Injuries and inconsistency derailed what was expected to be a "revenge tour" for the 49ers in 2020, after they were just a few miscues away from a Super Bowl victory. A 6-10 campaign was the end resultinstead, good for last place in the highly-competitive NFC West.
As long as the 49ers' luck is better in terms of roster health in 2021, NFL Media Senior Analyst Gil Brandt sees coach Kyle Shanahan's group as the most likely squad among the eight teams that finished last in their division to flip the script and go from worst to first.
"Extenuating circumstances -- including a rash of injuries that led to the Niners being among the league leaders in terms of talent committed to IR, as well as their temporary displacement to Arizona because of COVID-19 protocols in California -- torpedoed San Francisco's chances of defending its NFC title in 2020. It follows, then, that fully healthy campaigns from Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Dee Ford, all of whom missed serious time last season, would make this team a bona fide contender, even in this relatively strong division," Brandt writes.
One of the main storylines of the offseason for the 49ers once again revolves around Jimmy Garoppolo and his viability as the franchise's starting quarterback going forward. The team continues to be mentioned as a landing spot for high-profile disgruntled quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson in Houston, as well as a number of draft prospects.
Brandt isn't sold on Jimmy G, but believes he is solid and has operated well within Shanahan's offense.
"One area where the Niners could make a change is at the quarterback position. It will be interesting to see if Kyle Shanahan sticks with Jimmy Garoppolo, who is returning from his own injury-hampered season, or pursues someone he thinks can run his offense more effectively. Personally, I don't think Garoppolo is all-world -- he does limit what San Francisco can do, to a degree -- but he's still an above-average starter. Frankly, when the Niners' run game is operating at full capacity, it can make any QB look better," Brandt continued.
Garoppolo has missed 23 games over his three full seasons in San Francisco, after coming over in a midyear trade back in 2017.
We've already seen one team in the NFC West make a major change at QB, as the Los Angeles Rams reportedly have acquired Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade with the Detroit Lions, shipping out former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff in the process.
The 49ers face a complicated salary cap situation entering the offseason, with just $13.3 million available and several significant priorities confronting general manager John Lynch ahead of a potential QB change.
If the 49ers defense can maintain its high-performance level with new coordinator DeMeco Ryans taking the reins, and Shanahan's offense stays healthy and returns to the elite running game we saw in 2019 -- which will generate more opportunities in the play-action passing game -- it's not hard to fathom the 49ers returning to the top of the NFC West in 2021.
But in arguably the NFL's best division top-to-bottom, it certainly won't be easy.