The 49ers surprised a lot of people in 2019. With a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo under center and a vaunted defense, the 49ers went from 4-12 to 13-3, winning the NFC West en route to a berth in Super Bowl LIV.
After getting stunned by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami, the 49ers once again are set up to dominate the NFC in 2020. They return 10 of 11 starters on defense and eight returning on one of the NFL's most efficient offenses. But championship windows in the NFL can be shut in an instant. While the 49ers are the bell of the ball right now, a couple of missteps could have them go the way of the Los Angeles Rams, who are just 18 months removed from being the kings of the NFC.
However, the 49ers are set up for long-term dominance, according to ESPN's future power rankings. ESPN asked its experts to rank each team based on quarterback, roster outside of quarterback, coach, front office and draft to gauge which teams are set up for success over the next three seasons. The 49ers came in third, behind the Baltimore Ravens (No. 1) and Chiefs (No. 2). The 49ers received an overall score of 86.4 and were tied for the best roster outside of quarterback in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. Coach Kyle Shanahan came in fourth in the league in the coach category, while the 49ers were ranked seventh in front office acumen and drafting capabilities.
Of course, you see where the drop-off comes, as the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo received a score of 80.8 at the quarterback position, which ranked 12th in the NFL.
Garoppolo has been the cause of debate all offseason, with detractors taking swipe after swipe at the 49ers quarterback after he failed to bring home the Lombardi Trophy in February. Some of the Garoppolo criticism is warranted, but a lot of it falls flat when you realize he was top five in touchdowns (27), completion percentage (69.1) and yards per attempt (8.4) during the regular season and was the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL.
Yes, Garoppolo needs to do a better job of taking care of the football. He can improve on making some of the more difficult throws in Shanahan's offense. Garoppolo is a top-12 quarterback. He's not elite, but also isn't Blake Bortles 2.0 like many make him out to be.
He overthrew Emmanuel Sanders on what could have been the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. It happened, but it's time to move on. Judging a quarterback on one bad throw is completely ridiculous.
Shanahan believes Garoppolo can improve and that their partnership will improve with another year spent together. That's why he elected to stay with Garoppolo instead of ditching him for Tom Brady. If Garoppolo can clean up parts of his game and make a leap, then the 49ers' biggest question mark will be erased.
The other question ESPN's experts had when it comes to future dominance had to do with the 49ers' secondary. Richard Sherman is 32 and in the final year of his contract. Slot corner K'Waun Williams and safety Jaquiski Tartt also are in the final year of their deals. The 49ers had one of the best secondaries in the NFL last season. A large part of their pass defense's success came from a dominant pass rush, but Sherman, Williams, Tartt and Jimmie Ward were among the best at their respective positions.
The 49ers must figure out what to do at the other outside cornerback spot. Will it be Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon, or someone from outside the organization? Will they re-sign Sherman? How long can he play at an elite level? The 49ers' secondary could undergo drastic changes after this season, and that will have a big impact on their current upward trajectory.
The good news for the 49ers is that the rest of their NFC competitors also have big question marks.
The Saints, who came in at No. 4 in the future rankings, are set up to win in 2020, but how long can Drew Brees hold on? Once he retires, can Sean Payton really keep things rolling with Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston? That seems doubtful.
The Dallas Cowboys (No. 5) have a loaded roster and have been the best in the NFL at finding elite talent in the draft. But what does the future hold for Dak Prescott? The Cowboys and their quarterback couldn't come to a long-term agreement this offseason, leaving his future in Dallas in doubt. If Prescott bolts after this season, the Cowboys' future prospects will take a hit.
The 49ers' rivals to the north arguably have the second-best quarterback in football in Russell Wilson, as well as a good head coach in Pete Carroll. But how long can the Seattle Seahawks (No. 8) rely on Wilson to carry them without surrounding him with the requisite talent to win a title? Gone is the fearsome pass rush of the early 2010s, and the Seahawks' offensive line remains a hodgepodge of mediocre pass protectors. Wilson is elite, but the Seahawks' future prospects will take a hit if they don't build a roster around him.
As for the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 6), they have a talented quarterback in Carson Wentz, a smart head coach in Doug Pederson and a great front office led by Howie Roseman. They addressed the wide receiver position this offseason, but time will tell if the right moves were made. The clock also is ticking on longtime staples Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Jason Peters. Their interior offensive line will need to be revamped, which could lead to some future issues. The Eagles also have a question mark at linebacker, and they will need to address it if they want to truly contend atop the NFC.
The NFC is loaded with Super Bowl contenders. The 49ers lead the pack after a Super Bowl run and an offseason that saw them fill their few needs. They added Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams to make up for the loss of Joe Staley, also drafting stud defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and freak wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in the first round.
Shanahan has the team primed for a Super Bowl run in 2020 and set up for long-term staying power atop the conference. The 49ers know that Garoppolo must continue to improve for them to reach their ceiling. He was good in 2019, but they need him to find another gear in 2020 and beyond in order to remain atop the conference.
The 49ers must also make sure they address their secondary in the best way possible after this season. With Sherman, Williams and Tartt all set to hit free agency, the 49ers will be in dire straits if they don't have a plan in place to maintain or revamp their secondary after this season.
The Niners are the cream of the crop atop the NFC. Garoppolo and the secondary hold the keys to the 49ers staying there for years to come.