San Francisco 49ers

49ers mailbag: How key is injured players’ return? What’s the salary cap like in 2020?

It’s still hard to believe the 49ers are 7-0 and one of the best teams in the NFL after losing double-digit games the past four seasons. But here we are after the team drubbed the Carolina Panthers, 51-13, on Sunday, becoming the first team since 1977 to hold opponents to fewer than 100 net passing yards in four straight games.

San Francisco has a short week with a game Thursday against the Arizona Cardinals, so let’s get to your questions in this week’s mailbag.

Brandon Harvey asks: How much of a boost should we see due to all the guys returning from injury?

It should be pretty significant because it will allow Kyle Shanahan to open up the playbook again.

The 49ers have run the ball more than any other team in the NFL. They’re averaging nearly 39 rushing attempts per game and the Vikings are second at 33. Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, of course, are vital in pass protection, which means Shanahan can feel more confident about calling five- and seven-step drops to push the ball down field, which was a play where Justin Skule gave up the safety to Bruce Irvin.

That could start Thursday when Staley is expected to return from his broken fibula. McGlinchey has tentatively circled the following game against the Seattle Seahawks for his return, which could also be when fullback Kyle Juszczyk comes back.

As we noted Tuesday, four of the 49ers’ five rushing touchdowns came in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), which is a departure from Shanahan’s preference for heaving formations with a fullback and/or multiple tight ends. It was a pretty remarkable showing given the offense averaged fewer than 3.0 yards per carry over the previous two weeks. San Francisco ran 232 yards on 38 attempts (6.1) average even after the Rams and Washington may have provided a blueprint to slow Shanahan’s multifaceted attack.

The key was doing things the Panthers hadn’t seen on film, which meant getting creative in 11 personnel. The fact the 49ers have proven they can run effectively out of 11 personnel might be one of the scariest developments for the rest of the league, because of how good the 49ers were previously with their starting tackles and Pro Bowl fullback.

Caolan Small asks: With Emmanuel Mosely playing so well, does Ahkello Witherspoon have to fight his way back into the starting lineup?

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was posed with that question last week.

His answer: “You know, we haven’t crossed that (bridge) yet. Ahkello had been playing so well. That’s a tough question, but you never have the philosophy that an injury will put you on the bench. But Ahkello, he’s been working, trying to get healthy and when he’s ready to go he’s going to be ready to go.”

Witherspoon is going to have to play well in practice and prove he’s capable of producing as he did before the injury. He said last week he’s healthy and expects to begin practicing next week ahead of the Seahawks game, which would be his likely return. Shanahan initially thought Witherspoon had a chance to return Thursday but he was held out of practice last week, making that unlikely given the 49ers won’t have a true practice before going to Arizona on Wednesday.

But it remains to be seen if he’ll displace Moseley. I think it’s likely. Either way, it’s a good problem to have considered depth at cornerback was a big question mark heading into the season.

Paratrooper87 asks: What’s your realistic take on our salary cap situation going into the off season?

The 49ers are expected to have some $24 million in cap space in the spring, with a few notable free agents they might have to spend on: defensive lineman Arik Armstead, safety Jimmie Ward and new receiver Emmanuel Sanders. And they have to think about extensions for tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

Will all those players return? It seems unlikely. The coaching staff loves Ward but Tarvarius Moore might be able to step in and start as he enters the third year of his cheap rookie contract. Armstead could be a franchise tag candidate, though that could cost $16 to $19 million depending which tag he receives (if he doesn’t get a long-term deal). Armstead could be a tag-and-trade candidate, similar to how the Chiefs dealt with Dee Ford last season. It would give the 49ers an opportunity to recoup draft capital given they don’t have picks in rounds 2 through 4 in the upcoming draft.

Sanders might cost $8 to $10 million per season on his next contract, but has indicated he’s enjoying himself one week into things with his new team.

The 49ers don’t have to sign Kittle and Buckner to new deals, but they would be wise to do so. Kittle is eligible for the first time this offseason and will become the league’s highest-paid tight end. Buckner is represented by the same agent as Khalil Mack, who pushed for a new deal while holding out before his fifth-year option season, which is what Buckner is approaching. It wouldn’t be surprising if Buckner holds out without a new contract. He’s to make something like $15 to $18 million per season.

Suffice to say, the 49ers currently don’t have room to fit all that under the cap. But other players could restructure their deals by turning base salaries into bonus cash and shrink their cap numbers. Obvious candidates for that: quarterback Jimmy Garopppolo, center Weston Richburg, linebacker Kwon Alexander and Staley.

Ultimately having too many good players to pay is a problem just about every team would trade with San Francisco this offseason.

Stuart Wexler asks: Should the 49ers keep Brunskill at right tackle this week and make Justin Skule the swing? Brunskill had an excellent game against Carolina and Skule has not played much right tackle this year (and, therefore, his career).

Agree. I don’t think it makes sense to move Skule to the right side given how well Brunskill has played. I’d imagine Shanahan would prefer to make just one change along the offensive line with Staley’s return and not two.

Also, it’s difficult for some linemen to make changes to the other side mid season. It’d be asking a lot of Skule to play on the right side after playing on the left for so long – and Brunskill might be better than Skule right now, anyway.

Casey asks: Does the Sanders trade signal that maybe the 49ers aren’t optimistic that Taylor and Hurd are coming back?

Shanahan was asked last week if he had hope both players would come back this season. His answer:

“Not as much as there was earlier. They both had chances to come back earlier. Both of them have had setbacks which have had to start a couple things over. We haven’t ruled them out, but I’m still hoping for it. It’s not something we can for sure count on.”

From what I gather, Taylor has a more likely shot at coming back. He had soft-tissue issues surrounding the healed bone in his foot during his rehab. Eight weeks is expected to be enough time for him to get fully healthy.

Hurd has a fracture in his back, which is never easy to recover from. Even if he did return late in the season, it would be difficult for him to crack the active roster, let alone be productive after missing so much practice time. Unlike Taylor, Hurd doesn’t have experience in the system, and he’s only been playing receiver for a short time.

It’s looking like this will be a de facto redshirt season for Hurd, while the team is still holding out hope Taylor can come back when he’s eligible at some point in late November.

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