49ers’ most notable moves of the offseason
Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were largely credited for pointing the 49ers in the right direction following the end of 2017. With new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leading the way, the 49ers finished with five straight wins in the first year of their roster-wide reconstruction project. Hopes among fans and team leadership were high.
Then came a 4-12 record in an injury-marred 2018 campaign.
This season marks a pivotal third year for Shanahan and Lynch with a fan base eager to see rubber hit the pavement with a playoff push for the first time since 2013.
Shanahan and Lynch were given a pass for the club’s subpar 2018, mostly due to Garoppolo’s devastating knee injury three games into his first campaign as the face of the franchise.
There were positives to take away from the lost season, such as tight end George Kittle’s record-breaking effort and the sudden rise of former undrafted rookie quarterback Nick Mullens, who was elevated from the practice squad to the starting lineup and surprised with his competence.
But the jury is still out on the 49ers’ top decision-makers entering the third year of their tenures.
Yes, Shanahan has proven he can pull the strings on an effective offense and develop quarterbacks. But there have been questionable decisions made by him and Lynch while trying to fortify the defense, including using the No. 3 overall draft pick on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and using a 2017 first-round draft pick on troubled linebacker Reuben Foster, who was released in November following his third arrest since joining the team.
“Look, we came in here on day one and said our expectations are to be a championship team. I think we also said we are not going to put timetables on those things,” Lynch said Dec. 31, the day after the regular season finale against the Rams.
“I think what Kyle and I focus on is each and every day making ourselves better, making our organization better by the things we do. We have a philosophy that’s rooted in our experiences that when you do that, good things happen. So we won’t put any timetable. But we have high expectations, high standards. It is clear to say we fell well short of those this year. That was disappointing. We need to be better and we will.”
Biggest improvements for 2019
The 49ers’ biggest additions of the offseason appeared to solve two of their most prominent needs. They found viable pass rushers off the edge by trading for Chiefs Pro Bowler Dee Ford and using the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft on Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, who was widely considered the best defensive prospect available and someone 49ers fans had hoped for dating back to his impressive sophomore season in 2017.
San Francisco also replaced veteran receiver Pierre Garçon – who played in eight games in each of his two seasons with the 49ers – with two prominent picks taken on Day 2 of the draft: South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s versatile Jalen Hurd. Hurd will begin his career as a wideout that could eventually switch to tight end, given his 6-foot-5, 226-pound frame.
“What separated Deebo and Jalen,” Shanahan said, “is we felt they were the two most physical players out of all the receivers in the draft.”
The 49ers are hoping the improved pass rush surrounding budding star tackle DeForest Buckner can lead to more turnovers after they set the NFL record in 2018 for the fewest in a season with just seven, including two interceptions. Quarterbacks had a 105.4 passer rating against San Francisco, the second-highest number in the NFL. With Samuel and Hurd, the goal is to improve the league’s least-effective red zone offense; the 49ers scored touchdowns on just 41 percent of their trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Biggest 2019 concern
Focusing on the pass rush and giving Garoppolo weapons in the passing game meant the 49ers ignored a crucial area of concern from the last two seasons: the secondary.
Shanahan and Lynch decided not to bring in a premier free agent despite entering the offseason among the league leaders in salary cap space. Instead, they gave minimal one-year deals to former first-round picks Jason Verrett and Jimmie Ward, the team’s 2014 first-round pick who ended four of his five seasons on injured reserve with fractured bones.
Verrett, a 2014 Pro Bowler, could be a favorite to start opposite Richard Sherman. But like Sherman last year, he’s coming off an Achilles tear and has only played in five games over the last three seasons. That puts pressure on former third-round draft picks Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore to develop into reliable contributors.
The team’s cornerbacks failed to register an interception last season while Witherspoon struggled to replicate his promising rookie campaign and Moore felt the pains in his transition after playing safety in college. Sixth-round pick Tim Harris, who may have been drafted earlier if not for two season-ending injuries at Virginia, was the only other addition of note at cornerback. And the team used a fourth-round pick on a punter, Mitch Wishnowsky, rather than address the secondary during a crucial portion of the draft.
“We’ve got to cause more havoc on that quarterback so he throws some wild passes that do come to us,” Shanahan said, “and if they drop too many, then we’ll have to put our receivers there.”
Putting trust in the secondary to improve on last season without making any premium investments could ultimately define the way Shanahan and Lynch are viewed in 2019.
And if the secondary is among the reasons the 49ers find themselves outside the playoff picture next December, it’ll be fair to ask CEO Jed York if he remains confident in their ability to put together a winning roster after three seasons of coming short of Lynch’s “high expectations, high standards.”