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Grading the 49ers’ promising, turnaround second half with an eye for the future

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George Kittle and Trent Taylor grew as players and will provide the 49ers with receiving depth for years. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The 49ers did it all in 2017.

They ensured a top-10 position in the 2018 Draft early in the season and energized the fanbase late. In the meantime — if you let ESPN tell it — they were the beneficiaries of the New England Patriots’ demise.

Not too shabby for Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s maiden season in Santa Clara.

The Niners went 6-2 in the second half of the season, which can be attributed to an advantageous schedule, key rookies finding themselves and, of course, Jimmy Garoppolo unleashing the offense.

Overall, the Niners’ marks couldn’t be higher. They achieved what they needed to in the first year of their braintrust’s matching six-year deals — thanks to a great deal of luck, but that’s neither here nor there.

Taking a finer look at things, here’s how the team’s position groups fared in the second half of the season (first quarter, first half and third quarter grades included):

Quarterbacks: A-

The 49ers averaged 18 points per game over their first 11 contests before Garoppolo took control of the offense. That would’ve left them with the 27th-best offense in the NFL.

In the five games he started, that per-game number improved more than 10 points.

During that span, he had a better Pro Football Focus QB rating than former MVPs Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. He also had less time to operate than those QBs, having fewer than 2.5 seconds on 116 dropbacks — the fourth most-hurried mark in the league.

It’s hard to understate how positive Garoppolo’s effect on the offense was — although the Faithful will certainly try.

If there’s room for nitpicking, it’s the interceptions. He threw four picks — all of which coming under pressure. A full offseason working with Shanahan and quarterback coach Rich Scangarello will help iron out some of the issues with those rushed throws. But the future is more than bright regardless.

Third quarter grade: C+

First half grade: F

First quarter grade: D+

Running backs: B-

Carlos Hyde had a solid tenure with the 49ers. He flirted with 1,000 rushing yards the last two seasons. He finished 2017 with 940 to go with a career-best 59 catches.

He was a willing and capable pass blocker while maintaining his punishing running style that resulted in eight touchdowns — two more than his previous record.

But all indications are the unrestricted free agent won’t be back in Santa Clara next season. It could be his struggles in the passing game — he led the league in drop rate (a PFF stat) by a considerable margin — and the Shanahans are notorious for finding cheap options at running back.

If his days with the 49ers are over, he did well with his time here and he’ll do well wherever he goes next.

That’ll leave the Niners with Matt Breida, Joe Williams and whoever they pick up in the offseason. There’s worse positions to be in than that.

The splashy play would be drafting Saquon Barkley in the first round, but his performance in the second-half of the college season can’t be ignored.

No matter what direction they head in, they should rest well knowing Breida improved as the season progressed and Shanahan’s track record of turning late picks into stars (see: Freeman, Devonta).

Third quarter grade: B-

First half grade: B-

First quarter grade: A-

Receivers: B-

Pierre Garcon’s season-ending injury was a blessing in disguise for his position-mates.

“It didn’t happen right away,” Shanahan explained on Monday, “but throughout that time Pierre was gone, Marquise [Goodwin] took it to another level, [Kendrick] Bourne ended up helping us out, Trent Taylor started playing at a higher level. [George] Kittle came back, finished strong. [Garrett] Celek, to me, played at a higher level. A lot of guys really stepped up to that challenge.”

That’s a promising development that deserves commendation.

All of those players grew in the second half of the season and that’ll pay dividends for the 49ers — especially in the case of rookies Bourne, Taylor and Kittle. Those guys will be great options to provide depth and when Lynch bolsters the corps, they’ll fall into fitting roles. Drafting a playmaker who can get separation in the red zone and come down with the catch is less of a necessity because of their growth.

Third quarter grade: C+

First half grade: C-

First quarter grade: C-

Offensive line: C+

This unit raised its game the most once Garoppolo got under center.

They were emboldened by his ability to get rid of the ball quickly. It wasn’t perfect, of course, as evidenced by the amount of time Garoppolo was put under pressure (cited above).

The most promising development: Joe Staley proving he still has plenty left in the tank. Having a top left tackle provides a foundation for the team to grow and to do it quickly.

According to PFF, his impressive play at the end of the season boosted himself into the top-two at his position. Assuming Trent Brown returns at full strength (which isn’t a given), Brandon Fusco returns and continues to improve and Joshua Garnett fulfills his potential, there’s real reason to believe this group can be seen as an asset.

Coaching matters with the offensive line more than anywhere else, and that bodes well for the Niners.

Third quarter grade: C-

First half grade: D+

First quarter grade: C

Linebackers: B-

Reuben Foster is a star. There’s no way around it.

Saying he single-handedly led the Niners from being the worst run defense in the league (by no small margin) to an average unit would be an overstatement, but not by much.

Brock Coyle also grew in the second half of the season as he was given more reps and the coaching staff showed they had no intention of going away from him after they traded NaVorro Bowman.

Getting rid of the veteran was a pivotal decision for Lynch and Shanahan and they were fortunate to come out of it without losing the locker room: “That was something we had to do, that we believed would help us in the long run,” Shanahan said.

It’s hard to argue with the results.

Third quarter grade: C+

First half grade: C-

First quarter grade: Inc.

Defensive line: B

DeForest Buckner won the Hazeltine Iron Man Award for being the “most courageous and inspirational defensive player as voted upon by the defensive coaches,” and he’ll be the leader of this group for years to come.

He’s in the same discussion as Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Geno Atkins — and a shade below Aaron Donald — when it comes to the best interior defensive linemen in the league.

Solomon Thomas improved as the season progressed and he’s not the bust that many hoped he would be when Lynch selected the fellow Stanford man in the first round of the 2017 Draft.

Outside of that, this group has a significant number of question marks. The good news: That can be figured out in the early rounds of the upcoming draft and free agency.

The biggest aspect of the Niners’ second half play that helped the D-line grow was its lessened burden of being on the field. Garoppolo was leading the team on long drives, allowing the front seven to catch its collective breath. With that returning for next season, there’s reason to believe that defensive coordinators Robert Saleh’s group will continue to improve.

Third quarter grade: B

First half grade: B+

First quarter grade: B+

Secondary: B-

Ahkello Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert and K’waun Williams were the standouts from this group in the second half of the season.

Colbert played with one hand for most of that stretch and still was a punishing safety who threw his body around to break up passes and punish runners.

Witherspoon was a force as a No. 1 cornerback after missing much of the early part of the season as he assimilated to the pro game. Witherspoon whiffed on just one tackle in the second half while recording three tackles for loss. That’s a heck of a complement to a skillset that already boasts impressive ball skills that produced a pair of interceptions.

For the offseason, Shanahan and Lynch will have to figure out what to do with Eric Reid — who was great, but is an unrestricted free agent — as well as Jimmie Ward, who will again be returning from injury. Jaquiski Tartt’s early-season emergence makes the decision that much harder. But these are good problems for the Niners to have.

Third quarter grade: B-

First half grade: C+

First quarter grade: C+

Special teams: A

Robbie Gould won the Niners a game all by himself in Chicago. He was described as a constant pro and he was consistent during games. And with the rest of the team also playing well, there’s no need for snarkiness when pointing out how good the special teams were all year.

Third quarter grade: A-

First half grade: A

First quarter grade: A

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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