Five 49ers to watch vs. Vikings: Playoffs are Jimmy Garoppolo's time

Five 49ers to watch vs. Vikings: Playoffs are Jimmy Garoppolo's time

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers made it through the regular season in the best possible shape to set themselves up for a run at the Super Bowl.

Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team won the NFC West with a 13-3 record and earned home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

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After a bye week in the playoffs, the 49ers open their postseason Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. What happens next will determine how the 49ers look back on this season.

“There's only going to be one team that's truly happy at the end of this year,” Shanahan said. “We've gotten to a point that we're excited about where we got, especially compared to these last two years.

“We have one expectation now. We're not going to sit back and enjoy what we've done because it's about what you're doing right now and where you're going.”

The 49ers need to be clicking on Saturday to get past the Vikings, road winners of their wild-card meeting last weekend over the New Orleans Saints. Here are five important 49ers who can help deliver the NFC Championship Game to Levi’s Stadium next weekend:

5. RT Mike McGlinchey

Mike McGlinchey’s rookie debut in 2018 was memorable.

McGlinchey started against the Vikings at right tackle. But midway through the game, he moved to right guard when starter Mike Person and backup Joshua Garnett were injured. That is how his NFL career began.

McGlinchey has played no position other than right tackle since that game. He will face one of his biggest challenges Saturday, as he goes up against Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter.

Hunter recorded 14.5 sacks this season. All but one originating from the left side against the opponent’s right tackle. He carried that momentum into the playoffs with a strip-sack against the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the wild-card round win last week.

After a slow start to the season and missing more than a month with a knee injury, McGlinchey is coming on strong. He has yielded just two sacks in the past seven games. In Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks, he did not allow a single quarterback pressure.

4. DT DeForest Buckner

Nick Bosa has gotten a lot of attention this season. Arik Armstead had his breakout year. Dee Ford is a presence coming off the other edge, but it is uncertain whether his balky hamstring will allow him to play.

DeForest Buckner did not put up the gaudy statistics of a year ago, but he still is the 49ers  defensive lineman who is most capable of dominating a game on run downs as well as in nickel situations. He will have to come through with a complete game Saturday.

Buckner’s ability to close gaps will be a major key in the 49ers’ attempt to bottle up Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Then, Buckner has to push the pocket on throwing downs to give the team’s edge rushers a better opportunity to make quarterback Kirk Cousins uncomfortable.

3. TE George Kittle

The Vikings defense did a good job against tight ends this season. But they have never faced anyone quite like George Kittle.

Kittle is the 49ers’ best pass-catcher. He had 85 receptions for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns despite missing two games with injuries to his knee and ankle. Kittle is a tone-setter, too.

When the 49ers need a jolt of energy, emotion and production, Kittle often is the player to supply it. The Vikings will be focused on trying to take away Kittle in the passing game. But he can impact the game in other ways, too.

Kittle also enjoys run-blocking. He is among the best-blocking tight ends in the league. And if the 49ers are able to run the ball successfully, that will give the offense more opportunities to feature Kittle in the passing game.

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2. CB Ahkello Witherspoon

Third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon struggled in Week 16 against the Los Angeles Rams. And he was benched before the final drive of the 49ers’ 26-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks – shortly before the most-important defensive series of the season.

But Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh both said afterward that Witherspoon did not play as poorly as it might have looked at the time. So Witherspoon will be back in the starting lineup Saturday.

Of course, Cousins will go after Witherspoon’s side of the field with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. On the other side, Richard Sherman probably will not be challenged too often. The heat will be on Witherspoon. If he falters, the 49ers are prepared to make a sudden change to Emmanuel Moseley.

1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

This is Jimmy Garoppolo’s first playoff game, but don’t tell that to Shanahan. He says every game the last month or more of the regular season has felt like a playoff game to him.

His advice this week to Garoppolo: “Just be you. Do the same thing you do every single day.”

This is what the 49ers had in mind when they traded a second-round pick to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo at the mid-point of the 2017 season. Garoppolo has not seemed fazed by the pressure up to this point, but he has never faced pressure quite like this.

With the Vikings’ pass rush and their ability to generate takeaways in their defensive backfield, Garoppolo has to be on top of his game for the 49ers advance to the next round.

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks is not shy about reaching out to his former NFL team to provide tips on college prospects he knows well.

Hanks, who played eight seasons with the 49ers (1991-98) and won a Super Bowl, is the Senior Associate Commissioner of Conference USA, which consists of 14 football-playing universities.

