Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the 49ers organization, 49ers fans around the world and those who are here once again hoping I pick the 49ers to finish the season with three wins:
The 49ers are coming off a great season. Getting to the NFC Championship Game is nothing to be ashamed of. But it does feel like the 49ers -- as good as they have played -- are stuck in a little bit of a rut. Nothing serious, but a little rut. Let's take a look.
One high from last season: Beating the Packers in the playoffs. Again. Legions of 49ers fans were thrilled, and fans of NFC North teams outside of Green Bay were ecstatic -- especially us Bears fans. Seriously, this was a like a playoff victory for Bears fans (I know, it's sad). But yes, you too, 49ers fans. I don't want to understate what it meant for your long, storied rivalry with the Packers. Beating them a week after ousting the Cowboys was just so, so sweet. (And I don't mind pointing out I picked the 49ers to win both of those games. Just saying.)
One low from last season: Losing the NFC Championship Game. The Rams were so concerned about a potential hostile takeover of SoFi Stadium by Niners fans, they tried to limit ticket sales outside of Southern California. Andrew Whitworth's wife, Melissa, even asked Rams fans not to sell their tickets to 49ers fans. Talk about living in somebody's head rent-free. So, it was epically disappointing to lose that game. To be honest, I was looking forward to the 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl reboot. And yeah, I picked the 49ers to win the game, so blame me.
Head coach: Kyle Shanahan. I'm a huge Kyle Shanahan guy. Do I say this every year? Probably. I think we kind of overlook the success he's had in San Francisco because the expectations for him are always going to be sky-high. But it always feels to me like he's held to a standard that coaches who have the benefit of working with proven Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks aren't. The fact that Shanahan has done so well with his current quarterback situation is a testament to his talent as a coach. He's led the Niners to a Super Bowl and nearly made it back to the title game last season. There is no doubt he is one of the best coaches in the NFL right now. There is just one thing that looms over him like the Sword of Damocles. And I think we both know what that is.
Quarterback: Trey Lance? Jimmy Garoppolo? Jimmy G. is still currently on the roster. Let me tell you what I know about him: He's a good player. He's a winner. But he needs to be healthy to do succeed. And Jimmy is currently recovering from shoulder surgery.
The team traded up for Lance in last year's draft, passing on more pro-ready quarterbacks like Mac Jones and Justin Fields to take him third overall. So what are we supposed to do with this situation? In a perfect world, Garoppolo would have been healthy enough to trade earlier this offseason, and the team could have completely committed to Lance. But that can't happen with Jimmy still on the roster. It will split the fans and the locker room. I guess the best-case scenario is that there is a quarterback emergency in the preseason and the Niners are able to unload Garoppolo to a team in need. But that seems like a kind of dubious way for that to unfold. This is really going to be a delicate situation for Shanahan to manage, and I don't envy him one bit. (Well, maybe a little bit, because he is an NFL head coach. But you know what I mean.)
Projected 2022 MVP: Nick Bosa, defensive end. I know, you might ask yourself what happened to Deebo Samuel in this discussion. And we will get to him in a minute. But we still need to reflect on how good Bosa was in his return from a knee injury that limited him to two games in 2020. Bosa was out there performing at an elite level last season and finished with 15.5 sacks. And you can only imagine what that number would be like if he wasn't given the Shaquille O'Neal treatment (aka, not getting penalty calls in his favor because he's just such a dominant player).
New face to know: Drake Jackson, defensive end. The Niners selected Jackson with their first pick in this year's draft (61st overall), and it was a really solid choice for a team that needs someone who can play opposite Bosa and get to the quarterback. If Bosa is Batman, then Jackson can be Tim Drake (aka, Robin). (Well, Red Robin, out of deference and respect to Jason Todd. Sorry, I've gone too far.) The 49ers are hopeful he can develop into that menacing complementary pass rusher. Or he's going to become Eli Harold. I know that drop from Tim Drake to Eli Harold is a big drop. But that's what we're working with here.
