Anyone who follows and understands the National Football League knows that it’s a league of parity. This is what makes the NFL so unpredictable and intriguing each and every year. In the last five years, six teams have gone from worst in their division one year to first the next year. The most recent team to go worst to first was the Washington Football Team. After a 3-13 2019 season, Washington captured the NFC East crown in 2020. Granted, they did it with a losing record, but hey, they can still say they did it. The team that I believe is primed to go from worst to first this year is the San Francisco 49ers.
The Kyle Shanahan era has been nothing short of a steep roller coaster ride thus far. After going 10-22 in his first two seasons, Shanahan’s Niners shocked the football world in 2019, leading the NFC in rushing yards, total defense, and were 3rd in scoring defense on their way to a 13-win season. Oh, and a trip to the Super Bowl on top of that. With high expectations heading into 2020, the 49ers caught the injury bug, and it just so happened to be a very contagious one. With injuries spreading left and right, San Francisco finished the season 6-10, last in the NFC West. Getting everyone back healthy is bad news for the rest of the division, and it’s one of several reasons why the Niners will go from worst to first in 2021. Before you read on, check out fellow Championship Sports Media writer Shane Davis’ season preview for the Niners here.
A healthy 49ers roster is dangerous
Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, Solomon Thomas, K’Waun Williams. If you thought I just listed every 49ers starter, you were close. These are all players that missed 8 or more games in 2020. Not only is it a long list of players, but most of these guys are significant contributors and a few of them are Pro Bowl-caliber players. All of them except Solomon Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Tevin Coleman return to this year’s roster, and if they can stay healthy, they’ll look more like that 2019 squad that completely dominated a 13-3 Packers team in the NFC Championship.
From 2019 to 2020, the Niners’ sack total went from 48 to 30 and their defensive takeaways went from 27 to 20. Their total defense went from 282 yards per game to 314 yards per game, and the scoring defense went from 19 points per game to 24. On offense, the Niners went from 144 rushing yards per game in 2019 to just 118 last year, and the scoring dipped a whole touchdown per game. All of this led to a 4th place finish in the NFC West after winning it in 2019. With everyone back, I expect the Niners to flip the script and win the division again in 2021. In a brutally tough NFC West, it won’t be easy. That said, Shanahan has had recent success in head-to-head games with division rivals, especially the Rams.
Shanahan has McVay’s number
Since 2019, the Niners are 8-4 against division foes and 4-0 against Sean McVay’s Rams. Even during an injury-riddled 2020, the Niners were still able to sweep a Rams team that won double-digit games. In a division that could be tight down the stretch, the head-to-head games become that much more important. While the Seahawks and Cardinals could certainly win the division, I think the Rams will be San Francisco’s biggest challenger. If history repeats itself and Shanahan can sweep McVay again, that could end up being the difference down the stretch.
With Stafford now under center for the Rams, their offense should be able to reach new heights. That said, they had to say goodbye to several starters from last year’s roster. Defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson both signed with Cleveland, while defensive lineman Michael Brockers was dealt an unfortunate hand being traded to Detroit. Edge rusher Samson Ebukam signed with San Francisco, adding to an already loaded front seven.
The departures on offense aren’t quite as significant, but they did lose running back Malcolm Brown, tight end Gerald Everett, wide receiver Josh Reynolds, and four-time starting center Austin Blythe. To make matters worse, starting running back Cam Akers is now out for the year with a torn Achilles. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a Rams team loaded with talent, but the Niners have the deeper, more complete roster, with a handful of stars sprinkled in. Let’s dig into what makes this San Francisco roster so elite.
If star pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford can stay healthy, the Niners will have, in my opinion, the deepest and most talented defensive line in football. Those two, along with Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, Javon Kinlaw, and D.J. Jones, should put pressure on every QB they face and will wreak havoc against weak and mediocre offensive lines. Behind them, linebackers Dre Greenlaw and All-Pro Fred Warner round out one of the best front seven’s in the league.
On the back end, this is a secondary that is underrated and doesn’t give up big plays. In 2019 the Niners allowed just 169 passing yards per game, 1st in the NFL. Despite the injuries to Sherman, Tartt, and Williams last year, they still managed to finish 4th in the same category. With Tartt back healthy alongside Jimmie Ward, that creates one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. The Niners will also have good depth at corner with Emmanuel Moseley, Pro Bowler Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams, and rookie Ambry Thomas. Even with a new coordinator in DeMeco Ryans, this defense has the talent and the potential to return to its dominant 2019 form.
On the other side of the football, this is a 49ers offensive line that ranked in the top-10 according to PFF in 2020. Four starters return, led by 8-time Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams. With the addition of 6-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, this O-line should be elite yet again in 2021. Look out for rookie running back Trey Sermon, who I think will thrive in Shanahan’s zone running scheme just like Raheem Mostert has. On the outside, playmaker Deebo Samuel returns and is set to have a big year. Brandon Aiyuk is coming off an outstanding rookie year of 60 receptions, 748 yards and 5 touchdowns. I expect more big things from him in year two. Oh, and in case you forgot, their tight end is back and he’s pretty good too.
Outside of injury concerns, the quarterback position is the only question mark for San Francisco heading into the season. Garoppolo will start the season under center, but Kyle Shanahan will eventually hand the keys over to 3rd overall pick Trey Lance. Ever since the Niners traded up with the Dolphins to #3, Shanahan knew he wanted Lance despite all the Mac Jones talk. Lance may be the most gifted QB in this draft class, with a huge arm, great size and strength at 6-4, 225 lbs., and has the ability to get outside the pocket and make plays. Drafted into a great situation like San Francisco, the upside for Lance is through the roof.
Last place schedule
One last factor to take note of is the fact that the 49ers will play a last place schedule. That means they get to play the Eagles, Falcons, and Bengals, three teams they should beat handily. On the flip side, the Rams will have to play the Giants, Bucs, and Ravens, while the Seahawks play the Washington Football Team, the Saints, and the Steelers. Advantage 49ers.
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