San Francisco 49ers

49ers Mailbag: Answering important questions ahead of Week 1

The 49ers season opener Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a few days away. So what better time for another mailbag?

Let’s get to it.

Gavin Ferguson asks: With Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor presumably out for week one, do you see Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, or Richie James Jr. getting most of the reps in the slot?

It’s a good question and it’s of particular interest heading into Week 1. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer, other than to say all three of those guys have gotten practice time at the “F” position in the slot.

Pettis has spent most of his time at the “Z” position (Pierre Garçon’s former role) while Samuel has primarily played “X,” which is the same spot as Marquise Goodwin. James has gotten the most time in the slot and would have the smoothest transition into a prominent role there.

Kyle Shanahan has prioritized finding receivers that can play multiple spots. Pettis and Samuel certainly qualify, though both are young and we know Pettis struggled to learn both X and Z during his rookie season (that’s not a unique problem for young players in Shanahan’s complex scheme).

It’s worth noting Samuel didn’t get a ton of practice reps with the starters during training camp and Pettis struggled initially to develop chemistry with Garoppolo. The slot role needs to be someone Garoppolo has a good rapport with – and the best option might be James, who was the team’s most productive wideout in the preseason and was a constant throughout training camp practices open to reporters.

James seems like the most likely candidate. Though don’t be surprised if the 49ers mix and match throughout. Maybe Shanahan surprises and goes with Kendrick Bourne.

Maybe George Kittle plays the “F” like he did last year when San Francisco played in Tampa Bay because the team was so thin at receiver? I’m guessing it’s going to be a secret until game time.

Dwight Stoltafuz asks: Do you think it will be a time share with Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman or will one of them be the bell cow?

I think Coleman will begin the season as the starter but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Breida get more playing time and touches throughout the season. Breida is healthy, which means he’s San Francisco’s fastest offensive player aside from Marquise Goodwin.

Breida averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year, good for fourth in the NFL, while dealing with recurring ankle issues. He’s continued to improve as a pass-catcher, which should allow Shanahan to keep him on the field more often. I’m expecting Breida have far more than 27 catches he logged in 2018.

But that’s not to say Coleman won’t have a prominent role. He scored 28 touchdowns the past three seasons with the Falcons, including a career-high 11 when Shanahan was the Falcons offensive coordinator in 2016. Breida could be the prominent option between the 20s, where his speed could be utilized, while Coleman serves as the backfield weapon in the red zone.

Rod Simmons asks: What exactly will Jason Verett’s role be on our defense and is the hope that he will develop into possibly No. 2 on the depth chart?

Ask Shanahan or John Lynch about the 49ers not making significant additions to the secondary this offseason and they’ll both point to Verrett and how well he played in 2015. The problem, of course, is Verrett has only appeared in five games since then and is coming off an Achilles injury, which Richard Sherman admittedly struggled to return from last season.

But Verrett’s injury history also signals something else. The 49ers likely didn’t bring him in to play special teams, which means they envision him as a possible starter and upgrade over Ahkello Witherspoon, who has had an up-and-down career to date.

It’s unlikely Verrett will play Sunday in Tampa, but he’ll keep the pressure on Witherspoon throughout the season to play well or risk losing his starting job, assuming Verrett can get healthy. For now, Verrett is the would-be third outside cornerback. D.J. Reed and Emmanuel Moseley would be next up on the depth chart until Verrett’s sprained right ankle is healed.

Scott Humpert asks: Do you think Jordan Matthews was released because he’s a veteran and his salary would be guaranteed? Will they bring him back after Week 1?

I don’t think that’s why he was released. The 49ers preferred to keep James and Bourne because of their youth and familiarity with the system even though Matthews was a steady performer and veteran presence in the receiver room.

I also don’t think the 49ers are opposed to bringing him back, particularly if the injuries to Taylor or Hurd worsen and one (or both) goes on injured reserve. Matthews would likely be the first player the team called if he doesn’t get picked up elsewhere.

On the financial front, San Francisco is paying nearly $22 million in dead money this season, according to Overthecap.com, to players no longer on the roster (headlined by Garçon, Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster and Earl Mitchell). Moving on from Matthews in order to ensure salary wouldn’t become guaranteed seems unnecessary. He signed for $1.8 million.

Carson C. Newton asks: What do you think of the defensive backfield after watching training camp and preseason?

It’s difficult to say. I thought Tarvarious Moore played well at free safety but that job is going to be Jimmie Ward’s. And the only sample we got from Ward was in the third preseason game (practices were closed off to reporters at that point).

Richard Sherman looks better this summer than he did 12 months ago. Getting the sutures removed from his Achilles has helped, but Sherman’s also 31. Not many corners make the Pro Bowl over the age of 30.

I’d imagine teams are going to continue targeting Witherspoon regularly. Is he going to accept the challenge and improve over last season? It’s tough to say. He was up and down throughout August. The 49ers badly want Witherspoon to establish himself as a foundational starter, but the front office made its feelings clear by acquiring Verrett, who could supplant Witherspoon at some point.

K’Waun Williams is solid, albeit unspectacular, in the slot. Will he remain there throughout the season or will coordinator Robert Saleh decide to rotate Ward there from free safety to get Moore on the field in sub packages? That’s what he did in the third preseason game while Williams continued to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery.

It’s also tough to gauge how well the secondary will play because both defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa missed the entire preseason. There’s a chance having improved pressure off the edge dramatically changes the secondary’s effectiveness. But we won’t know until all those moving parts are on the field.

My best guess is the secondary will be improved under new position coach Joe Woods. But that’s not exactly a high bar after last season.

Justin Wood asks: What’s your prediction for our record this year?

I went with 8-8 when the schedule came out in April, which is basically my way of throwing my hands up and walking out of the room.

Frankly, I have no idea.

The season could go a ton of different ways. There’s more potential variance with this team than any other I’ve covered since I began writing about the 49ers in 2013.

It’s possible Jimmy Garoppolo returns to 2017 form and plays like a Pro Bowl quarterback to get San Francisco back to the playoffs for the first time in five years. It’s also possible Garoppolo needs more than a full season to get his legs back following his knee injury and struggles.

The defense should be better, but the additions of Ford and Bosa could be muted by health issues. Ford’s had multiple back surgeries and missed most of August with knee tendinitis. Bosa, of course, has missed time with three different injuries over the past 12 months.

It’s also possible both players play 16 games and provide much-needed juice to the pass rush to force more takeaways after setting a new NFL low with just seven last year. The 49ers are modeling Bosa and Ford after Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa of the Chargers, who run a similar scheme under Saleh’s former mentor, Gus Bradley.

Ford was one of the best edge rushers in the league in 2018, but has only played at that level in one of his five seasons. Some believe Nick Bosa could be better than older brother Joey, who has 28.5 sacks in 33 games. But Nick Bosa’s next NFL snap will be his first.

Injuries and takeaways have been the 49ers’ most pressing issues. And there’s plenty of data that suggests there isn’t much year-to-year correlation between the two, which means things could be drastically different for San Francisco in 2019.

So if the 49ers’ key players remain healthy and takeaways normalize to something closer to league average, which was 22 in 2018, then they should have a far better chance at competing for a playoff spot.

Does that mean 8-8 or 11-5? Typically the difference between .500 teams and playoff contenders comes down to a handful of important plays throughout a season. And I have no idea if this team is capable of being successful in those moments because we haven’t seen it.

That’s why 2019 is shaping up to be so interesting.

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