There is always an element of intrigue surrounding the regular-season opener.
And there might be even more mystery with the 49ers than at any point since coach Kyle Shanahan took over in 2017.
The 49ers are coming off an injury-riddled season during which they lost many of their best players at key positions for large chunks of 2020. The 49ers tumbled from NFC champs to the basement of the division.
As the 49ers enter this season at nearly full strength, questions remain about how those players will respond.
Also, there is the added unknown about the 49ers' quarterback situation. How much will rookie Trey Lance get on the field? That figures to be a week-to-week proposition, and it is certainly worth watching in their Week 1 game Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
Here are five players to watch in the 49ers' opener against the Lions:
5. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo was not just handed the starting job to open the regular season. He earned it.
And it was not as if Lance rolled over and let him have it, either. Lance had an impressive training camp, and Garoppolo responded to the challenge with his best summer since he arrived with the 49ers in a trade from New England in the middle of the 2017 season.
Now, there is pressure on Garoppolo to play well, avoid giveaways and win football games.
The 49ers are not building for the future. They believe they can win right now. And in order for them to challenge for a championship, Garoppolo must take care of business.
It all starts against the Lions, a team considered among the worst in the league. It should be a loud environment. Ford Field is expected to be rocking with 65,000 fans. Garoppolo will not be asked to go out and win the game. He just has to play well enough to not give it away.
4. FS Jimmie Ward
Under first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers plan to feature an aggressive, attacking style with their defensive line.
Ryans is counting on free safety Jimmie Ward to cover up any mistakes that are made in front of him. Ward was selected as a team captain for the first time in his career, and he earned it.
Ward could be ready to take the next big step in his career this season. He still has not played a full 16 games in the regular season since 2015. He remained relatively healthy and productive in 2019 and 2020, starting 27 of 32 games.
It is shocking to think that as good as Ward is, he has not come up with an interception since the 2016 season. He should have an opportunity or two against Lions quarterback Jared Goff on Sunday. The Lions do not appear to have a strong passing attack, and this is one area where the 49ers should be able to control the game.
3. LB Fred Warner
The 49ers took care of linebacker Fred Warner just prior to the start of training camp with a five-year contract extension worth $95 million.
“When you’ve got a guy of Fred's character and the way he works, you're paying him because he's earned it, but you're also paying for what you think he's going to do going forward,” Shanahan said. “And Fred's a guy I see getting better all the time and having a hell of a career.”
Warner is a tackling machine. And he has no peer at linebacker with his ability to work in pass coverage, too.
This season, Ryans could add even more to Warner's plate. It appears likely Warner will be asked to attack the line of scrimmage and get into the backfield more as a run defender as well as a pass-rusher.
Warner figures to face stiff challenges in pass coverage in Week 1. He could see ample time covering the Lions’ best two offensive players, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift.
2. RB Raheem Mostert
The 49ers are built on defense and their run game. There are few running backs in the NFL who possess the game-breaking ability of Raheem Mostert, who is set up to have a monster season.
The 49ers have, perhaps, the two best run-blocking offensive tackles in the league with Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey. The rest of the offensive line should be better than a year ago with the addition of veteran center Alex Mack.
Mostert and rookie Trey Sermon provide a nice one-two punch, but there is little doubt at the opening of the season that Mostert is the main man. If he can stay healthy, Mostert has a chance to roll up the most rushing yards for a 49ers player in more than a decade.
He appeared to be on his way toward a big season in 2020. Then, a high-ankle sprain derailed him. In his first two games, Mostert had a 76-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals and an 80-yarder against the New York Jets before his injury.
The 49ers’ offense is set up for Mostert, and he is expected to deliver the goods and help the 49ers’ offense get off to a big start against the Lions.
1. DE Nick Bosa
Edge rusher Nick Bosa is resisting the temptation to look too far ahead and set goals for the upcoming season. He said he is merely taking it one day at a time.
His brother, Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers, believes Nick will be a “menace” this season. Ryans thinks Nick Bosa will play even better than he did during his NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year season of 2019.
Bosa is returning from a torn ACL that he sustained in Week 2 of last season. He looks as lean, fit, strong and explosive as ever.
Bosa does not expect to be eased back into the action. He is ready to come out firing on Sunday against a Lions offensive line that is without left tackle Taylor Decker. There is also the likelihood Bosa will be the subject of a lot of double-teams, as the Lions will try to prevent him from being a game-wrecking presence.
The 49ers’ defensive line will come at Goff in waves. Goff is quite familiar with the 49ers’ scheme, having spent his previous five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. But even he might be surprised at the depth and talent the 49ers have this season.
But of all the players on the 49ers’ D-line, Bosa is the one who stands out. He might be taking this season on a day-to-day basis, but he should be expected to make a tremendous impact from Day 1.