While this season has shown expectations should be tempered, the development of young players like George Kittle, Mike McGlinchey and Matt Breida gives this organization hope.
The final six weeks of the season will be about evaluation. Identifying people who will be apart of the future will be key for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.
With back-to-back losing seasons becoming a reality, Kyle Shanahan will be evaluating his coaching staff, while general manager John Lynch has an almost-certain top-five draft choice come April.
Before the 49ers head down the final stretch, a progress report with a look to the future is in order.
Looking optimistically at the injuries to Garoppolo and starting running back Jerick McKinnon, they opened opportunities for others to step up. McKinnon’s injury gave Brieda the chance for more carries— one of the biggest positives of the season — but his success has been a group effort. The additions of McGlinchey and center Weston Richburg have turned the 49ers offensive line into one of the best run blocking groups in the NFL. Brieda’s breakthrough has set the 49ers up to have a dynamic one-two punch when Mckinnon returns healthy.
Run Game Grade: A
Outside of Garoppolo, the rise of the 49ers receiving corp was another preseason storyline, starting with Marquise Goodwin, a player highlighted by many as a guy on the verge of a breakout season. While Goodwin has many tools you want in a WR1, he’s dealt with inconsistency issues throughout his career. After playing 16 games for the first time in his career last season, both injury and inconsistency have hampered his 2018.
He had 11 catches on 18 targets in his first five games of the season, peaking with a four-catch, 126-yard game against the Green Bay Packers but failing to surpass 30 receiving yards in any of the other four contests. Over the last three games, he’s been targeted 13 times, but has just six catches. Goodwin’s play could be a result of Garoppolo’s injury, but it’d be encouraging to see him string together six straight games where he’s contributing at an even level.
With Pierre Garçon injured, a three-way battle for Garoppolo’s number three option will be underway for the remainder of the season. Rookie Dante Pettis has been underwhelming, While Kendrick Bourne has made progress in his sophomore season, Trent Taylor has taken a step back. Identifying which of these three can be Garçon’s heir will be a priority for the remainder of the season.
While the 49ers receivers have been quiet, second-year tight end George Kittle is turning into not only the best pass catching option on the team, but in the NFL. Kittle gives the Shanahan an elite weapon at one of the slimmer positions in the NFL. Every team in the league is looking for the next Rob Gronkowski or Zach Ertz, and soon enough teams will be looking for the next Kittle.
Receiving Grade: B-
One of the most scrutinized issues heading into the final six games of the season will be the competition for Garoppolo’s backup. After two strong performances in prime time, Nick Mullens seems to be running away with the competition. Although Mullens has looked good, he still hasn’t faced the competition C.J. Beathard did. Mullens faced two teams with combined four victories, while Beathard has faced the Rams, Packers and Chargers — all teams that are in playoff contention. Mullens’ upcoming games against the Seahawks, Bears and Rams will give the front office film to see if he can be the guy behind Garoppolo for 2019.
Backup QB Grade: C-
The defense was never touted to be the season’s savior, but the mix of young talent and stable veterans gave this unit some hope, to say the least. Richard Sherman’s play has been as-advertised for the 49ers in year one, but finding a corner to be on the opposite side has been difficult. Ahkello Witherspoon had a strong end to 2017, but hasn’t matched that in 2018.
Witherspoon’s lack of awareness has been the most glaring concern, as other teams have consistently targeted him while staying away from Sherman. Behind Witherspoon, the defensive back rotation has been somewhat convoluted, with a mix of players getting random playing time. Consistency within the defensive back group needs to be a priority down the final stretch.
Defensive Back Grade: D
When there are three first-round picks on the defensive line and the consensus is this team needs to address an edge rusher need early in the 2019 draft, it’s safe to say things aren’t where they need to be.
Deforest Buckner has solidified himself as one of the 49ers’ best overall players, but outside of him, it’s been an up-and-down season for the 49ers defensive line. Solomon Thomas will be one of the most scrutinized players on the entire roster for the remainder of the season. Finding out if Thomas is best suited to play inside or on the edge will be key, but identifying whether or not Thomas can be the player they drafted him to be — at No. 3 overall — will be one of the most important things for Lynch in 2018.
Defensive Line Grade: D
Coaching and Administrative Staff:
There is no hot seat in Santa Clara, at least for Shanahan. Although Shanahan is in line to start off his career with back-to-back losing seasons, he still has a firm grasp on the 49ers coaching reigns.
The same may not be said for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who’s a candidate for scapegoat. Saleh hasn’t been able to get the best out a group of highly-drafted young defensive players. The aforementioned issues of consistency have been a byproduct of Salehs erratic rotations. If things don’t improve in the final six weeks, Saleh could be the first coach fired from Shanahan’s original regime.
Shanahan can still draw plays with the best of them, but his ability to close out games is becoming a growing concern. Shanahan is 3-9 in games decided by four points or less in his career. Blowing leads to Green Bay and New York in prime time has put Shanahan’s late-game management under a magnifying glass. Closing out games will be key for Shanahan going forward.
Coaching Grades: D
The most impressive group in the 49ers organization has been Lynch’s staff in the front office. Their ability to find talent in the draft, and in the undrafted free agent scarp heap, has helped this team build a young corps that gives this organization hope.
Drafting contributors like Kittle, Fred Warner, Ronald Blair and Adrian Colbert in the middle and late rounds has built this team’s foundation. Lynch gets a lot of flack for reaching on Thomas at three overall, and Pettis in the second round, but finding the guys listed above gives Lynch quite the resume when it comes to drafting. San Francisco’s first-round pick this past April, McGlinchey, has quietly been one of the best draft picks in the entire class. McGlinchey look like pillar for the team to build around going forward. If the NFL season ended today the 49ers would be in line for the first overall pick, and after two solid drafts, 49er fans should have confidence in Lynch to deliver.
Front Office Grade: A