NFL preview 2019: 49ers' three most important players for next season

NFL preview 2019: 49ers' three most important players for next season

After combining to win a total of 10 games the last two seasons, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch enter a crucial third year steering the ship in Santa Clara. 

The 49ers recently have been closer to the No. 1 overall pick in the draft than the playoffs. It's time for that to change. But it won't be easy. 

Rising up the ranks in the NFC West is a tough task. The Los Angeles Rams were an ugly Jared Goff game away from winning the Super Bowl last year, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are always competitive, and the Arizona Cardinals should be exciting with Kyler Murray and a healthy David Johnson. 

In order for the 49ers to have a successful 2019 season, these three players will have to perform on the field. 

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB

Thanks, Captain Obvious. 

Everything starts with Garoppolo. The 49ers go as he goes. It's simple as that. 

Garoppolo says he's "good to go" for training camp, which begins July 27th, after tearing his ACL in the third game of the season last year. Through nine games with the 49ers -- eight starts -- Garoppolo has gone 6-2 as a starter while throwing 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has thrown for 2,278 yards in red and gold, and has completed 64.8 percent of his passes. 

To contend for the playoffs, Garoppolo will have step up his game and prove he's worth his $137.5 million contract this season.

Ahkello Witherspoon, CB

This easily could have been Richard Sherman. The 49ers badly need their secondary to improve this season after snatching only two interceptions. In his first season as a 49er, Sherman failed to have an interception for the first time in his career. He also was coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon. 

“I’m much healthier. I was kind of out there on one leg," Sherman told the Sacramento Bee in May. 

Sherman should have a better year after going through an offseason where he didn't have to focus on rehabbing his Achilles. He's expected to still be the team's top cornerback, but as he ages, the No. 2 cornerback is just as important. 

There's still plenty of competition for who will line up opposite of Sherman. It's Witherspoon's job to lose, though, and he looked like the 49ers' best player on defense at times during the offseason program. 

Witherspoon, standing 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, has the same kind of long build at cornerback as Sherman. He suffered a PCL injury last year and missed the final two games, but proved he's healthy during the offseason.

This could be a make-or-break year for the 24-year-old. If he proves the offseason program wasn't a fluke, Witherspoon might turn into one of the best surprises in the NFC West this season.

Fred Warner, MLB

Warner was one of the better draft picks in all of football last season. Selected in the third round by the 49ers, Warner started all 16 games and recorded 124 tackles as a rookie.

This year, it's time for him to captain Robert Saleh's defense. 

In just his second professional season, Warner is expected to man the middle with Kwon Alexander and Malcolm Smith playing on the outside. That could be an extremely athletic group of linebackers, but Alexander is coming off a torn ACL and Smith constantly has been injured the last two years. 

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The 49ers are expecting big things out of Warner in his sophomore season, and reasonably so. Seen as a natural leader, Warner can't have a slump this season.

With a dominant defensive line in front of him, Warner must keep it going and turn the team's linebackers into a force to be reckoned with.

49ers Mailbag: Could QBs Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard be trade bait?

49ers Mailbag: Could QBs Nick Mullens or C.J. Beathard be trade bait?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There is one major storyline going into the 49ers’ third preseason game of the summer: Jimmy Garoppolo.

Coming off a rough return five nights earlier, Garoppolo will attempt to prove to everyone, including himself, that he’s ready for the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Garoppolo is not the only question surrounding the team entering Week 3 of the preseason on Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Our friends on Facebook supplied some additional questions about the state of the 49ers:

Who will win the backup quarterback position? Isn’t there more upside with Mullens? (Michael Monico)
It is closer than you might think, but I'm going with the crowd at this point and believe it is going to be Nick Mullens. The reason it’s not a certainty is because, actually, there is more upside with C.J. Beathard.

“Every time C.J.’s in there you’ve got a chance for a big play,” coach Kyle Shanahan said this week. “He loves the big play.”

There’s someone else who loves the big play. That’s Shanahan.

He designs his offense to stress the defense into yielding opportunities for the big play. And when the quarterback goes anywhere other than deep with those shots, it drives him to frustration.

That’s why for most of the offseason I thought Beathard would win the No. 2 job. But I’ve changed my mind. I think Mullens looks very good -- calm, confident and decisive.

What are the chances Mullens or Beathard gets traded as opposed to being released? Do you see any other potential trade candidates? (Greg Threlkeld)
Keep an eye on the Broncos injury situation behind Joe Flacco. Perhaps there could be a fit there, with offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who served as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach the past two seasons.

