49ers

49ers takeaways: What we learned from season-ending 48-32 loss to Rams

49ers takeaways: What we learned from season-ending 48-32 loss to Rams

LOS ANGELES -- The 49ers have a lot of ground to gain if they hope to give any kind of challenge to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West next season.

The Rams on Sunday completed their domination of the 49ers this season with a 48-32 victory to wrap up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

The 49ers lost to the Rams 39-10 on Oct. 21 at Levi’s Stadium. Los Angeles forced four turnovers in that game.

The Rams (13-3) got off to a big lead Sunday, as the 49ers (4-12) committed turnovers on four of their first five possessions.

However, the 49ers did salvage something from their season finale. Second-year tight end George Kittle put an exclamation point on his breakout season with nine catches for 149 yards to set the NFL's single-season record for a tight end with 1,377 yards. Kansas City's Travis Kelce held the mark for less than an hour. He eclisped Rob Gronkowski's 2011 total earlier in the afternoon. Kittle achieved the record on a 43-yard touchdown catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter.

Here are three other takeaways from the season-ending game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum:

Setting records for futility

The biggest takeaway from the 49ers’ season was, well, their lack of takeaways.

In fact, their futility in that area was historic.

The 49ers set the NFL record for fewest takeaways in a season with just seven forced turnovers. The record prior to this season was 11, shared by the Baltimore Colts (1982), Houston Texans (2013), Dallas Cowboys (2015) and Chicago Bears (2016).

The 49ers also set the record for fewest interceptions in a season with two. The previous record low was three, set by the Houston Oilers during the nine-game strike-shortened season of 1982.

Antone Exum and Jaquiski Tartt had the 49ers' only interceptions. It was the first time in Richard Sherman’s eight-year NFL career that he did not have one.

No team in the NFL was more generous than the 49ers this season. They entered the season finale with a minus-21 turnover margin. And they added impressively to their league-worst total in the opening minutes of Sunday’s game.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk made the poor decision to reach the ball out on a third-and-1 play on the 49ers’ first series of the game. Mark Barron stripped the ball, and Aqib Talib scooped it up and returned it 47 yards for the Rams.

Quarterback Nick Mullens threw three first-half interceptions, including a pick-six to Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.

Mullens’ first interception came when he was hit as he was throwing. The other came when John Johnson deflected a pass that was intended for George Kittle in the end zone, and fellow Rams safety Blake Countess made the interception.

Solidifying draft position

The 49ers enter the offseason with their biggest needs being two edge rushers to get after the quarterback on nickel situations. They're well-positioned to add some upgrades, beginning in free agency in March and, then, during the draft in April.

The organization is expected to have in the neighborhood of $70 million in salary cap space. They also wrapped up the No. 2 overall draft pick with this loss to the Rams.

Former Ohio State star Nick Bosa and Kentucky's Josh Allen could be among the options at No. 2. The Cardinals own the top overall selection.

The 49ers will pick ahead of the New York Jets in the first round because of the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. San Francisco played a weaker schedule to gain the tiebreaker edge over New York.

Building depth at running back

The 49ers had to use every bit of their running back depth, and they appear to be in good position for next season -- if they remain healthier than they did this season.

Their leading rusher Sunday was veteran Alfred Morris, who isn't likely to return next season. He carried 16 times for 111 yards.

Morris signed with the 49ers after the team experienced a rash of injuries during training camp. But he ended up being No. 5 in the pecking order after starting the first game of the season.

Morris was back in the lead-back role in the season finale. Matt Breida went on injured reserve Saturday with an ankle injury, and rookie Jeff Wilson Jr. made his second start of the season Sunday, but he lasted three carries before exiting with a shoulder injury.

Jerick McKinnon, Breida, Wilson and Raheem Mostert ended the season injured, but each is expected back next season. Mostert was the team’s best special-teams player before getting his opportunity on offense and proving himself. Mostert’s season ended in Week 9 with a fractured forearm.

49ers' George Kittle rated as top tight end in NFL, per Sporting News

49ers' George Kittle rated as top tight end in NFL, per Sporting News

Who is the best tight end in the NFL?

Well, believe it or not, 49ers GM John Lynch isn't 100 percent confident saying George Kittle deserves that title.

Nevertheless, Sporting News declared the 25-year-old is the best guy in the league at the position -- and there is plenty to back up that statement.

Last season, the Iowa product set the 49ers franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single season with 1,377. He also averaged 15.6 yards per catch, which Sporting News' Vinnie Iyer dubbed as "ridiculous." And he's not wrong. 

Kittle should benefit even more from a full season with Jimmy Garoppolo, who also will have new pass-catching weapons Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Jordan Matthews at his disposal. 

[RELATED: 49ers considered Ward's injury history with one-year deal]

Kittle finished his 2018 campaign with 88 receptions, five touchdowns, and well, you know the yardage.

