Patrick Mahomes always will be "the one that got away." Not just for the 49ers, not just for the Chicago Bears, but for a handful of teams.
Mahomes somehow fell to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and now he isn't going anywhere for a long, long time. Mahomes and the Chiefs agreed to a 10-year contract extension Monday, worth $503 million.
The 49ers, who owned the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft and selected Solomon Thomas after trading back one spot with the Chicago Bears, saw Mahomes' greatness firsthand on the brightest stage just five months ago. San Francisco forced Mahomes into two interceptions and sacked the 2018 NFL MVP four times. Still, that wasn't enough.
Mahomes and the Chiefs trailed the 49ers by 10 points with just over six minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIV. They then scored 21 unanswered points, beating the 49ers 31-20. In the blink of an eye, Mahomes stole the Lombardi Trophy from Jimmy Garoppolo and the rest of the 49ers.
While they don't play in the same conference, Mahomes staying in Kansas City for at least the next dozen years is a significant obstacle in the 49ers winning their first championship since the 1994 season. How can they compete with the Chiefs long-term for their own Super Bowl rings? Here are three keys to a tough task.
Jimmy G's development
This is where I put on my Captain Obvious hat. Yes, it all starts with Garoppolo, who was playing as good or better than Mahomes for much of the 49ers' Super Bowl loss. But Garoppolo fell short, there's no denying that.
We also have to remember this was Garoppolo's first full season in Kyle Shanahan's system, one year after tearing his ACL. Yet he still led the 49ers to 13 regular-season wins while passing for nearly 4,000 yards, and completed 69.1 percent of his pass attempts. Garoppolo wasn't on Mahomes' level last season, but he was very good.
The simple fact is Garoppolo ranked in the top five in the NFL in touchdowns (27), completion percentage and yards per attempt (8.4). He deserves more respect, and his coach feels the same way.
“Jimmy was one of the better quarterbacks in the league (last) year, and there’s still a ton of room to grow, though,” coach Kyle Shanahan said during the 49ers’ State of the Franchise virtual event. “And he knows that. I know that. To have only one year in this league for him to do what he did is very exciting.
“I can’t wait to get started with him this year. And I expect him to get better and better each week.”
The 49ers have defended Garoppolo all offseason. He has his faults, sure. He also is one of the better QBs in the league. If the 49ers are to make multiple championship runs, Garoppolo has to continue developing his game.
It all starts with Jimmy G.
[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
Re-sign George Kittle
The offense starts with Garoppolo, but Kittle might be the biggest cog in the machine. There's a reason why he was Pro Football Focus' highest rated player in the game last season.
Kittle is football's biggest unicorn. He's part bruising offensive lineman and part bulldozing receiver. The tight end truly is the best of both worlds. He also is due for a huge payday.
San Francisco's All-Pro is set to be a free agent after this season. The goal, however, is to never let him get there. His agent believes Kittle will be a 49er long-term, but it will take a hefty new contract.
“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said to NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “And those things take time for both sides. It’s a nice problem for everybody to have.
“At the end of the day, I trust the Niners will do the right thing and take good care of George, as they should. But I trust the process. I won’t comment where we’re at, or numbers or anything like that. But hopefully it gets done.”
It has to get done. The 49ers are a Porsche with Kittle on the field, and a beat-up Honda Civic -- à la my own car that has become The City drivers' favorite target practice -- without him.
[RELATED: Lott believes Shanahan is 49ers' modern version of Walsh]
Keep Fred Warner long-term
For how important Kittle is to the 49ers' offense, Warner nearly has as big of an impact on the defense. He is the perfect hybrid linebacker in today's modern NFL, one who can actually slow down elite QBs like Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
In the Super Bowl alone, Warner put on a show. He had seven tackles, one pass defensed and intercepted Mahomes.
Warner has averaged 121 tackles through his first two seasons in the league. Even more importantly, he's dominant in defending the passing game. He already is among the best linebackers when it comes to breaking up passes, and had a 74.5 coverage grade across 1,166 total snaps last season. That was the fifth-best grade of any linebacker who played at least 1,000 snaps.
Through two seasons with the 49ers, Warner has three interceptions and 15 passes defensed. He also added three sacks and three forced fumbles last season.
Warner, a 2018 third-round pick, is signed through the next two seasons. The 49ers have to keep him in the Bay Area for much longer.
Everything starts with Garoppolo and Kittle is the engine that makes the offense run. Warner, however, is at the forefront of a breed of linebackers who can change the game on defense, even giving stars like Mahomes headaches for years to come.