Exactly how good are the undefeated 49ers?
The answer varies depending on whom you ask. The vast majority in the Bay Area will say this team is legit, particularly after losing 47 games the last four seasons combined.
Kyle Shanahan will say the team is improved, but he was quick to remind the media last week about his Falcons team in 2015 that started out 5-0 and missed the playoffs at 8-8.
Nationally? Just about everyone is waiting for the 49ers to win a high profile game before anointing them real contenders to win the NFC West.
Fortunately for San Francisco, that high-profile game is coming this week on “Monday Night Football” against Odell Beckham Jr., Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Freddie Kitchens and the Cleveland Browns. (Yes, that sentence was mostly strange to write because Cleveland averaged over 12 losses per season from 2008 to 2017 before respected general manager John Dorsey was hired.)
But the Browns are undoubtedly the most-talented team the 49ers have faced this season. A victory on the national stage, while improving to 4-0 for the first time since 1990, could go a long way toward getting the hype train up to speed.
Let’s get to our fantasy and betting advice for Monday’s game coming straight from a beat writer.
49ers fantasy advice: Start these three
QB Jimmy Garoppolo: The 49ers have gotten strong performances under center the past two games. Garoppolo is averaging 286.5 yards while completing over 70 percent of his passes with four touchdown throws. He had one of his best performances since joining San Francisco against the Steelers before the bye, fearlessly taking big hits from blitzing defenders while making clutch throws downfield. His willingness to stay in the pocket and not flinch was a good indication he’s back to form following last season’s ACL tear. This week will mark Garoppolo’s starting debut on Monday Night Football. He’ll never say it, but you can imagine he’s eager to prove on a big platform he deserves to be discussed among the league’s new wave of good, young quarterbacks.
TE George Kittle: He’s been Pro Football Focus’ highest graded player in the NFL for 2019 — even while registering modest receiving totals of 54, 54 and 57 yards in his three games. He’s still waiting for his first touchdown after having two negated by penalty in the season opener. That could happen this week as Browns safety Morgan Burnett is dealing with a quadriceps injury that has him limited in practice. Cleveland will be without linebacker Christian Kirksey for the season with a torn pectoral. The Browns have already allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends in their first four games.
WR Deebo Samuel: The rookie second-round pick is Garoppolo’s favorite receiver to target. He has 14 targets while Marquise Goodwin and Richie James Jr. are tied for second with eight. We know the 49ers are going to move the ball. They rank fourth in yardage and third in scoring while Garoppolo has averaged over 10 yards per attempt the past two games. The Browns appear banged up in the secondary with starting corners Denzell Ward and Greedy Willliams both dealing with hamstring injuries. It could provide Samuel an opportunity to break out.
49ers fantasy advice: Sit these two
49ers running backs: Tevin Coleman is back after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in the season opener while Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert have both been effective. And Jeff Wilson Jr. has four touchdowns over the past two games. But there’s only one ball and it seems likely the 49ers will rotate at running back in order to keep everyone fresh. That might be good for the running game overall, but it’s not good for fantasy purposes. Cleveland has allowed just one rushing touchdown this season.
49ers defense: The 49ers defense has been very, very stingy through three games. But their depth in the secondary is going to be tested in a big way — and also for the first time. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s injury could be massive given the way his season began. It means San Francisco is likely to start Emmanuel Moseley, a 2018 undrafted free agent, to cover Beckham and Jarvis Landry. That should favor the Browns, particularly if they can get the ball out of Mayfield’s hands quickly to negate the 49ers’ pass rush.
49ers game prediction against the spread
The 49ers are four-point favorites and minus-200 to win on their home field, according to Bovada, which says the odds-makers would favor San Francisco by one point at a neutral site.
That’s an appropriate line given how inconsistent the Browns have been this season, though they are coming off their best performance of the year by winning in Baltimore, 40-25, over an impressive Ravens team.
This Browns season has been a roller coaster. They were blown out at home in their season opener, then beat the Jets who were without their starting quarterback, and then finally showed they might eventually live up to all the hype with their victory in Baltimore.
The 49ers have been a little uneven as well. They struggled in Tampa, though that win is looking better by the week. They played very well against a winless Bengals team, then turned the ball over five times and still managed to beat the Steelers before the bye.
If we’re going by trends, the Browns are due to slip and the 49ers are due for a strong performance returning from their bye week.
I think the 49ers’ defensive line will cause all sorts of problems for the Browns, who are among the many teams throughout the league with a bad offensive front. But I think the 49ers will badly miss left tackle Joe Staley to go up against Garrett, and Beckham could be very tough for Moseley to shadow.
I’ll take San Francisco to win straight up, but the Browns to cover in a close game. Final score: 33-30.
Record this year (against the spread): 2-1