With so many question marks elsewhere on the roster, as far as the uncertainty of which players will be available for Week 1, I think it will be very difficult for the 49ers to justify keeping three QBs on their 53-man roster. They would love to trade one of them, but I just don’t know what kind of market there will be for a team to bring in a backup quarterback just prior to the start of the regular season.

Who will win the starting WR spots? (Tee Mikey Perez)
This answer is going to be a complete cop out. I do not envision them having traditional starting receivers. Their receiving corps is so balanced that I can see each of their receivers having specific roles in a game plan. So the play call could determine which receivers start on a weekly basis.

As well as Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd have looked as rookies, they are still rookies trying to function in this offense. Dante Pettis was the viewed as a virtual lock to be a starter when camp began, and after an uneven start, he appears to be coming on.

Marquise Goodwin, Jordan Matthews and Kendrick Bourne have all started in the past, but they are now scrapping for playing time (or roster spots).

What receivers do you see making the team (Armando Guerra)
Trent Taylor is not expected to be ready for Week 1 after undergoing surgery two weeks ago to repair a Jones fracture of his right foot. He could be a candidate for short-term injured reserve, but he still has to be carried on the initial cut to 53 players in order to be eligible to return this season. (The 49ers have said they believe he will be ready early in the season.)

I can see the 49ers keeping seven receivers to open the season in the event that Taylor can’t practice or play for a couple of weeks. But who? This is where it gets tricky.

Samuel, Hurd and Pettis, for sure. Taylor looked to be on pace to be the team’s top receiver before his injury. That leaves Goodwin, Matthews, Bourne and Richie James.

Goodwin should make it. Then there’s a decision between Matthews and Bourne. That’s difficult. Matthews does not have special-teams value, but he is more consistent than Bourne. I’d still lean toward Bourne because of his youth and his room to grow. But Shanahan made it sound this week as if Matthews had done everything he wanted to see to win a roster spot.

James could draw some attention on the trade market. Otherwise, it would be difficult for him to earn playing time with the abundance of receivers who can play in the slot.

Are the 49ers reluctant to play younger players in your opinion? I think Deebo Samuel has performed well enough to steal some snaps from Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin. Do you agree? (Joseph B Ryder)
Generally, coaches take some time to come around with younger players because they want guys on the field who know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Typically, it takes rookies a lot of time to know their assignments. Rookie wide receivers have a difficult task because of all they things they must process on any given route.

If a wide receiver hesitates, reads the defense incorrectly or chooses the incorrect option, the results are disastrous. That’s why it takes more time with that position group. But, yes, I agree that Samuel (and Hurd) will take some snaps that would ordinarily go toward Pettis and Goodwin.

Are the 49ers considering keeping four backs for now? How ready will McKinnon be for the start of the season? (Rick Orozco)
When they make their cut to 53 players, the 49ers can be expected to keep running backs Jerick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, as well as fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Even if the plan is for McKinnon to go on short-term injured reserve, he must first have a spot on the 53-man roster before such a move is made.

There still is no indication if (or when) McKinnon will be ready. He and the 49ers should know more once he returns to practice and see how his surgically repaired knee responds.

Will Ward be ready to start in week 1 as FS? Moore has made a name for himself in TC and preseason. (Faisal Refai)
Jimmie Ward is expected to play Saturday night in Kansas City. If he holds up, Ward probably still is the favorite to start because of his command of the defense.

But ... Tarvarius Moore has made tremendous strides since defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said during the first week of camp that he was a long way from being ready to start in the NFL. Moore will be a starter for the 49ers at some stage. The only question is will it be Week 1 or at some point down the road.

Do you think they will try to acquire another guard or center through a trade or scour the final cuts for one? (Brian Taylor)
It looks to me as if the 49ers’ top seven offensive linemen are: left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Weston Richburg, right guard Mike Person, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, backup interior lineman Ben Garland and backup tackle Sam Young. Richburg is expected to begin practicing next week, and he could see some action in the preseason finale against the Chargers.

Joshua Garnett is a wild card. He really needed to have a good training camp to show what he can do. But, again, he missed all of camp with an injury. He should be back on the field in Kansas City. Keep an eye on him. Najee Toran, Daniel Brunskill and Justin Skule are also competing for backup jobs.

The problem is there are very few answers out there. Offensive line play is a problem for every team, so I just don’t foresee many solutions shaking free from the rosters around the league.

[RELATED: Shanahan explains controversial coach’s 49ers role]

Will the ones play a lot in the 3rd game? (Chris Lynn Overstreet)
Yes, the starters on both sides of the ball are expected to play the equivalent of one half of football -- somewhere in the range of 30 to 35 snaps. That includes the quarterback.

