By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
There’s plenty of buzz around the San Francisco 49ers organization heading into the 2018 regular season. With Jimmy Garoppolo primed to begin his first full season as an NFL starter and Kyle Shanahan embarking on his second year as a head coach, expectations are as high as ever in San Francisco.
Week 1 will put that hype to the test as the 49ers head to Minnesota to take on the defending NFC North Champion Vikings on Sunday. Here are four things to look out for things watch for 49ers-Vikings.
How will Jimmy Garoppolo respond to the noise (figuratively and literally)?
Garoppolo is a paid man. With a $137 million contract in his pocket, it’s now time for the 26-year old starter to build on a 5-0finish to the 2017 season that got the hype train on the tracks for 2018.
Appearing in only six games (five starts) in 2017, Garoppolo threw for 1,560 yards and seven touchdowns while completing67 percent of his passes.
With an entire offseason with the 49ers under his belt, Garoppolo will look to carry that momentum over to 2018, but his first test of the year will be daunting.
Playing on the road in Minnesota, Garoppolo and the rest of the San Francisco offense will face a raucous Vikings crowd that’s expected to rock U.S. Bank Stadium to the core.
“It’s tough to simulate that noise,” Garoppolo admitted. “I think having the communication down early in the week and getting the silence cadence going and all of that stuff and just making sure the communication from coach to player is as good as it could be [is the key].”
Mike Person gets the nod at right guard
After weeks of intense competition, the 49ers have finally named a starting right guard ahead of Week 1’s matchup against the Vikings: Shanahan has tapped Mike Person after the eight-year veteran beat out former first-round pick Joshua Garnett for the starting gig.
In his second stint with San Francisco after playing for five other NFL teams, Person will immediately be put to the test as he, along with the rest of the 49ers offensive line, will face one of the NFL’s best defensive units.
“They’re a talented group, that’s for sure.” Person said. “It’s a pretty unique group, especially in the NFL right now because a lot of them have played together for a while. They’re all on the same page at all times. It’s going to be a fun challenge.”
In 2017, while playing for the Indianapolis Colts, Person was graded as the third best center by Pro Football Focus, allowing only three quarterback pressures on 194 pass-blocking snaps.
With Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter expected to line up on his side of the offense, the 49ers will need that same level of reliability from Person if they want to keep Garoppolo’s pocket clean.
How will TE George Kittle look back from his shoulder injury?
Kittle has missed some time. Thanks to a separated shoulder sustained in the 49ers’ first preseason game of the year, the second-year tight end has been sidelined for nearly four weeks leading up to the regular season debut.
Expected to make his return Sunday, the Iowa product will look to shake off some of the rust and contribute to a versatile SanFrancisco offense.
“The first couple of days back [to practice] I had to kind of feel my way through it,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard, I’ve spent a lot of time with the training staff just really trying to make sure I’m good to go.”
Kittle is projected to be an integral part of the 49ers offensive attack considering his reliable pass-catching ability and chemistry with Garoppolo.
With starting running back Jerick McKinnon out for the year with a torn ACL, Kittle, along with the rest of the San Francisco pass catchers, will likely see more targets.
“We’ve got a very diverse group of guys that can all make different plays,” Kittle said. “From Pierre [Garçon] to Marquise[Goodwin], me, Trent [Taylor], Garrett Celek and [Matt] Breida, I think you’re going to have a lot of guys out there who are going to get a lot of touches, a lot of targets.”
Rookie LB Fred Warner will make his professional debut.
After four years at BYU, inside linebacker Fred Warner will make his pro debut against Minnesota.
Warner was selected in the third round of the 2018 draft and steps right into the role of MIKE linebacker while Reuben Foster serves a two-game suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy to begin the year.
“He was one of, if not the smartest interviews I’ve ever had personally at the combine for a linebacker,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said regarding Warner. “I don’t want to crown him quite yet. He’s a rookie, he’s going to have his peaks and valleys, but we have great confidence in him.”
Warner will have his work cut out for him as the 21-year-old rookie will be tasked with covering Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who have both been known to give opposing defenses headaches.
“Nothing is too big, nothing is too small and he’s been very steady,” Shanahan said of Warner. “That’s what’s going to give him a chance to be successful.”