2022 breakout star: Ambry Thomas, cornerback. I felt bad for Thomas last year. The 2021 third-round pick was inactive for most of the first half of the season after a rough training camp. Eventually, he was forced onto the field due to injuries. And you know how this goes: When you're not playing well, the ball always seems to find you. If I'm not mistaken, I think Ja’Marr Chase had about 900 yards against him in Week 14. Which was cool, because I had Chase on my fantasy teams. But Thomas played well down the stretch and ended up being reliable. He's a projected starter heading into the season.
Three key dates:
- Week 1 at Chicago Bears. It was a pretty competitive game when the 49ers visited the Bears last October. And this could be a matchup featuring Trey Lance versus Justin Fields, two players who are going to be compared to each other for years to come as members of the 2021 QB class.
- Week 8 at Los Angeles Rams. The 49ers have a pretty tough back-to-back headed into their Week 9 bye, hosting the Chiefs before heading south to take on the defending champions.
- Week 18 vs. Arizona Cardinals. These two teams could be fighting for the NFC West title, or at least a wild-card spot. I expect this one to be a lot of fun.
Will the 49ers be able to ...
Find common ground with Deebo Samuel? At some point, there's going to be a documentary on the eyebrow-raising contract Christian Kirk received from the Jaguars early in free agency and the chain of events that followed, with several high-profile wide receivers being dealt after requesting a change of scenery, including Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown. Deebo has asked for a trade, but that wish has not been granted, and if I'm the 49ers, it never will. Shanahan said after the draft that no offer the team received for Deebo "was even remotely close" to being fair. San Francisco will have a lot more cap space available if Garoppolo is moved, but the main point of contention between Samuel and the team doesn't appear to be tied to money. There have been different reasons reported on why Deebo wants out, from the desire to play closer to home (South Carolina) to wanting to run the ball less. The latter seems like a good business decision for a receiver who eventually wants to get paid. Even if us fantasy dorks would be upset with a lack of runs for Deebo, we just want to see him happy. Perhaps he and the Niners will be able to bridge the gap before the season? We'll keep you posted.
Replace the offensive linemen they lost? Laken Tomlinson signed a three-year, $40 million deal with the Jets this offseason. Which seems like a lot of cash, but he leaves a big hole to fill for the 49ers. They also lost Tom Compton, who started 10 games for the team over the past two seasons. Aaron Banks, a second-round pick in 2021, will likely get the first crack at left guard. But rookie Spencer Burford has some upside, too. By the way, can we get some more of Trent Williams in motion? This still lives in my head rent-free.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overlook: George Kittle seems to really like Trey Lance. Kittle is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I can't wait to see what he does after his playing days, when he becomes the next Pat McAfee. One thing I really admire about him is how much he sticks up for his quarterbacks. The dude has always had Garoppolo's back. But recently, Kittle was part of a group of 49ers players who took in a Golden State Warriors playoff game to celebrate Lance's birthday -- and remember, a quarterback's birthday party was a huge plot point in the movie Draft Day. Kittle has even compared Lance to Bills star Josh Allen. So, needless to say, George is in on whoever starts at quarterback.
... people shouldn't overthink: Will the 49ers lean on one running back? I think this might be more of a concern for the fantasy enthusiast who would love nothing more than for Elijah Mitchell to build off his rookie season and have a major breakout. I'm not sure that's going to happen. The team drafted Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round to join a running back room that still includes Jeff Wilson and Trey Sermon. And honestly, the 49ers are about the system, and it doesn't really matter who is running the ball. Sorry, fantasy dorks.
For 2022 to be a success, the 49ers MUST:
- Get back to the playoffs. It's not like Shanahan is on the hot seat or anything. Which was kind of a dumb narrative that briefly popped up in some corners during the middle of last season. But the 49ers do have a lot of talent. We're still not sure if Deebo Samuel is going to be on the team for much longer. These championship windows don't stay open forever, so maybe it is time for the 49ers to make a move.