49ers

49ers expected to win 10 or fewer games in 2020 by Pro Football Focus

49ers expected to win 10 or fewer games in 2020 by Pro Football Focus

The 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season last year, barely edging out the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. San Francisco should be good again in 2020, and certainly capable of contending for a playoff spot -- if not more. That said, there's reason to believe the Niners will have a worse record in the season ahead, even if they're not necessarily a worse team.

A few days after San Francisco's heartbreaking loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, early NFL season win totals were posted, and the 49ers were given an over/under of 10.5 victories. Pro Football Focus' Eric Eager recently examined some of his favorite values based on those early win total projections, and San Francisco's 'under' was among the select few.

"The 49ers are in a very similar place to where the Los Angeles Rams were a season ago," Eager wrote. "They have a great, young offensive mind, a quarterback who is good but needs infrastructure to succeed and a defense that was among the league's best, especially up front."

In explaining his reasoning for the under, Eager focused on some of San Francisco's pending free agents.

"With Emmanuel Sanders, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward set to be free agents, and with only $13 million in cap space and a situation where the team likely needs to get better fundamentally just to stay the same, look for the 49ers to remain a good team in 2020 but, like the Rams, fall short of double-digit-win expectations against a schedule that includes non-NFC West opponents New England, Dallas, Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay."

That last bit is important, too. As part of the league's effort to create parity, the 49ers had a third-place schedule last season, after finishing in third place in the NFC West in 2018. That obviously won't be the case in 2020, as San Francisco will play a first-place schedule as the reigning NFC West champions. 

So, Eager brings up several good points. The 49ers will not only have a tougher schedule in the coming season, but also might be without one or more marquee players that helped them reach the Super Bowl. Add in the fact that San Francisco won't be sneaking up on any teams in the year ahead, and it's easy to understand why the Niners are expected to win fewer games in 2020 than they did in 2019.

However, I'd caution against comparing the 2020 49ers to the 2019 Rams.

Whereas San Francisco reached the Super Bowl with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo carrying a $20 million cap hit, Los Angeles did so while Jared Goff still was on his rookie contract, which carried a cap hit of just under $3 million. That's an extra $17 million the Rams could comparatively spread around their roster to build a Super Bowl contender that the 49ers didn't have.

This is why good quarterbacks on rookie contracts are so valuable.

Los Angeles ran into trouble once Goff's rookie contract concluded -- prior to the start of last season. He carried a $26 million cap hit this past season, and without that additional financial flexibility, the Rams had to cut costs elsewhere, which significantly deteriorated their overall depth. The end result? Going from Super Bowl runner-up to a 9-7 non-playoff team.

While the 49ers will have to make some tough decisions due to their salary-cap constraints as Eager noted, the space they have already has been accounted for their QB's large salary. Yes, they still need to re-sign some big-money players, but they should be far better able to retain the depth that made them so formidable than the Rams proved capable of.

[RELATED: Why 49ers seem to be in good shape at QB this offseason]

The odds are against San Francisco reaching at least 13 regular-season wins in 2020. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be a worse team, though, and expecting a three-victory dropoff (or more) seems a bit extreme for a team that was minutes away from winning the Lombardi Trophy, and should return most of what made them so dominant.

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

Why Bobby Wagner is wrong Seahawks, not 49ers, are NFC West team to beat

The 49ers are reigning champions of their conference and division. They held a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. Though the Kansas City Chiefs ultimately came back to win, that was only San Francisco's fourth loss of the season, including the playoffs. In those four defeats, the 49ers lost by a combined total of only 24 points -- nearly half of which resulted from the Super Bowl.

So, naturally, San Francisco would be the team to beat -- if not in the NFC, surely in the NFC West -- next season, right?

Not according to Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.

During an appearance on ESPN's "First Take" on Wednesday, Wagner expressed significant confidence in his team, and made the case that the Seahawks should be the favorites in the NFC West.

"I feel really confident," Wagner said. "Obviously, Russell [Wilson] is an amazing quarterback; the things that he does on the field are just amazing. Like you said, he's one of the greatest quarterbacks in our game. We're confident on that side. I feel like from the defensive standpoint, there's a lot of room for improvement. We have to play a little bit better. I feel like if we make those changes and make those improvements, I still feel like we'll be the team to beat."

Still? Hmmm ...