“We want to make sure and give our young men every opportunity to be viewed by NFL clubs,” Hanks said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “So I tend to call my peer group around the NFL to make sure they’re paying attention to our players.

“Oh, I bug everybody, (including) the 49ers with John Lynch and Martin Mayhew, that whole staff. They do a great job of sourcing talent from Division III all the way up to the (power five). They go to where the good players are, and we have some good players in the conference.”

The 49ers have six players from Conference USA on their roster, including such draft picks as safety Tarvarius Moore (Southern Mississippi), and receivers Trent Taylor (Louisiana Tech) and Richie James (Middle Tennessee State).

The 49ers signed quarterback Nick Mullens (Southern Mississippi) as an undrafted rookie in 2017, and he started eight games for the club in 2018.

One of the top prospects from Conference USA this year is Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant, who undoubtedly is on the 49ers’ radar.

The 49ers will be looking to add a tight end in the draft to pair with George Kittle. Bryant was the 2019 Mackey Award winner as the top tight end in college football.

“He reminds me of Brent Jones,” Hanks said, “a good pass-catching tight end and a willing blocker.”

Hanks also mentioned defensive back Amik Robertson of Louisiana Tech. Hanks envisions Robertson overcoming his less-than-ideal size (5-foot-8, 187 pounds) to carve out a 10-year NFL career with a playing style that reminds some of Tyrann Mathieu.

With the restrictions on private workouts and pro days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanks said he believes the college athletes from Conference USA or from any college program who were not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine are at an inherent disadvantage this year.

“Those players are in a bit of a tough spot, in the sense that teams won’t be able to circle back and get on campus and really take a look at them,” Hanks said.

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One Conference USA prospect who might not suffer from not being invited to the combine is Middle Tennessee defensive end Tyshun Render.

New England coach Bill Belichick went to campus in late-February to pace Render through a workout while most of his NFL peers were in Indianapolis for the combine.

“Conference USA has been fortunate,” Hanks said. “We’re a football-playing conference in every sense. We put a lot of resources toward football and NFL clubs understand that they can come get good players.”

LB Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic
WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State
S Tarvarius Moore, Southern Mississippi
QB Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
RB Jeff Wilson Jr., North Texas

Jerry Rice still holds three major NFL records, but will they ever be broken?


Jerry Rice still holds three major NFL records, but will they ever be broken?

When Jerry Rice retired before the 2005 season, he was the unquestioned greatest receiver in NFL history. Many even viewed him as the greatest player of all time. 

Rice certainly still holds that title for receivers and is in the debate among all players. The question now is, will anyone break Rice's three major receiving records?

Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio and  NBC Sports' Peter King recently asked that exact question, so it's time for us to do the same.

The former 49ers star -- yes, he also played for the Raiders -- finished his career with the most receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and receiving touchdowns (197) in NFL history. If you include his rushing touchdowns, Rice actually had 207 total TDs. 

Let's start with career receptions, which has a real chance of being broken. It all depends on how long Larry Fitzgerald continues to play. 

Fitzgerald is No. 2 on the all-time list with 1,378, putting him 171 receptions behind Rice. The 36-year-old signed a one-year contract in January to come back for his 17th season with the Arizona Cardinals. He had 75 receptions last season in quarterback Kyler Murray's rookie year last season. 

Fitzgerald actually might be in line for a bigger season this year -- if the NFL even has a season. Murray will be in his second season under coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense, and the addition of DeAndre Hopkins could free up Fitzgerald.

If Fitzgerald continues to sign one-year deals with Arizona, there's a real chance he could surpass Rice's record. But that's a big if. Rice should hold onto the record for years to come if Fitzgerald only has another year or two in his tank.

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To no surprise, Fitzgerald is second in career receiving yards but is 5,812 yards behind Rice. Yeah, that's not going to happen. 

Julio Jones, 31, already has 12,125 receiving yards and has averaged 1,347 through his first nine years. Hopkins, 27, has 8,602 yards through seven seasons and has averaged 1,229 receiving yards per year.

For comparison, Rice averaged 1,090 receiving yards but that was over 20 years. If anyone has a chance, however small it might be, it's Julio. Good luck on maintaining that pace for another 10 years.

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And finally, there are the touchdowns. That record isn't going anywhere. Jones has 57 career receiving TDs and Hopkins has 54. Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans have 48. From 1986 to '96, Rice averaged 13.7 receiving touchdowns. He scored nine at 39 years old with the Raiders. 

Rice simply was a machine. A 17-game schedule could help players like Fitzgerald, Jones and Hopkins get within range of Rice, but don't expect the greatest receiver of all time see his records fall.