For a team and coach that went 10-22 over the last two seasons, there is a ton of preseason hype around the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan. An improved roster and better health combined with an offense and defense that ranked in the top half of the league last year provide optimism that this team can truly emerge.
What is the ceiling for this offense? How good can the defense be? Let’s examine my preseason superlatives.
Breakout Guy: WR Dante Pettis
Had it not been for knee injuries to both Pettis and Jimmy Garoppolo, Pettis would have already “broken out”. Garoppolo’s season was over in Week 3 and Pettis missed five games himself dealing with knee issues.
Pettis produced like a top receiver over the final five games of his rookie season, hauling in 20 receptions on 26 targets for 359 and three touchdowns. The Niners' quarterbacks had a passer rating of 156.73 across that stretch when targeting Pettis. That pace across a 16-game season amounts to 64 receptions for 1,149 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Pettis is a silky smooth route runner with exceptional hands and physical traits that are perfectly suited for Kyle Shannahan’s offense. A big year is in the cards for the talented sophomore.
Comeback Kid: Jimmy G?
On one hand, Jimmy Garoppolo is 6-2 as the 49ers starting quarterback while completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,278 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. On the other hand, he’s only started 10 total NFL games entering the sixth year of his career. That’s less games than 2018 first round quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen It’s an odd scenario for a quarterback entering Year Two of a 5-year $137.5 million deal.
An ACL tear ended his 2018 season after just three starts and even in that small sample size, he wasn’t nearly as effective as the quarterback we saw in 2017. There’s a lot to like about Jimmy G and reason to believe he’s a legitimate starter, but let’s not pretend like we have any idea what his ceiling or baseline is in the NFL.
He’ll need to prove that he is a legit starter and stay healthy to live up to his contract which San Francisco has a reasonable “out” of after this season.
Rising Star: TE George Kittle
You probably already knew this but in his second season, Kittle broke the NFL single-season record for receiving yards with 1,377 in 2018. A superstar in the making, Kittle is a dynamic receiver but he is also a superb blocker. The landscape of top tight ends in the NFL is shifting and Kittle is quickly claiming a spot high on the list.
Don’t Forget About: RB Tevin Coleman
He may have signed a modest 2-year, $8.5 million deal this offseason but Coleman is an absolutely perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Complementing Matt Breida and Jerrick McKinnon, the versatility of this backfield is arguably the best in football. A blend of size, burst, speed, elusiveness and receiving ability, Coleman has the ability to have a monster year in this scheme.
Needs to Rebound: Turnover Differential
32 giveaways and 7 takeaways = minus 25 when it comes to turnover differential in 2018. While injuries certainly derailed the 49ers season, giving up the football and rarely taking it away were just as much of a problem as availability of top players.
Can it be better in 2019? Sure. The pass rusher is much improved, even if Nick Bosa battles injuries all season long with the addition of Dee Ford. An experienced secondary returns and Kwon Alexander can be a major asset on the second level if he can stay healthy. Ball security on offense should improve if Garoppolo can stay healthy.
If the 49ers are going to live up to the hype, it starts with flipping the script in the turnover department.
Dark Horse MVP: Shanahan + Weapons
Kyle Shanahan is highly regarded for his offensive scheme and he has a deep and versatile mix of weapons at his disposal. All three of San Francisco’s top running backs are dynamic runners and receivers while rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel is a threat to produce at all levels of the field while Jalen Hurd is a converted running back. Dante Pettis is a sick route-runner while Marquise Goodwin might be the fastest dude in the league. George Kittle is an elite tight end and let’s not forget about the versatile Kyle Juszcyzk at fullback.
All of these players can line up in a variety of spots and win in a number of ways. Matching up with this personnel is extremely difficult because it may look like one personnel grouping but the formation is something completely different. If Garoppolo can stay healthy and facilitate, this unit will be dangerous.
Under the Radar: Stacked Front Seven
We’ve touched on why this offense can be difficult to stop, but this front seven has to mentioned in why this 49ers team has a chance to compete in 2019. DeForest Buckner is one of the best defensive linemen in the game and is entering his prime. Arik Armstead is toolsy and the perfect complement. Dee Ford ran circles around offensive tackles for the Chiefs last season en route to 13 sacks. Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith form an athletic trio of linebackers that have terrific range and the ability to win in space. And I haven’t even mentioned No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa. What if Solomon Thomas takes a step forward and starts living up to expectations?
This is a potent component of this roster and the strength of a defense that was ranked 13th in the league last season.