Chris Biderman’s three takeaways from the 49ers’ haul in the 2019 NFL Draft
The 49ers will hold their first practice of training camp in Santa Clara on July 26, officially kicking off the start of the 2019 season.
Let’s take a look at 10 key questions ahead of train camp that need answering as coach Kyle Shanahan enters his third season at the helm facing expectations to be in the playoff mix for the first time since getting hired.
1. Will Jimmy Garoppolo show any lingering effects?
The 49ers’ franchise signal caller looked sharp during seven-on-seven work throughout the offseason program. But it’s an entirely different game without defensive linemen on the field to pressure the quarterback, force him to move in the pocket and mess with the timing with receivers. In that sense, we still don’t know how Garoppolo will react to 300-pound defenders bearing down on him and his surgically repaired ACL. The injury came to his left leg, which is his front plant leg when he sets to throw. Will the injury lead to any hesitancy? Will he be too quick to escape the pocket? Will it hinder his accuracy? We won’t have a real idea until Week 1 at Tampa Bay. In the meantime, how Garoppolo reacts to linemen getting after him will be one of the most notable developments of training camp.
2. Who solidifies the starting job opposite Richard Sherman?
Aside from the former All-Pro Seahawk, San Francisco’s secondary was a major weak point throughout last season. Opposite Sherman was a carousel of players such as Ahkello Witherspoon, Jimmie Ward and Greg Mabin as the 49ers were second-worst in the NFL in allowing opposing quarterbacks to put up a 105.4 passer rating. Yet the team decided against making drastic changes. Sherman will be back, but the starter opposite him could be one of the more intriguing battles of training camp. Former Chargers first-round draft pick Jason Verrett joined the team on a minimal one-year contract, though injuries limited to just five games since he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015. Verrett didn’t participate in the offseason program because he was recovering from a torn Achilles suffered about a year ago. That left Witherspoon to get the bulk of the starting reps. Will the third-year pro regain his 2017 form as a rookie when he looked like an eventual long-term starter, or will his play from last season remain the norm leaving the 49ers to ponder the future of the position next offseason?
3. Will Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel get much-needed work?
Bosa, the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, hasn’t appeared in a game since September with Ohio State. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined throughout the offseason program mostly as a precaution. He’s expected to fully cleared to get practice reps once training camp begins. However, still hasn’t signed his rookie contract, which could be an ominous sign. He shares the same representation as his older brother, Joey, who held out nearly a month before starting his rookie season with the Chargers in 2016. Samuel, the receiver drafted in Round 2, also remains unsigned after a minor hip injury derailed his minicamp last month. Both players are extremely important to San Francisco in 2019 and beyond. Their availability early in camp could be vital if they’re going to be valuable contributors in their first NFL season.
4. Are the running backs healthy?
Injuries to 49ers running backs would have been a bigger story in 2018 if not for Garoppolo’s injury. Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL a week before the season opener after landing a four-year, $30 million deal, making him one of the league’s priciest running backs. His backup, Matt Breida, impressed by averaging more than five yards per carry despite dealing with constant ankle injuries. Breida suffered a minor pectoral tear while lifting weights in the spring, which prevented him from participating in team drills during minicamp. Backup and special teams standout Raheem Mostert also missed the spring because of complications surrounding the arm he fractured in November. Suffice to say, the only running backs to get significant practice time this spring were free-agent addition Tevin Coleman, youngster Jeff Wilson Jr. and undrafted rookie Austin Walter. Shanahan’s running backs will be vital in 2019 – and McKinnon could use some practice reps after being on the shelf for 11 months.
5. What’s the plan for Kwon Alexander?
Shanahan has indicated the expensive free agent linebacker will be cleared at some point in August after tearing his ACL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in October. But the exact plan surrounding Alexander has been hazy. The former LSU star was brought in to replace Reuben Foster after his sudden dismissal in November. His four-year, $54 million contract was eyebrow raising, particularly coming off his injury. The 49ers should feel good about the pairing of Alexander with promising second-year pro Fred Warner, though neither has taken the field for a practice rep. Warner sat out the spring after having surgery to repair an existing injury.
6. Is Tarvarius Moore’s move to safety permanent?
Many expected the 49ers to make a run at one of the talented safeties on the free agent market in March like Earl Thomas or Tyrann Mathieu. Yet general manager John Lynch decided to stand pat, bringing back Jimmie Ward on a one-year contract to move to free safety full time. But perhaps a reason the team didn’t bring in a new safety was because they liked what they had in 2018 third-round draft pick Tarvarius Moore, who played the position at Southern Mississippi before transitioning to cornerback in the NFL. The coaching staff kept Moore at safety throughout the spring because of injuries. Moore becoming a starting-caliber safety could be a boon for San Francisco, given the lengthy injury histories of projected starters Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, who combined to miss 31 starts the past two seasons.
7. How quickly is Jalen Hurd adapting?
Shanahan turned some heads in the third round of the draft by taking Baylor receiver Jalen Hurd rather than address the more pressing need in the secondary. But Hurd, a former standout running back for Tennessee, has the intriguing size (6-5, 226) and athleticism to become a valuable playmaker in the 49ers offense. Shanahan has indicated he’s open to moving Hurd to tight end to complement George Kittle, similarly to how Delanie Walker worked next to Vernon Davis earlier this decade. But a knee injury kept Hurd from participating in the spring and his grasp of the offense will be worth keeping an eye on. For now, Hurd figures to get most of his playing time in the slot, though he could evolve into a tight end, H-back or even get carries out of the back field if he ingratiates himself quickly.
8. Will Shanahan keep three quarterbacks?
The 49ers are dying to see if Garoppolo can start all 16 games and take the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They ideally wouldn’t even have to think about his backups. But Shanahan has been forced to start three quarterbacks in each of the last two seasons, which could have dramatic ramifications during final cuts. Nick Mullens has proven he deserves a spot in the league while Shanahan still believes in former third-round draft pick C.J. Beathard, who didn’t match Mullens statistically in 2018 but is the more physically gifted quarterback. Perhaps the 49ers part with either Mullens or Beathard in a trade for draft compensation opening up a roster spot elsewhere. Or maybe Shanahan values both players to the point of keeping them around as possible insurance policies should Garoppolo fail to play all 16 games. After all, Garoppolo has never started more than five games in a season.
9. A youth movement at linebacker?
Do the 49ers stick with high-priced veteran Malcolm Smith, who’s been a nonfactor since singing in 2017, or do they move on and use rookie fifth-round pick Dre Greenlaw as one of their outside linebackers? Greenlaw spent nearly all spring working with the starters while the training staff kept a close eye on Smith’s workload. Greenlaw looks like he’ll be a fixture on special teams as a rookie with a chance to develop into a starter. Smith, meanwhile, has struggled with injuries and turned 30 this month. San Francisco might decide to go with the younger player in the starting lineup, which could make it tough to keep Smith on the roster.
10. What about the interior of the offensive line?
Center Weston Richburg struggled with a knee/quad injury in 2018 that required surgery. His production didn’t live up to his five-year, $47.5 million contract and the 49ers are expecting him to be markedly better this season. Though like Alexander, there hasn’t been a clearly defined time frame for his return to action, which will be notable given the importance of his position. At right guard, San Francisco likes veteran Mike Person, evident by his three-year extension this offseason. But Person may have to shift to center if Richburg is out, leaving a void at guard. Could that mean Joshua Garnett finally earns his keep as a former first-round draft pick? Or will another player like Ben Garland, Wesley Johnson or Erik Magnuson fill that spot? The offensive line will be under the microscope in 2019 because of Garoppolo’s injury.