49ers considered Jimmie Ward's injury history with one-year contract

49ers considered Jimmie Ward's injury history with one-year contract

The 49ers carefully considered the risks.

And, ultimately, they came up with a one-year, prove-it contract offer that led to versatile and hard-charging defensive back Jimmie Ward remaining with the 49ers for the start of his sixth NFL season.

“It’s not an easy answer, because there’s a long (injury) history,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “But there’s also a very, very talented football player who I would tell you grew into a really special leader.”

Said coach Kyle Shanahan, “I love Jimmie Ward. . . . We all know he’s struggled a little bit to stay healthy. But he’s a guy, as a person, I’ll go to war with every day. I really trust and believe in, and I love him as a player, too.”

Ward missed 29 games through his first five seasons in the league.

Ward sustained a fractured collarbone while diving for a ball in a non-padded practice during organized team activities on Thursday in Santa Clara. He will undergo surgery, and the 49ers expect him to be out of action for eight to 12 weeks.

Eight weeks would place Ward as healthy a full week before the start of training camp. With a 12-week recovery (Aug. 16), the 49ers will have played one exhibition game with the second game coming up on Monday, Aug. 19, against the Denver Broncos.

Ward has now sustained broken bones in five of his six NFL seasons. The first four fractures came during the regular season and landed him on season-ending injured reserve lists.

Here is the rundown of Ward’s injury history since completing his college career at Northern Illinois:

2014

When Ward showed up at the combine, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot and was not allowed to take part in any on-field testing. The injury came as a surprise to Ward, who had not experienced any pain. He felt healthy enough to run several weeks later at this pro day, where he was timed at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Ward underwent surgery in March to repair the Jones fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his foot, and the 49ers drafted him with the No. 30 overall pick in the draft.

He did not take part in the offseason program as a rookie, but he appeared in each of the team's exhibition games that summer.

Ward was not active for the Week 7 game against Denver due to a quadriceps injury.

In Week 10, while making a tackle against New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, the screw bent from his March surgery in his right foot and fifth metatarsal broke again. He finished the game, but a new, larger screw had to be inserted. He was placed on injured reserve.

Games missed: 8

2015

Ward appeared on the injury report just once all season. He was listed as probable for the 49ers’ Week 15 game against Cincinnati with an elbow condition, and he played well. As the team’s nickel back, he had six tackles, a sack, two tackles for losses, and a pass defensed.

Games missed: 0

2016

Ward sustained a non-contact left quadriceps injury in Week 3 while running down the field to cover a kickoff against Seattle. He missed three games due to the injury.

In Week 11, Ward was diagnosed with a concussion, but he returned to play the following week against Miami.

In Week 15, Ward sustained a fractured right collarbone when he landed hard upon tackling Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Aldrick Robinson down the field. He was placed on injured reserve.

Games missed: 5

2017

Ward sustained a left hamstring injury in the conditioning test at the start of training camp in late-July. In late-August, he was activated off the physically-unable-to-perform list. He did not play in the preseason, and he sat out the season opener against Carolina.

While playing free safety, he fractured his left forearm in Week 8 while tackling Philadelphia tight end Trey Burton. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Games missed: 9

2018

Ward missed extended time in the 49ers’ offseason program due to an ankle injury. He was bothered by a hamstring injury during training camp and left the team’s Week 3 exhibition game against Indianapolis after playing just two snaps on special teams

Ward, who was starting at cornerback, left the 49ers’ Week 6 game against Green Bay with a hamstring injury. He missed the following game against the Los Angeles Rams.

Upon moving to free safety, Ward sustained a fractured left forearm – but in a different place than a year earlier – while tackling Tampa Bay’s 225-pound running back Peyton Barber in Week 12.

The 49ers had evaluated Ward as playing better than anyone in their secondary at the time of the injury.

After the game, Ward said his injuries can be attributed to how hard he plays.

“I play physical,” Ward said. “I don’t know no other way but to play. When I’m at corner, I’m physical. Nickel, physical. Safety, physical. I’m just a tough bird.

“When it happens, it happens. I’ve been here before. I’m just going to grind and get back.”

He was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Games missed: 7

2019

The 49ers re-signed Ward to a guaranteed one-year, $3 million contract in March. He can earn an additional $1.5 million in per-game roster bonuses.

[RELATED: Bosa to miss a few weeks of practice with hamstring injury]

The club expects Ward, if healthy, to start at free safety this season. And it was clear during an open practice on Tuesday, that his style of play is every bit as aggressive as ever. While covering rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel, Ward got physical and flung Samuel to the ground in a drill designed to be non-contact.

Ward sustained a fractured collarbone in the team’s next practice. Adrian Colbert will take over as the 49ers' first-team free safety for the remainder of the offseason program, which concludes June 13.