pounds) is considered a good athlete for the position. Videos surfaced on social media in May 2016 of him dunking a basketball, and he played well during his 32 snaps Sunday, helping the 49ers limit Denver to 3.8 yards per carry while being credited with two solo tackles and two assists.
Other injury updates - Shanahan said pass rusher Cassius Marsh enters the week in league-mandated concussion protocol.
Defensive back Tarvarius Moore left Sunday’s win with a stinger but returned and is listed as day-to-day. Same for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who suffered an ankle injury.
Shanahan said slot K’Waun Williams could return this week after missing Sunday’s game with a knee injury that occurred Dec. 2 against the Seahawks and persisted during the week of practice.
Williams’ absence allowed rookie fifth-round draft pick D.J. Reed to make his first start at nickel corner, and he led the team with 12 tackles, his first sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Shanahan said the performance doesn’t mean he’ll be start again Sunday against Seattle if Williams returns.
“K’Waun’s played at a very high level this year and done a good job. I wouldn’t say just one game of D.J. Reed that he fully played better than him,” Shanahan said. “But D.J. did have a very good game. I was very excited to see him do some of the stuff he did as the nickel. I think K’Waun has done a hell of a job for us in these two years. So, if K’Waun is healthy, I expect K’Waun to be out there.”
Linebacker Mark Nzeocha, who has played “Sam” linebacker in recent weeks, is also day-to-day with a groin injury.