NFL

San Francisco 49ers: Belief in Garoppolo will define pivotal year

By Sports Desk March 10, 2021

For the teams that have to watch the confetti fall on their opponent at the end of an arduous season, the Super Bowl hangover is no myth.

Ask any number of teams to have come up short on the biggest stage and then gone on to endure a nightmare subsequent campaign, they will confirm its legitimacy.

The 2020 San Francisco 49ers experienced perhaps the most severe hangover of any Super Bowl runner-up in the modern era, and little of it was their own doing.

San Francisco suffered from an utterly remarkable injury crisis. In a year where every team in the league was impacted by the coronavirus, the Niners had to deal with the core of one of the most talented rosters in the league being decimated.

Having seen three opt out before the start of the season, the Niners had 40 players placed on either the injured reserve, physically unable to perform, or reserve/COVID-19 list over the course of the year.

The scale of the injury crisis left head coach Kyle Shanahan and those on his roster who stayed healthy fighting an uphill battle to reach the postseason.

It was a fight they ultimately lost despite a very admirable effort, finishing 6-10, leaving San Francisco with significant questions to answer this offseason.

Using Stats Perform data, we look back on a season defined by misfortune and look ahead to what the 49ers must do in free agency and the draft to ensure they are back in the postseason in 2021.

Offense

Keeping your starting quarterback healthy is imperative to success on offense, but the 49ers rarely had their top option, Jimmy Garoppolo, available at 100 per cent in 2020.

Garoppolo suffered a high ankle sprain in a fateful Week 2 win over the New York Jets and never truly recovered.

He featured in only six games and did not build a convincing case that he deserves to remain the starter long term.

The former New England Patriot completed 94 of his 140 passes for 1,096 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Garoppolo's interception percentage of 3.6 was the third-highest among players to have attempted at least 100 throws.

One of the two players above him on that list was his backup, Nick Mullens (3.7), whose turnovers helped end San Francisco's hopes of qualifying for the playoffs.

Mullens committed 16 giveaways, 12 of those coming on interceptions, with no team conceding more takeaway points than the Niners' 124.

Those turnovers tilted contests in which the undermanned Niners were generally competitive in their opponents' favour and limited the upside of an offense that still finished in the top half in yards per play (5.66) and passing yards per play (6.62) despite the absences of Garoppolo, All-Pro tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel for much of the season.

Yet the fact Mullens still managed to finish the season 15th among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt (7.48) is illustrative of the ceiling of Shanahan's offense.

Samuel (12.09) led the league in yards after catch per reception among receivers with at least 10 catches, while no rookie caught more red-zone touchdowns than Brandon Aiyuk (5).

When it is healthy, the Niners' offense can still be one of the most dynamic in football.

However, it requires a durable quarterback who takes care of the ball and, in 2021, will need more of a boost from a running game that was minus NFC Championship Game hero Raheem Mostert for most of the year, San Francisco finishing 16th in yards per rush (4.32) having been ninth in 2019.

Ensuring the 49ers possess those offensive necessities in 2021 will be paramount given the amount of turnover their top-10 defense looks set to experience.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh earned a head coaching job with the Jets on the back of the efforts of his depleted defense in 2020.

Minus 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa, who tore his ACL against the Jets, Saleh kept a defense that saw its cast of characters consistently rotate due to injuries and Covid issues in the top 10.

The 49ers ranked fifth in opponent yards per play allowed (5.05), with San Francisco extremely stingy against the run, giving up an average of 3.96 yards per carry that only five teams bettered.

Though the offense's tendency to turn the ball over consistently put the defense in bad positions, the 49ers were the fourth-best team in the league at keeping opposing offenses out of the endzone.

San Francisco gave up touchdowns on 37 of the 183 offensive drives faced in a season where the Niners' opponents had the eighth-best average starting field position in the NFL.

The 49ers' secondary consistently rose to the task when challenged by opposing passing attacks, with the 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards San Francisco gave up tied for the sixth-fewest in the league.

Their efforts in keeping opposing passing attacks in check were helped by the performances of unheralded edge rusher Kerry Hyder, who compensated somewhat for Bosa's absence with 8.5 sacks and a combined total of 53.5 knockdowns and hurries, tied for 20th in the league.

However, that was some way short of the 81.5 Bosa had a year ago, and the fact the Niners were still one of the better pass defenses in the NFL despite finishing 22nd in sacks (30), 28th in hurries (144) and 27th in knockdowns (68) speaks to the high level of performance from the secondary.

Yet the odds of keeping that secondary together in a pivotal offseason look slim.

Offseason

The 49ers have been publicly supportive of Garoppolo despite his struggles in staying on the field, but there is still significant doubt as to whether Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will double down on that backing and stick with him as their signal-caller in 2021.

Having said to have been interested in Matthew Stafford before he was traded to NFC West rivals the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers are also reported to have called about the availability of Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Frequently mentioned as a possible destination for disgruntled Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson and Sam Darnold of the Jets, the Niners at the very least appear to be open to the possibility of putting a fresh face at quarterback, and they would have significant financial motivation for moving on from Garoppolo.

The Niners are in a better position than most when it comes to the salary cap. They are scheduled to be over $26million under the $182.5m salary cap, but parting ways with Garoppolo would free up just shy of $24m in extra room and give San Francisco additional flexibility with which to keep hold of a plethora of free agents.

Thirty-one members of the 2020 roster are scheduled for free agency, including every cornerback who took a defensive snap last season.

Re-signing All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is the priority for San Francisco, with corner Jason Verrett likely to be next on the list following a superb comeback season after years of injury frustration.

Richard Sherman is not expected to be back and the futures of key contributors like Kyle Juszczyk and Jaquiski Tartt are more clouded.

San Francisco's list of needs in the draft could therefore be long but the upside of their hangover is that it landed them the 12th overall pick.

That puts the Niners potentially in the conversation for one of the top quarterbacks in the class should they indeed want an alternative to Garoppolo, and they are in an excellent spot to land a premium player at a number of positions, with corner, edge rusher and interior offensive line all areas in need of reinforcement.

Getting Bosa back and hopefully avoiding an astronomical level of injuries will go a long way to putting the Niners back in playoff contention.

Yet with several departures likely on defense and first-time coordinator DeMeco Ryans taking over for Saleh, the 49ers may not be able to rely on that side of the ball to do the heavy lifting as it has often done over the past two years.

That means the 49ers can ill-afford more uncertainty at quarterback and puts the wisdom of keeping a signal-caller who has missed 23 games with the team due to injury into serious question. Garoppolo's durability concerns have held back what should be one of the most consistently devastating offenses in the NFL.

With clear avenues to make a change at the most important position, how far the Niners go in 2021 hinges largely on their level of belief in a quarterback who had them seven minutes from Super Bowl LIV glory.

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