Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA — Approaching the midway point of the season, the San Francisco 49ers are primed to head to Green Bay, Wisconsin to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field on Monday night.
Considering the disappointing circumstances San Francisco now faces, sitting as the worst team in the NFC West with a 1-4 record, the 49ers must now shift their focus on developing their young players ahead of the 2019 season — the third year of franchise’s rebuild.
Along with that, here are three things to consider for the rest of the 49ers 2018 season.
Developing young players will be essential
As much as head coach Kyle Shanahan will deny it, the rest of the 49ers’ 2018 season is really just a formality after losing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3 and starting running back Jerick McKinnon to an ACL before the season.
With that being said, San Francisco still has the tenth-youngest roster in the NFL this season with an average age of 25.75.
With nine more games set to be played over the last 10 weeks of the year, San Francisco will have a great opportunity to develop the existing talent that remains on their roster.
Ranging from defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert — both in their second year in the NFL — to Mike McGlinchey, the rookie right tackle out of Notre Dame, the 49ers have viable pieces that exist on their roster that need the growth in order to help the team win in the future.
In total, 23 of the 53 players on the roster are either rookies or in their second seasons as NFL players. This means that over half of San Francisco’s team has had one year or less of experience as pro players.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in our building that we have confidence in,” said Shanahan. “That’s why they’re here and I expect our guys to go out, not hesitate, be up for the challenge.”
For these young players, while there is a slight learning curve in terms of adjusting to the speed and pace of the NFL, some of the veterans on the team will not let them hang on their inexperience.
“I don’t think of youth as an excuse,” said San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, who has stepped up as a leader in the team’s locker room. “I’m pretty tough on guys a lot of times and on plays because when you’re young you can still play at a high level.”
As the season progresses, developing the young players and figuring out who will be a fit in the team’s long-term plan will be essential to how the rest of the 49ers’ rebuild plays out.
In addition, if the rest of the season plays out the way it has gone so far, the 49ers will be in line for their fourth-consecutive top-ten draft pick in 2019, something the team hasn’t had since 1961-64.
Evaluating each and every trade possibility
The 49ers have reportedly done a good job in terms of exploring the market for potential trades and looking at ways to improve their existing roster.
Just before the season began, San Francisco’s general manager, John Lynch, confirmed that the 49ers were “very aggressive” in the pursuit of former Oakland Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack.
According to Lynch, the two franchises were unable to come to an agreement before Oakland dealt the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year to the Chicago Bears.
In addition to Mack, Lynch and Co. also have been reported to have reached out to the Pittsburgh Steelers in hopes of striking a deal for estranged running back Le’Veon Bell, who is still in a hold out for a contract extension.
In both cases, the 49ers did not come away with a new addition to their roster, but the important thing is that they’re at least considering ways to improve their team.
“John [Lynch] and Kyle [Shanahan], [senior personnel executive] Martin [Mayhew] and [vice president of player personnel] Adam [Peters], they work tirelessly and relentlessly to give every position every opportunity to be as successful as they can,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “No stone goes left unturned. They do an unbelievable job in that regard. Sometimes you swing, sometimes you miss. Sometimes you swing and the ball goes out of the park.”
Currently, San Francisco has the third-most cap space in the NFL with $40.15 million, so money will not be an issue in terms of adding talent and depth to the team.
The 49ers must fight anonymity for the rest of the season
Entering the 2018 season, San Francisco was slotted for an NFL-high five prime-time games.
After losing Garoppolo against the Chiefs and subsequently falling to 1-4, however, the NFL has pulled one of those games: A Week 6 matchup against the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football.
Instead, the 49ers will play in the 1:25 p.m. slot, yanking the team out of the spotlight and into the depths of anonymity, which is something they must now work to fight in order to maintain relevance.
“Everyone says we have a lot of injuries and we got kicked out of a Sunday Night Football game,” said 49ers tight end George Kittle. “But screw them. We’re going to do everything we can to show up and we’re going to ball out.”
While Kittle’s sentiment may sound legitimate, the fact of the matter is that the 49ers are on the brink of becoming the worst team in the NFL this season.
Tied for the worst record in the NFL, San Francisco’s schedule will likely pay them no favors as their next game, on Monday Night Football, will be against the Green Bay Packers (2-2-1) at Lambeau Field.
Although the 49ers have recently had their way with the Packers, winning the four of their last five encounters with Green Bay, Monday may not bode well for San Francisco.
Averaging the eighth-most passing yards per week in the NFL (325.25), the Packers have also scored 10 receiving touchdowns to go with their 135 total receptions on the season.
Staying competitive against Green Bay will go a long way towards maintaining their place as a young, up-and-coming team in the NFL despite the mighty set back of losing Garoppolo and starting running back McKinnon.
“It’s a great opportunity for our entire team,” said Shanahan. “We get a chance to go there and we’re the ones who get to play. Everyone gets to watch us. So, that’s something you enjoy, not something that you worry about.”