Is this a make or break year for Shanahan? (Steven Downs)

Sure, the 49ers are 10-22 under Shanahan, but he and John Lynch signed six-year contracts for a reason. This was known to be a tough rebuilding project. CEO Jed York has not wavered in his support for the coach and general manager, so something dramatic would have to occur for that to change.

Kyle Shanahan explains 49ers' choice to hire Chris Foerster as consultant


Kyle Shanahan explains 49ers' choice to hire Chris Foerster as consultant

October 9, 2017 is a day Chris Foerster would like to take back. 

It’s the day a video of him snorting a white powdery substance in the Miami Dolphins’ facility went viral. Shortly after, Foerster resigned, and he has not coached again in the NFL.

Technically, Foerster still isn’t a coach, but rather a consultant for the 49ers, a role he has held since the 2018 offseason.

ESPN’s Jenna Laine first reported Foerster's role with the 49ers on Friday.

After the news broke, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area exclusively about Foerster, his role with the team and why he wants to help him on his path back to redemption. The two men spent four seasons together in Washington, where Shanahan was the offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013.

“We found out about it [the video] when the whole world found out about it,” Shanahan said. “When it happened, we were as shocked as anyone, from my wife to anybody. It’s nothing I’d want to stick up for. These are extremely bad things that I know he’s not proud of, and I’m not proud of.

“He did something extremely stupid, and since then, he has hit rock bottom. He went to rehab for 60 days, and then he was in a 90-day outpatient rehab. For the last two years, he’s been in a 12-step program that he’s been to every single night seven days a week.”

Shanahan also explained why the 49ers didn’t make Foerster’s role with the team public from the beginning.

“If he was fully on our coaching staff, going to practice and going to games, I understand that it’s something that I’d have to address, but he’s not,” Shanahan said. “He’s in a consulting role. A lot of teams have consultants. I understand the ramifications of that, and why people will ask why I didn’t say anything about it.”

Shanahan made his feelings about Foerster’s actions very clear, which is why giving him a second chance does not come without restrictions.

“He is still in a consulting role because I do understand the seriousness of this matter,” Shanahan said. “We’re trying to ease him back in. I understand how big of a problem he did have. I also understand what he’s doing in committing to fix that problem. We’re trying to give him a chance to get back on track.

“I also understand that people make huge mistakes, and ... he’s trying to make amends and he’s trying to make it right.”

Technically, NFL rules state that a consultant without a coaching or team contract is allowed to participate on the field during practice but not during games. Foerster, however, has been relegated to watching film and attending position group and team meetings.

Shanahan explained that it has been a gradual process in which Foerster has had to earn his way back into a role with the team. It was a calculated risk Shanahan was willing to take.

“To help him with a job and make some money, and also because he’s good at it, we gave him a consulting role last year,” Shanahan said. “He helped us from afar with advanced scouting reports and things like that. He would just look at teams the week ahead and send us some information, all typed up because he was never in town.

“This year, we took it a step forward. We brought him in part-time but still a consultant, but he is in the office at times. He’s able to do things like watch film with us, but he’s still in a consulting role.”

Shanahan and the 49ers are holding Foerster to a high standard — possibly higher than anyone else in the building. Thus far, he has done everything they have asked of him.

"We are not going to act like flat out it didn’t happen and just let him back in right away,” Shanahan said. “We are taking a very slow process, and that’s why we did the first year the way we did and why it led to the second year.”

Ultimately, Shanahan and the 49ers have given Foerster a chance to rebuild his professional life while he tries to piece back together his personal life as well.

“He’s done that exactly the right way for two years,” Shanahan said. “We will see if he continues to do that, and then we will reassess that after this year. If it continues to go well, I think he has a chance to get his life back on track. And that’s really all we are trying to do.”

Shanahan believes that no matter where Foerster is, as long as he stays on the straight and narrow, he is a valuable asset.

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“Whether it helps him with the 49ers or helps him somewhere else, I know he’s a good coach who went through a very hard time, made some huge mistakes that he is dealing with, and deserves to deal with those because they were messed-up things,” Shanahan said. “I also know how he feels about those mistakes and what he’s done over the last two years to try and make amends, and I know he’s continuing to do that.

“I’m just pulling for him that he can keep up with it. If he does keep up with it, then whether it’s with the 49ers or with someone else, you’re going to get a good person and a good coach. I’m just really hoping that he can get back to being the healthy guy I knew in Washington, and that’s what I see so far.”