Big things are expected from the 49ers in 2020.
A year after being six minutes away from Super Bowl glory, Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo and Co. plan to make it back to the Super Bowl and finish the job this time. The 49ers have a loaded roster that is ready to win now. But what if things go the other way? After all, the NFL teams often go from first place to last at the drop of a hat. Even so, on paper, the 49ers seem too talented to fail.
Pro Football Focus' Ben Linsey outlined the best- and worst-case scenario for each team. We know the 49ers' best-case scenario. They run through the NFL with little resistance en route to a sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history. Their worst-case scenario, which PFF has as their 10th percentile outcome has them land at 7-9.
Deebo Samuel’s foot injury is a problem that drags into the season, and the 49ers are without not just Emmanuel Sanders, but now both of their top two weapons at wide receiver from a season ago. They still have George Kittle, but the absence of Samuel puts considerable pressure on rookie Brandon Aiyuk ─ who has just one college season of high-level play under his belt ─ to be “the guy” at wide receiver. In turn, the 49ers offense becomes more one-dimensional, relying more on the run game than they would like to. Defensively, neither Emmanuel Moseley nor Ahkello Witherspoon takes full command of the No. 2 spot outside, which gives opposing offenses a weak spot to target.
Samuel's injury should be a point of concern for the 49ers. While the second-year receiver is optimistic he'll return for Week 1, Jones fractures often don't heal properly the first time and require more rehab or even a second surgery. Samuel was set to have a breakout season alongside rookie Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Kendrick Bourne. If Samuel's injury causes him to miss more than a few weeks than Garoppolo will have to rely on Aiyuk, Bourne, Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor to carry the load in the passing game.
That's a lot to ask of a rookie, a second-year player who missed his entire rookie season, a receiver coming off a missed season due to a Jones fracture of his own and Bourne, who has been a reliable slot receiver but isn't a No. 1.
Yes, Kittle will still see the majority of targets, but if defenses can bracket him without the threat of giving up big plays to Samuel or Emmanuel Sanders, it could make the 49ers' offense less potent. Aiyuk has worlds of talent, there's no doubt about that. But receivers often take time to adjust to the NFL, so expecting him to come in and be a No. 1 receiver immediately is unlikely.
While all that spells trouble, the 49ers still have one of the best offensive minds in football drawing up their plays in Kyle Shanahan. If the passing game is shaky early on due to Samuel's absence, I expect he'll be able to find a way to scheme around that.
As for the defense, the 49ers have little to worry about. Even if Emmanuel Moseley or Ahkello Witherspoon struggle, the 49ers' defensive line still will be one of the best in the game. A dominant defensive line is a secondary's best friend.
A 7-9 season would be beyond disappointing for a 49ers team that enters the season thinking Super Bowl or bust. They will have to stay healthy, hope Samuel heals on the 12=to-16 week timeline and get solid contributions on offense from Aiyuk, Hurd and Bourne is his absence. If they do that, a trip to Tampa should be in their sights.
Anything can happen in the NFL. Even good teams have nightmare seasons.