49ers

49ers receivers' stats starkly contrast with Saints' Michael Thomas

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49ers receivers' stats starkly contrast with Saints' Michael Thomas

The 49ers haven't seen a wide receiver like Michael Thomas in 2019.

The New Orleans Saints star leads the NFL in receptions (110) and receiving yards (1,290), ranking fifth in the league in yards per touch (11.5). Catching passes from an all-time great in Drew Brees and playing half of your games in the comfort of the Superdome helps, but Thomas' prolificacy is stark when contrasted with the 49ers' wide-receiving corps, as Pro Football Focus' Jeff Denney noted Monday. 

A full season with Emmanuel Sanders in the fold surely would've made the aforementioned gap bigger. Plus, the 49ers rely on a tight end for much of their receiving production. George Kittle leads the team in targets (67), receptions (54) and receiving yards (687), ranking no worse than eighth among NFL tight ends in those categories. 

Still, Thomas is something else. Kittle and 49ers rookie receiver Deebo Samuel have combined for 1,251 receiving yards, or 39 fewer than Thomas has on his own. Brees and Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater remarkably have thrown to Thomas on over 30 percent of their throws this season, whereas 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has targeted one of Kittle and Samuel just over 35 percent of the time this season. 

[RELATED: Where 49ers stand in NFC playoff picture after Saints' win]

Thomas is coming off his worst performance of the season, as he caught six passes for 48 yards on short rest in the Saints' Thanksgiving win over the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers would be wise to take a page out of the Falcons' playbook, but that is easier said than done, considering Thomas has at least 89 receiving yards in all but two of his games this season and has caught at least two-thirds of his targets in each game.

Brees will throw to Thomas early and often Sunday. How often will go a long way towards determining if the 49ers can avoid their first losing streak of the season.

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.

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

The 49ers' road back to the Super Bowl always was going to be tougher than their most recent one. That's what happens when you play a first-place schedule as opposed to a third-place one. But based on a couple of developments Tuesday, that road just got even tougher.

First, Drew Brees took to Instagram to let the world know he would be returning for a 20th NFL season and 15th with the New Orleans Saints.

Brees, who turned 41 in January, was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month, but the quarterback previously had made it clear that he would either retire or return for another season in the Big Easy. Clearly, he chose the latter.

While Brees and the Saints still will need to agree to a contract, it appears that is a foregone conclusion. When Brees hit free agency in 2018, he agreed to a two-year, $50 million contract with New Orleans, but with only one year guaranteed.

Brees will be back with the Saints for the 2020 NFL season, but it now appears unlikely that his backup, Teddy Bridgewater, will do the same. Like Brees, Bridgewater is an unrestricted free agent, and is likely to command a higher salary on the open market than New Orleans can afford after he went 5-0 as a starter while Brees was injured last season.

Taysom Hill, the Saints' do-it-all third-string QB, is a restricted free agent, so New Orleans can match any offer for him and stands a much better chance of retaining him than Bridgewater.

The Saints arguably were San Francisco's toughest competition in the NFC last season, and matched the Niners with a 13-3 regular-season record. That was with Brees missing five games with a thumb injury, and there is every reason to believe New Orleans will be one of the best teams in the conference again in 2020.

If the Saints weren't the 49ers' toughest opponent last season, then it probably was the Seattle Seahawks, who beat San Francisco at Levi's Stadium and came within inches of sweeping the regular-season series to win the division title. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he was drafted by Seattle in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and he just got another weapon.

Former Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Seahawks on Tuesday with $5.5 million guaranteed. ESPN's Adam Schefter was first to report the news.

Olsen isn't what he once was, as injuries have taken their toll on the 13-year NFL veteran. Still, after being limited to 16 combined games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Olsen appeared in 14 games for Carolina last year and hauled in 52 receptions for 597 yards and two touchdowns. 

With Will Dissly coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, Jacob Hollister a restricted free agent and Luke Willson an unrestricted free agent, Seattle was in dire need of some quality tight end depth. Olsen checks that box, and since he was released by the Panthers, the signing won't cost the Seahawks a compensatory draft pick.

With wide receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf posing major problems on the outside, Olsen likely will have more room to operate in the middle of the field than all those years spent in Carolina, where he was often his team's No. 1 receiving option. Of course, he'll have to stay healthy to be of use.

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

The 49ers have some tough decisions to make in how they plan to load up for next season. Clearly, some of their top competitors already have begun that process.