Watch No. 2 overall draft pick Nick Bosa practice with 49ers
The 49ers have going through their second week of OTA practices, which makes this a good time to dive into another mailbag before reporters get to watch practice Wednesday.
To your questions!
Caleb Sutherland asks: Which position group do you think has the chance to be the biggest letdown from expectations?
The 49ers have invested a ton into the defensive line – and by no means is it a sure bet to carry the defense in 2019. On paper, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford can create the antidote along the edges the team has been lacking since Aldon Smith was at the peak of his powers earlier this decade. Their presence outside could do wonders for DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas.
But Bosa’s durability is a question mark. He’s already on the shelf with a Grade 1 hamstring strain that will likely keep him out until training camp. And we don’t know how negotiations will go surrounding the use of offset language in his contract he has yet to sign. Remember, his brother, Joey, held out roughly a month during negotiations with the Chargers in 2016, and the two are represented by the same agency.
So if Nick Bosa misses more time due to injury or a contract dispute, it would be hard to bank on him making a big splash early in his NFL career. That’s not to say he’s not talented enough. He’s arguably the team’s most talented player already. But he’s also entering the league with a ton on his shoulders and hasn’t played since September. He needs reps.
As for Ford, two of his five seasons have been productive – and his most productive campaign came with his free agency looming. Again, that’s not to say I’m expecting Ford to be a letdown. But another seven-forced fumble, double-digit sack season can’t be written in stone based on how his career has gone to this point. Ford had 10 and 13 sacks in 2016 and 2018, respectively, and averaged 2.5 sacks during his other three seasons. He also has a history of back injuries.
The 49ers decided against making significant changes in the secondary – aside from hiring new passing game coordinator Joe Woods –and are putting a ton of pressure on the defensive line to pick up the defense this season. That could, and should, happen. But nothing in this league is guaranteed.
Henry Elizondo asks: If the 49ers keep seven receivers, what other position takes the hit on the 53?
It’s hard to envision seven receivers making the team for a few reasons. First, coach Kyle Shanahan has kept six during his first two seasons. Second, the 49ers have depth at other positions that might take precedence, such as quarterback or running back. They could decide to keep both Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard after having two signal-callers on the 53-man roster after final cuts each of the last two seasons, before having to use three starting quarterbacks each year.
The 49ers dealt with an onslaught of injuries at running back throughout 2018 and Shanahan has said the team could keep four halfbacks this year after typically having just three year. The projected group of Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert would make it nearly impossible to keep seven wideouts.
If I made a roster projection today, I’d have Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd and Jordan Matthews rounding out the receiving corps. That would mean tough decisions facing Kendrick Bourne and Richie James Jr. But it’s still way too early to make any final judgments and the media has been allowed to watch one practice to this point.
NFLDraftman asks: How many tight ends are typically rostered? And do you see Garrett Celek as the odd man out?
Three, though that could change this year, particularly if the 49ers decide to keep an extra quarterback or running back as mentioned above. Hurd could eventually move to an H-back role, which might allow the team to keep just two tight ends.
However, the 49ers have bolstered their depth at the position with sixth-round pick Kaden Smith, undrafted free agent Tyree Mayfield and recent free agent Levin Toilolo. All three should push Celek for his roster spot. Additionally, Celek turns 31 this week, is entering the final year of his contract and isn’t expected to participate in full-team drills until training due to a back injury. So yes, Celek getting overtaken is a real possibility.
Greebs asks: I’m tired of having to explain to other 49ers fans why ignoring safety and cornerback in the draft was bad enough, but using a fourth-rounder on a 27-year old punter made it worse. Can you help?
We’re seeing the impact of those decisions come to roost now. Jimmie Ward, who worked with the starters at free safety to start OTAs, is out eight to 12 weeks with a fractured collar bone. It’s the second time he’s suffered that injury and it marks his sixth fractured bone since 2014. He’s expected to be ready in time for the regular season, though it’s even harder to feel confident he can hold up to a 16-game slate coming off another injury – and Adrian Colbert’s career has been a mixed bag to date.
Given how poorly the secondary played throughout 2018, it’s certainly fair to question what the team did in the middle rounds of the draft. Hurd, the third-round pick, could end up being a productive player, but the 49ers addressed receiver with their second-round selection in Samuel and have one of the best tight ends in the league in George Kittle. And, yes, using their fourth-round choice on a punter is definitely a gamble open to criticism.
Just about everyone expected the 49ers to dip into their glut of cap space and pay for an established safety such as Earl Thomas or Tyrann Mathieu. Instead, Shanahan and John Lynch opted to bring back Ward on a cheap, one-year contract and add similar oft-injured Jason Verrett to compete for a starting job at cornerback.
The 49ers won’t say this, but it’s my opinion they plan to make big investments in the secondary next offseason in a similar way they approached the pass rush this spring with Bosa and Ford. For now, they’ve made it clear they think they have the talent on the back end to capitalize on the improved pass rush. Whether or not that’s the right approach could define the team’s course in 2019.
Carson C. Newton asks: Is a healthy Jimmy G good enough to win a Super Bowl with a good supporting cast around him?
Shanahan and Lynch believe so. They’re essentially staking their jobs on it. And I believe there was a strong contingent in the Patriots organization that thought the team wouldn’t skip a beat with Garoppolo as the starter once Tom Brady retired. But Brady never did, it didn’t make sense to pay two quarterbacks a starter’s salary and the team owed it to Garoppolo to find him a place where he could start.
My opinion matters far less than the 49ers’ decision-makers, Bill Belichick, or any other high-ranking officials who would have offered Garoppolo eight figures if he ever hit the free agent market in 2018. But I do think he’s good enough to win a Super Bowl.
After all, Nick Foles did two years ago. Jared Goff came close this past season and Blake Bortles made it all the way to the AFC title game the same year San Francisco hung 44 points on the Jaguars in Garoppolo’s fourth start. Even Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl, as did AARP member Peyton Manning to cap 2015.
But those teams all had elite defenses, a fact that’s often lost when talking about what it takes to succeed in the modern NFL. Yes, Garoppolo is good enough to win a title, particularly when compared to others that did or came close. But it’s going to take health and a strong defense, too. And those might be a bigger question facing the 49ers.