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NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

Football fans are beginning to get the itch. As teams post graphics counting down the days to the start of the NFL season, hope for all fans is at its highest point. We've been without college and pro football (sorry AAF fans) since early February, but the dog days of summer are just about over and NFL training camps finally begin starting up next week.

With the NFL's designated enemies Bill Belichick and Tom Brady bringing home their sixth Lombardi trophy with the Patriots in 2018, every team in the NFL has its heart set on dethroning the boys from Foxborough.

When it comes to individual awards, several standouts from the NFC brought home hardware last season. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley brought home the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But when it came to the NFL MVP, there was little debate as to choosing anyone besides Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. 

As we take a look at some of the longshots from the NFC who could grab the throne of NFL MVP, we only considered players who had odds at 80/1 or worse, according to the Westgate Sports Book. With the criteria set, let's examine four potential dark-horse picks for the NFL's most valuable player.

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers QB

The case for: Garoppolo has shown the ability to quickly adapt to schemes and has won six of his first eight starts with the organization. Several NFL analysts have mentioned Garoppolo as an outside-the-box candidate for MVP, including NBC Sports' NFL Analyst Chris Simms. George Kittle should be even more motivated after a breakout 2018 season, as he can now (hopefully) play an entire season with a franchise QB as opposed to the Nick Mullens/C.J. Beathard experiment the 49ers trotted out last season. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has experience building players into MVP-caliber players, as he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator when Matt Ryan won the MVP in 2016. With one of the NFL's top offensive minds at the helm of the 49ers coaching staff, Garoppolo should be put into plenty of positions to be successful in 2019 and could bring the NFL MVP trophy back to the City by the Bay for the first time since Steve Young won it in 1994.

The case against: Garoppolo has only played eight games under Shanahan, and the lack of proven weapons at the receiver and running back positions could backfire for a QB with limited reps in regular-season action. The team faces the 11th toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and if the defense can't stay healthy, this team will have a hard time staying in games and could force the offense to play from behind frequently. An offensive line that has been hit or miss outside of Joe Staley could regress, all but eliminating Garoppolo's chance at taking home the MVP trophy in February.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers RB

The case for: One of the best dual-threats in the NFL, the former Stanford standout was dominant both in the run and pass game. McCaffrey had 1,965 scrimmage yards in 2018 with 13 touchdowns, and it is not out of the realm of possibility to see McCaffrey reach the very exclusive 1,000-1,000 club, as he was just 133 receiving yards from it last season. If he were to cross that vaunted threshold with rushing and receiving yards -- and the Panthers return to the form that saw them represent the NFC at Super Bowl 50 -- it would be tough to look past the talented tailback as the NFL's top player.

The case against: A running back hasn't won the MVP since 2012, when Adrian Peterson brought home the honors after rushing for over 2,000 yards. In today's pass-happy NFL, the running back position has become much less valuable and so many teams simply plug and play guys throughout the year. With the Panthers once again having little to no elite options in the receiving core, teams will be stacking the box and focusing much of their attention on McCaffrey on every play, which will limit the chances for him to make big plays out of the backfield. Unless he puts together a record-setting season, it's hard to see a running back hoisting the MVP at season's end.

Aaron Donald, Rams DT

The case for: I know, I know, but just hear me out. Donald was just two sacks shy of the NFL's single-season record for sacks in 2018 and also led the NFL with 27 tackles for loss, which was the eighth-best single-season mark in NFL history. Although opponents likely will continue to deploy double and triple teams on Donald, it hasn't seemed to slow him down much the past few years as he has won back-to-back AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. A team's overall success often ends up being a significant component of the MVP formula, and if the Rams are among the top two or three teams in the league at the end of the season, it wouldn't be far-fetched to see Donald win the first MVP for a defensive player since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

The case against: Refer to the last sentence of the above paragraph, as no defender has won the NFL's top crown since LT was prowling the NFL sidelines (which was five years before Donald was even born). In an age of absurd offensive production, the rules and officiating have significantly favored the offenses and that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. Donald would have to be over-the-top dominant in order to be in the running at season's end.

[RELATED: Why Peter King thinks Jimmy Garoppolo key to 49ers making NFL playoffs]

Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB

The case for: Prescott was gifted one of the NFL's best receivers midseason in 2018 when Amari Cooper was traded to the Cowboys from the Raiders in late October. The Cowboys were a playoff team in 2018, and with most of their offensive weapons returning in 2019, they should be in the thick of the conversation once again in 2019. Dallas also has the second-best offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus) lined up in front of him, which once again will afford Prescott plenty of time in the pocket. If he does take that next step and has a season like the one that earned him the 2016 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, we could see Prescott accepting another major award come February.

The case against: Prescott clearly has not blown away Jerry Jones and the Cowboys' front office, as he is still awaiting a long-term extension with the team. And if Ezekiel Elliott ends up continuing his contentious negotiations with the team into the regular season, it could affect the locker room and generate problems for the 'Boys in 2019. Prescott also reportedly has been tweaking his mechanics in the offseason, which could end up being more of a detriment than a positive. If Elliott ends up still being the focal point of the offense in 2019, Prescott will not even be the top MVP candidate on his own team.

George Kittle's strong run-blocking skills for 49ers proved by stat

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USATSI

George Kittle's strong run-blocking skills for 49ers proved by stat

"George Kittle, not really a blocker ... "

We didn't say this, but FS1's Doug Gottlieb sure did. And he heard the comments from his statement essentially saying he didn't know what he was talking about.

If you needed numbers to back it up, we have that covered for you courtesy of Next Gen Stats:

He certainly has a presence, and the numbers show that. 

