49ers CB Witherspoon on idol Richard Sherman: ’We understand each other on a different level’
We’re just over a week out from the 49ers returning to their Santa Clara practice facility for the start of training camp, which means we’ll begin our preview series shortly. In the meantime, let’s get to your questions for another edition of our mailbag:
Caleb Sutherland asks: Do you think Jason Verrett could get cut if he’s not healthy for almost all of training camp? If he is healthy, would he be the favorite to (start opposite) Richard Sherman?
An easy way to find an answer is to look at the money. Verrett signed for one year and $1.5 million with $600,000 in guarantees. That small investment indicates Verrett will have to be healthy and play well to earn a roster spot.
“History says he’s been banged up,” general manager John Lynch said in April, “but we took a flier on that because when healthy, he’s one heck of a football player.”
Verrett was a first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2014 and made it to the Pro Bowl after appearing in 14 games in his second season. He ran a blistering 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash and jumped an impressive 39 inches at the scouting combine, showing the elite athleticism needed to become a top-tier cornerback.
But injuries have defined his career. He appeared in just five games since being a Pro Bowler and he’s coming off an Achilles tear suffered during a conditioning test at the start of training camp last summer.
Suffice to say, the Verrett addition has a wide variance of possible outcomes. He could overcome the health issues that have plagued him and become a valuable starter opposite Sherman — or he could fail to make the team, leaving Ahkello Witherspoon in the starting lineup.
Rynos asks: Who will be the most productive receiver for the 49ers in 2019?
Speaking of high variance outcomes, coach Kyle Shanahan’s receiving corps has lots of potential but also faces questions about experience and durability.
Dante Pettis should be the favorite. He had a four-game stretch late last season where he averaged more than four catches and 84 yards and totaled four touchdowns. That paces to a full 16-game slate of 68 catches and 1,352 yards, which would be the only 1,300-yard campaign from a 49ers wideout since Terrell Owens in 2002.
But I wouldn’t count on that happening. Pettis appeared in 12 games last year and had two or fewer receptions in half of them. He played just 43 percent of the offensive snaps while an early knee injury stunted his development. That number would likely have to climb to roughly 80 percent to become a 1,000-yard receiver.
He had just 467 receiving yards last year. But that kind of progression into Year 2 isn’t unprecedented. George Kittle had 515 yards as a rookie before his explosive second season, when he set a record for tight ends with 1,377 yards.
Rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel has vowed on social media to make a run at Rookie of the Year, which would likely mean leading San Francisco’s receivers in yardage. It’s possible. He’s perfect for what Shanahan wants to do. He’s a tough cover, is nasty with the ball in his hands and has a nose for the end zone.
But Samuel also faces health questions. He spent two of his four seasons at South Carolina dealing with recurring hamstring injuries and a broken ankle — and he’s coming off a hip injury that cost him reps at the end of the offseason program. He’ll need to improve his conditioning to get the time needed to develop the trust of Jimmy Garoppolo and the coaching staff.
Can Marquise Goodwin do it? He was very good in 2017 but fell back to earth last fall with another injury-riddled campaign, which led to Shanahan saying Goodwin could be used in a reduced role.
I’ll go with Pettis to lead the group in counting stats. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Samuel broke out with a big rookie year. It also wouldn’t surprise me if no receiver had more than 700 yards because the offense spreads the ball to tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
Gavin Ferguson asks: With the Niners transitioning to three traditional linebackers instead of two like last year, could you potentially see Jaquiski Tartt serving as the third linebacker in some packages? That would put Tarvarius Moore/Jimmie Ward/Adrian Colbert as the two deep safeties and Tartt, Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander as the three backers.
I don’t think we’ll see three traditional linebackers on the field much, maybe a third of the time, which has become the new normal while offensive coordinators continue to pass more out of three-receiver sets.
But to your point, I’m expecting the 49ers to use safeties as box linebackers on many third-and-long situations. That was customary last season, though probably not implemented as much as Robert Saleh would have liked, given all the injuries to safeties.
I think using Tartt near the line of scrimmage is the best use of his skill set. He’s physical against the run and athletic enough to cover tight ends and running backs. Having him in the box with two safeties behind him would be a good use of personnel in throwing situations.
Perhaps a more interesting story line is how the free safety competition shakes out. Ward hasn’t been reliable because of injuries, and Colbert is still looking to improve his consistency. I think there’s a chance Moore could take advantage of the situation and get significant playing time.
I’ve heard Moore jumped off the practice tape throughout the offseason program playing his natural safety position after trying cornerback last year. That would be a promising development for San Francisco, given the previous dearth of talent on the back end of the secondary.
Bob Cook asks: With what appears to be a pretty full cadre of running backs (assuming no major injuries), does Kyle Juszczyk’s role become diminished to blocking on obvious run plays or the sneaky surprise that has him catching big balls on swing passes?
I don’t think so. Juszczyk is a very valuable asset to Shanahan, who said having a fullback on the field allows him to dictate things to defenses, rather than defenses dictating what the offense does. Juszczyk is a valuable blocker in the running game with tight end-like athleticism down field. Having him on the field opens things up for play action, which is a staple of Shanahan’s philosophy.
It could come down to how the final roster is constructed. It’s possible the 49ers decide to keep just two tight ends because they need a roster spot elsewhere (they could keep three quarterbacks or four halfbacks, for example). Juszczyk is versatile enough to be used as a tight end in certain situations, which could mean an increased role even if there are more running backs on the roster this season.
Big Tuna asks: How many games do we have to lose for the front office to be on the hot seat? I’ve seen a lot of write-ups about front offices around the league and ours is constantly regarded as one of the worst.
The 49ers are 10-22 since the new front office was installed and most recently had the No. 2 pick in the draft. Solomon Thomas hasn’t lived up to his draft status, though it’s tough to blame him, and Reuben Foster is no longer on the team. Those were the regime’s first two draft selections, so it’s understandable why Lynch hasn’t gotten glowing reviews from the national media.
But keep in mind, the 49ers hired Shanahan and then allowed him to pick his general manager. If Lynch were to get replaced, it would likely be Shanahan’s call. He’s the most important football mind in the building and signs off on all major roster decisions. Shanahan is atop the hierarchy.
I don’t think there’s a specific record the 49ers need to avoid making drastic decisions surrounding the front office. I think it comes down to how the team ends up at its final destination in 2019.
If the secondary struggles and the defense remains the weak point, then blame should fall on the front office for neglecting a glaring need in the offseason. If Garoppolo isn’t up to par, that falls on Shanahan because he’s responsible for what happens under center.
The next logical candidate to fall on the sword might be Saleh, particularly if the defense doesn’t make a drastic jump. After last season, it was the conditioning and training staffs that got the boot after the 49ers dealt with as many key injuries as any team in the NFL the past two years.
Simply put, we have to see where the 49ers fail before we can determine who could (or should) be on the outs.