Five 49ers to watch in Week 1: No easing Jimmy Garoppolo into comeback

Five 49ers to watch in Week 1: No easing Jimmy Garoppolo into comeback

It’s only the first game of the season, but it’s a big one for the 49ers.

The 49ers have a winnable game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. It’s an important game for the club to get off to a good start, which has not happened in either of coach Kyle Shanahan’s first two seasons with the 49ers.

The 49ers did not win a road game last season, and they have not won in the Eastern time zone since a victory at the New York Giants on Nov. 16, 2014. It’s a streak that stands at 12 consecutive losses in games played three time zones away.

Here are five pivotal players to watch when the 49ers kick off the regular season against the Buccaneers under first-year head coach Bruce Arians:

5. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky

The 49ers figured they would re-sign Bradley Pinion and that would be that. But, instead, Pinion signed a contract with the Buccaneers. That forced the 49ers to address the position in the draft.

The club is confident they ended up with an upgrade after selecting Mitch Wishnowsky in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. So, of course, both of those punters will be on the field Sunday in the season opener.

This could be a game of field position, and the punters will play a big role. The punter with the higher net average will give his team the better chance of squeaking out a victory.

4. LB Kwon Alexander

Linebacker Kwon Alexander will be fired up for his debut with the 49ers. The issue for him might be getting too excited to go out and play against his former team.

Alexander is returning to action after sustaining a torn ACL on Oct. 21. In four seasons – all as a starter -- with the Buccaneers, he registered 380 career tackles, including a league-best 108 solo tackles in 2016.

He was the 49ers’ top target in free agency, and the sides agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract upon the opening of the new league year.

Alexander brings tremendous energy to the 49ers’ defense, and his presence appears to have brought more swagger to middle linebacker Fred Warner. But Alexander has to remain disciplined as there will be a lot of pressure on him to read his keys, react and tackle. The 49ers’ new wide-9 alignment will rely on their linebackers to prevent big plays in the run game.

3. WR Deebo Samuel

The 49ers figure to have five wide receivers active for Sunday’s game. They certainly will mix and match, depending on the down-and-distance and play calls. Deebo Samuel’s role is undefined at this time, but he quickly could emerge as the team’s top wide receiver.

Samuel brought an attitude and aggressiveness to the table in training camp that Shanahan wanted to see from Dante Pettis. Samuel’s toughness and his ability to run after the catch are traits the 49ers will want to feature Sunday.

The 49ers know what they have in such returning receivers as Pettis, Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne. Samuel is the player who can give the passing game a different element.

2. DE Dee Ford

It was clear what the 49ers thought of their outside pass rush last season. The answer: Not much. That is why the team added edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa in the offseason in hopes that an improved pass rush will positively impact every level of the defense.

Ford appears to be at full speed after spending most of the summer resting from a case of knee tendinitis. Ford recorded 13 sacks last season with the Kansas City Chiefs and was tagged as the team’s franchise player before the 49ers worked out a trade to acquire him.

Ford should have plenty of opportunities to affect Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who can be expected to take a handful of deep shots throughout the course of the game.

The 49ers registered just two interceptions the entire season. They have a chance to match that number Sunday with a pass rush that makes Winston uncomfortable in the pocket.

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1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo alleviated some concerns in the 49ers’ third preseason game when he bounced back to look comfortable and in control.

Garoppolo admits he had to clear physical and mental barriers in his return from a torn ACL in his left knee that limited him to just three games last season. Now, he hopes everything is behind him and he can just focus on winning football games.

Garoppolo is surrounded by better offensive players, and it’s still a work in progress for the quarterback to get comfortable with all of his targets. Tight end George Kittle unquestionably is his go-to receiver.

The defense and special teams should also put the offense in better field position, too. Where Garoppolo has to succeed is when the 49ers get within the opponents’ 20-yard line. They must score touchdowns at a rate around 65 percent to avoid relying on kicker Robbie Gould to pick up a mere three points instead of putting the ball in the end zone.

There is no easing into the season for Garoppolo, who must justify the 49ers’ faith in him. Is he a franchise quarterback? If so, this is a game he should find a way to win.

CA Governor Gavin Newsom 'doesn't anticipate' normal NFL games in fall

CA Governor Gavin Newsom 'doesn't anticipate' normal NFL games in fall

President Donald Trump reportedly told sports commissioners and top executives Saturday that he believes the NFL should start on time with fans returning to stadiums by August despite the coronavirus outbreak.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn't share the same thoughts.

The governor was asked about Trump's reported prediction, and said he doesn't envision California having made enough progress against the virus for it to be business as usual for the NFL come fall.

“I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” Newsom said Saturday. “We’ve all seen the headlines over the last couple days in Asia, where they opening up certain businesses, and now they’re starting to roll back those openings because they’re starting seeing some spread and there’s a boomerang. One has to be very cautious here, one has to be careful not to overpromise.

"It's interesting, I have a lot of friends that work in Major League Baseball and the NFL, they've been asking me -- in fact, a well-known athlete -- a football player -- just asked me if he expects to come back. I said, 'I would move very cautiously in that expectation.' "

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Newsom is making sure to prioritize safety and caution above all else before letting sports return.

“Our decision on that basis here in the State of California will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our ability to meet this moment and bend the curve, and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that's appropriate," Newsom said. "Right now, I’m just focusing on the immediate, but that’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”

[RELATED: 49ers reportedly eye WR/CB at No. 13, plan to trade No. 31]

The truth of the matter is that no one knows how long this will last or when sports will be able to return to packed stadiums. The NFL is planning on starting the schedule on time with fans in the stadium, but that might not be the case in California. With many epidemiologists expecting the virus to surge again the fall, the fate of the NFL's season is very much up in the air.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as well as a lead member of the White House's coronavirus taskforce, told Warriors star Steph Curry that sports can only safely return once the country as a whole has turned the corner from the outbreak and the medical system no longer is under strain.

As of Saturday, there were more than 270,000 cases of coronavirus in the United States and more than 7,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and NBC News reporting.

Watch DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell in joint workout

Watch DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell in joint workout

While the NFL offseason programs are postponed, many players are still working out to be ready for the time when the teams are able to get back to work in an organized setting.

In Miami, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Clelin Ferrell are working out with private defensive line coach Mark Hall.

Hall, who recently was a guest on the 49ers Insider Podcast, sent a video to NBC Sports Bay Area of the three players working out.

[RELATED49ers mailbag: Could Gore or Walker return in free agency?]

The 49ers recently traded Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and re-signed Armstead to a four-year, $84 million contract. Ferrell will enter his second season with the Las Vegas Raiders after being the club’s first-round selection at No. 4 overall in the 2019 draft.