Kyle Shanahan has praised Kittle's run-blocking game before which only adds to the evidence proving sometimes, it's best to watch him continue in his greatness -- no comments necessary.

[RELATED: Kittle was key success in run game vs. Ravens]

To add to it, in the 49ers' Week 13 20-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the tight end received an overall 72.9 grade from Pro Football Focus and a 78.1 run-blocking grade.

That was the best grade of the season from anyone.

A complete list of the 49ers' injury situation with three games remaining

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MATT MAIOCCO

A complete list of the 49ers' injury situation with three games remaining

SANTA CLARA – Three front-line starters who have contributed to the 49ers’ 11-2 start have been lost for the remainder of the season.

And the club is expected to be without two other starters and at least two other rotational players for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi’s Stadium.

Coach Kyle Shanahan said on a Thursday appearance on KNBR-680 that nose tackle D.J. Jones will be going on season-ending injured reserve. The 49ers are likely to activate defensive lineman Kentavius Street off injured reserve to take Jones’ spot on the team’s 53-man roster.

The 49ers have three games remaining in the regular season before heading into the playoffs, and they will have to rely on their depth to get through a time when their depth chart is being tested.

Cornrerback K'Waun Williams did not practice on Thursday as he is working through the concussion protocol, but he has a chance to be able to play Sunday.

Here’s a look at the 49ers players who are not expected to play Sunday but could be available at some point before the end of the regular season and playoffs:

CB Richard Sherman

Cornerback Richard Sherman sustained a right hamstring strain in the 49ers’ win in New Orleans. Shanahan said on KNBR that Sherman will not play against the Falcons. Sherman appeared to be striding well in rehab work on the practice field Thursday. Sherman said he expects to miss only one game. Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley will be the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks against Atlanta.

SS Jaquiski Tartt

Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt will miss his second consecutive game due to fractured ribs, Shanahan said on KNBR. The target for Tartt to return, if needed, is Week 17 against the Seattle Seahawks. Second-year player Marcell Harris will make his second start in place of Tartt.

DE Dee Ford

The 49ers want Ford to be ready for the playoffs after returning too soon from quadricep and hamstring injuries. Ford missed two games with the injury, then aggravated the condition while playing just four snaps against New Orleans. Ford is tied for third on the team with 6.5 sacks. The 49ers hope to achieve a first-round bye in the playoffs to buy him another week of rehab.

DT Jullian Taylor

Defensive tackle Jullian Taylor sustained ligament damage to his right elbow in the Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens. He will not be available to play Sunday at Levi’s Stadium but could be back as early as Week 16 against the Los Angeles Rams, if he is needed. He should be OK for the playoffs.

* * *

Here is the list of players who have seen action in more than a handful of games during the regular season who have been placed on season-ending injured reserve:

NT D.J. Jones

The loss of nose tackle Jones, who is ticketed to IR, is a big blow to the club. Jones started all 11 games in which he appeared and had turned into a force in the middle of the 49ers’ defensive line. Jones sustained a significant high-ankle sprain in the 49ers’ win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Sheldon Day, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are among the players who can see action at nose tackle.

LB Kwon Alexander

Linebacker Kwon Alexander was placed on IR on Nov. 5 after sustaining a torn pectoral. He underwent season-ending surgery. Alexander started the first eight games of the season and recorded 34 tackles, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Rookie Dre Greenlaw has taken over at his position.

C Weston Richburg

Center Weston Richburg sustained a torn patellar tendon in his right knee on Sunday in New Orleans. He started the first 13 games of the season and was playing at a high level in both the run game and in pass protection. Veteran Ben Garland will take over as the team’s starting center.

DL Ronald Blair

Ronald Blair played in the first nine games of the season and was filling a significant role as a rotational edge rusher in nickel situations. He had three sacks on the season before sustaining an injury on Nov. 11 while chasing down Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Blair was the team’s third defensive end in their sub package behind Nick Bosa and Ford.

TE Garrett Celek

Tight end Garrett Celek went on IR after an aggravation of the back injury that required offseason surgery. Celek did not look healthy upon his return to action on Nov. 11 after missing the first eight games while on the physically-unable-to-perform list. He had to pass receptions in his five games. Rookie Daniel Helm was added to the roster, joining other tight ends George Kittle, Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo.

WR Marquise Goodwin

Marquise Goodwin went on IR this week with foot and knee issues. Goodwin had fallen out of the team’s receiver rotation. He had just 12 receptions for 186 yards with one touchdown in nine games. He started the team’s first six games of the season. The 49ers re-signed Jordan Matthews to be the team's sixth wide receiver.

* * *

Here are the other 49ers on injured reserve:

DE Damontre Moore: He appeared in two games before sustaining a fractured forearm. The 49ers signed him Nov. 13 to replace Blair.

WR Trent Taylor: Had foot surgery in August and experienced complications to prevent his return this season.

WR Jalen Hurd: Third-round pick who caught two TD passes in his only preseason game before experiencing a stress reaction in his back and setbacks through the course of the season.

RB Jerick McKinnon: He missed his second consecutive season due to knee issues from a torn ACL in training camp of 2018.

CB Jason Verrett: He appeared in one game before going on injured reserve on Oct. 3 due to a knee issue.

OT Shon Coleman: He sustained a fractured fibula and dislocated right ankle in the exhibition opener.

CB Tim Harris: A seventh-round draft pick, Harris went on IR due to a groin injury.

WR Shawn Poindexter: The 49ers placed the undrafted rookie from Arizona on injured reserve on Aug. 22 with a torn ACL

OL Andrew Lauderdale: The 49ers placed him on injured reserve on Sept. 1.