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He's absolutely right about Wilson. The guy is a magician in the pocket -- and that's where you hope to contain him. Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he entered the NFL, and there's arguably no more terrifying opposing QB to 49er fans. With Wilson having two deep targets in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, as well as a strong running game, there's ample reason for Wagner to be confident about Seattle's offense.

The defense, on the other hand? Well, he's correct that there's room for improvement. Plenty of it.

Last season, the Seahawks ranked 26th overall in total defense, and tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. That was with standout defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney in tow, but all signs point toward him signing elsewhere this offseason in free agency. They re-signed defensive tackle Jarran Reed, traded for cornerback Quentin Dunbar and signed pass-rushers Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, but other than that, Seattle hasn't really addressed the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Granted, the 2020 NFL Draft is right around the corner, but there's no guarantee they'll find any immediate contributors there.

Wagner is phenomenal, and fellow linebacker K.J. Wright is very solid, as well. But they both lived up to those reputations last season, and look how that worked out. Yes, the 49ers won the division by a matter of inches in Week 17, but Seattle also required overtime to beat a shorthanded San Francisco squad in Week 10, which was without star tight end George Kittle.

Though the 49ers have retained most of their own free agents, they did see wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sign with the New Orleans Saints, and made the tough decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. Of course, San Francisco didn't lose Buckner for nothing -- like Seattle might with Clowney. The 49ers got the No. 13 overall pick in the upcoming draft in exchange, which should help them replace Buckner or Sanders, or address another position.

[RELATED: Oklahoma WR Lamb could be 49ers' Sanders replacement]

The Seahawks currently have five picks in the first four rounds of the 2020 draft, but they gave up a third-rounder to acquire Clowney last offseason, and their earliest selection doesn't come until No. 27 overall.

In addition to the No. 13 overall pick, the 49ers also possess No. 31.

Any team with Wilson behind center should feel confident. But last I checked, he doesn't play defense, and that, among other reasons, is why the 49ers -- and not the Seahawks -- are the team to beat in the NFC West.

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

NFL Draft 2020: 49ers could target these three wide receivers on Day 3

The 49ers have selected a wide receiver in 17 consecutive drafts.

That streak is certain to continue later this month, as the 49ers will look to bring in a young player to help offset the loss of veteran Emmanuel Sanders in free agency to the New Orleans Saints.

The past two years the 49ers drafted two receivers both years.

Whether the 49ers invest an early pick in a wide receiver or not, they could double back on Day 3 of the draft in hopes of finding a player to develop into an impact player.

Here are three options who could be available in the fourth round or later:

Isaiah Hodgins, Oregon State

Isaiah Hodgins (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) declared for the NFL draft after a junior season in which he caught 86 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns for Oregon State.

Hodgins has what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan seems to value – the ability to run routes with an ability to change direction quickly without losing speed. Hodgins is 5 inches taller than Deebo Samuel, yet Hodgins timed faster in the three-cone drill than Samuel. Hodgins ran the drill in 7.01 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Last year, Samuel ran a 7.03. Hodgins’ 20-yard shuttle was 4.12. Samuel’s was 4.14.

Hodgins is not a speed-burner with a time of 4.61 seconds in the 40-yard dash, but he could be an effective receiver on the outside to make grabs with his strong catch radius and keep the chains moving with his ability to take patterns over the middle of the field on third downs.

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Aaron Parker, Rhode Island

Aaron Packer’s teammate, Isaiah Coulter, ran much better in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. But Parker seems as if he would be a good fit for the 49ers due to his route-running, change-of-direction skills and toughness as a blocker in the running game.

Parker (6-2, 209) has a basketball background and posted one of the top three-cone times (6.94) at the combine. Shanahan will see a wide receiver who can get open quickly against man coverage on choice routes. Parker was a team captain who caught 81 passes for 1,224 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. Coulter caught 72 passes for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns.

Parker could be available deep into Day 3 in a loaded group of wide receivers.

RELATED: Do 49ers need to give Jimmy Garoppolo No. 1 wideout?]

Quez Watkins, Southern Mississippi

If the 49ers are looking for a player to take the top off the defense while playing a limited number of snaps throughout the course of a game, Quez Watkins is a solid late-round option.

Watkins (6-foot, 185) is a player who can bring the speed in great abundance. His time of 4.35 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine ranked second behind only Alabama’s Henry Ruggs.

With Marquise Goodwin’s status with the 49ers this season looking tenuous, the 49ers could select Watkins on Day 3 and have him perform a specialized set of plays. Watkins capped his college career with 64 catches for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns.