In order for the 49ers to again make a deep playoff run, they will need more than just their injured players of last season to return to form.
The 49ers also will be counting on certain key players to take the next step in their careers.
Here are five 49ers who could graduate this season into Pro Bowl-caliber players in 2021:
WR Brandon Aiyuk
Even with no offseason program, a reduced training camp and missing four games along the way, Aiyuk had a strong rookie season. Aiyuk threatened Jerry Rice’s franchise record for most receiving yards for a rookie, but an ankle injury late in the season quickly closed that door.
Still, Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in just 12 games. Despite the 49ers’ problems at quarterback with Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard each starting games, Aiyuk showed he is not far from becoming a top-flight wide receiver.
WR Deebo Samuel
Samuel had a forgettable second NFL season due to injuries, which began during the offseason.
He underwent foot surgery to repair a fracture from an offseason workout, and missed the first three games of the season. He played in only seven games in his second NFL season.
Samuel’s rookie season was similar to Aiyuk’s. Samuel appeared in 15 games in 2019. He caught 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 14 times for 159 yards and three TDs.
If the 49ers get consistent play from their quarterback position, there should be plenty of balls to go around to satisfy Aiyuk and Samuel.
RT Mike McGlinchey
McGlinchey was one of the best run-blockers in the NFL last season. But he has a lot of room to improve in pass protection, where some of his worst plays came at the most inopportune of times.
McGlinchey was tied for 11th-worst in the league among offensive tackles with 37 quarterback pressures allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Included in that figure were five sacks and 11 quarterback hits allowed.
The 49ers picked up the fifth-year option on McGlinchey for the 2022 season, so they clearly believe in him. And McGlinchey has a full offseason to take the necessary steps to tighten up his game and take it to the next level.
DE Samson Ebukam
Edge rusher Nick Bosa’s rehab from his knee injury appears to be going well. On the other side, the 49ers have a question mark. It is not known if Dee Ford can get his body to a spot where he can play this season.
And if he does, it remains to be seen how effective and for how long he can play.
The 49ers went out in free agency and signed Ebukam, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, to be the team’s nickel edge rusher. He registered 4.5 sacks in each of his past two seasons.
Ebukam has a lot of technical aspects of pass-rushing to improve. He should benefit greatly from the daily work with 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. He should easily be able to improve on his previous-best sack totals.
LB Dre Greenlaw
The 49ers’ current tandem of inside linebackers, Fred Warner and Greenlaw, might not rate in the same breath as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. But this group is very, very good.
Greenlaw is ready to take that next step because, now, the job is his from the beginning. Greenlaw was stuck behind Kwon Alexander on the 49ers’ depth chart to begin both of his seasons with the team.
Alexander was traded to the New Orleans Saints last season in large part because Greenlaw proved himself to be a better, more-reliable player.
Greenlaw started 11 games in each of his first two NFL seasons. During that time, he registered 178 tackles, including 10 stops for losses. Greenlaw will be an every-down player for the first time in his career, and it is not out of the question he could battle Warner to be the team’s top tackler.