49ers' future pinned to five players
What does the future hold?
The 49ers take a six-game losing streak into Sunday’s matchup against the New Orleans Saints. A look at the schedule does not leave much room for 49ers optimism with the next two weeks featuring a road game against Arizona and a home outing against New England.
The 49ers have nine games remaining. With little hope remaining for this season, perhaps, the fan base can become encouraged for the future if these five players step up on Sunday and start to show they can be building blocks for the future.
5) RT Trent Brown
Brown had an impressive training camp. His play pushed Anthony Davis to the bench and, ultimately, into retirement. Brown was particularly impressive against Von Miller during joint practices against the Denver Broncos.
However, Brown did not build on that momentum through the first seven games of the season. He has surrendered 18 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and has been called for a team-high four penalties. Brown has tremendous potential. Now, he must continue to invest the work necessary to become a quality starter.
4) DL Arik Armstead
The 49ers’ first-round pick from 2015 is big, strong and athletic. He is tied for the team-lead with 2.5 sacks while playing with a shoulder issue that has plagued him since training camp and sidelined him for the entire exhibition season. He also leads the 49ers’ defensive line with 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Armstead appears to be at his best when he’s using his athleticism to get up the field, rather than just holding the point of attack and reacting as the play develops. So, more than anything, the coaching staff has to determine how to best utilize Armstead’s talents to build for his future success.
3) CB Jimmie Ward
It appears this coaching staff got it right when it was decided during the offseason program to move Ward from safety to cornerback. He was always going to be just a player for nickel situations as a safety. Now, he’s an every-down player with a bright future at a key position.
Rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson will not play on Sunday, so Ward will return to the spot at which he opened the season. Ward should get better and better with more experience at cornerback. Then, the organization can use some of its ample salary-cap surplus to sign him to a long-term extension after the season.
2) RG Joshua Garnett
The 49ers traded into the back end of the first round to select Garnett, the Outland Trophy winner at Stanford. The 49ers evaluated Garnett as the best run-blocking guard in the draft. The question was whether he could pass-protect at this level. And after two starts, those concerns seem justified.
Andrew Tiller did nothing to lose the starting job, but the 49ers wanted to get Garnett on the field. After all, teams simply cannot invest a first-round pick on a guard and not get production. If Garnett and Brown work well together over the final nine games, the 49ers can feel good about having the right side of the offensive line set for many years in the future.
1) DL DeForest Buckner
Like Armstead, Buckner has all the size, strength and athleticism any team would want from a defensive lineman. His technique is where the rookie must improve over the final nine games of the season. The 49ers are surrendering 185 yards rushing per game. While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around, Buckner has been targeted by opposing offenses.
At 6 foot 7, Buckner tends to play too upright, especially when he is tired, making it too easy for double-team blocks to wash him out of the play. It’s all part of the learning process for a young defensive lineman who was able to rely on pure talent to win at the college level. The 49ers’ run defense must tighten up to provide hope for the future. And that all begins with improved play from the defensive line. Buckner is playing nearly every snap on defense, so he's going to get plenty of opportunity to hone his skills.