Saints, Cowboys among pack of NFC challengers hoping to knock 49ers off

Saints, Cowboys among pack of NFC challengers hoping to knock 49ers off

The 49ers are the kings of the NFC. But heavy lies the head that wears the crown.

Kyle Shanahan's team returns most of the loaded roster that went 13-3 last season and was within seven minutes of winning the Super Bowl. Franchise pillars Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner are gone, but Trent Williams and rookie Javon Kinlaw were brought in to fill the holes.

While the 49ers' "Revenge Tour" will provide plenty of juice for the defending NFC champions, there are several teams who are a threat to San Francisco in the conference.

Tuesday on NFL Network, Kurt Warner, Steve Smith and David Carr were asked to give their biggest threat to the 49ers in the NFC. I'll go over there's before offering some alternatives.

For Warner, it's a no-brainer. Drew Brees and the Saints have been knocking at the door for years. After some brutal playoff losses, they are primed to threaten the 49ers.

"When you look at their roster, they didn't really lose anybody, they pick up Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Jenkins, two guys I believe leadership wise will add to this football team," Warner said. "We know they are a desperate team, too. Not only hungry because they have been knocked out in some crazy ways the last couple years, but hungry because Drew Brees has only been to one Super Bowl. ... I love the way they are positioned, the game-changers they have: Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Drew Brees."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

As for Smith, he went a different route, tabbing the Minnesota Vikings as the biggest challenger to the 49ers. Smith believes new Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and his run-first scheme could lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl if the Vikings' defense holds up.

"That is the only thing that can stop them, which is themselves," Smith said of the Vikings.

Carr went with a team that loaded up in the NFL draft and now looks primed to be one of the best teams in football: The Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas paid Amari Cooper and added CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, making them the prohibitive NFC East favorite and an apparent threat to the 49ers.

"What they've done on defense -- bringing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, bringing in Gerald McCoy to solidify that three-technique inside, take a chance on an Aldon Smith maybe he can get after the passer," Carr said. "I've been kind of a proponent of giving Amari Cooper another guy next to him that can take some pressure off him from matchup standpoint and they went out and they grabbed CeeDee Lamb. CeeDee Lamb for me is a dynamic player, he's going to pair perfectly with Amari Cooper and he's going to give ... if not Dak, Andy Dalton's going to roll in there and throw for 5,000 yards it seems like."

The Saints and Cowboys -- health depending -- certainly will be in contention for the NFC crown. The 49ers and Saints played in an epic game last season, with George Kittle's catch-and-run setting up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal. With time running out for Brees to win another Super Bowl, the Saints should be motivated to make sure their season doesn't end in heart-wrenching fashion as it has in the previous three seasons.

Dallas' Jason Garrett problem is gone as Jerry Jones turned America's Team over to Mike McCarthy. Armed with a bevy of offensive weapons and a defense that made important additions in the offseason, the Cowboys clearly are the best team in the NFC East. As long as they can avoid falling on their face, the Cowboys have the talent to give the 49ers a run for the conference title.

I can't buy the Vikings. After watching the 49ers pummel the Vikings in the divisional round last season, I don't see a way that team led by Kirk Cousins can get past the 49ers. The 49ers gashed them on the ground and their defensive line harassed and tormented Cousins all day. The Vikings very well could win the NFC North, but it's hard to view them as a legitimate threat.

[RELATED: Way-too-early predictions for 2020 NFL season]

There are two more teams who certainly will have a say in who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LV.

As long as Russell Wilson is wearing a Seahawks uniform, Seattle has a chance to make noise. Despite the 49ers having the superior roster in 2019, the Seahawks still were 1 yard away from winning the NFC West and sending the 49ers to the wild-card round. The Seahawks have a favorable December schedule which should help them in their quest for the NFC West title. Even if they once again are doomed to a wild-card spot, there's no reason to think Wilson can't will his team to the Super Bowl.

Apologies to Aaron Rodgers, but the final threat to the 49ers lies in Florida. Tom Brady bolted New England for the sunshine of Tampa Bay. Now paired with Bruce Arians, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and old friend Rob Gronkowski, the 42-year-old quarterback is out to prove he can win without Bill Belichick. The Bucs are loaded on offense and return a defense that wasn't as bad as you might think from a season ago. As long as the Bucs can keep Brady upright, they can challenge for the NFC title.

Of these challengers, the Saints certainly are the top dog. They are loaded on offense, have an innovative head coach and raucous home-field advantage. I'd put the Bucs closely behind them. Brady's numbers were down last season, but a lot of that was due to the lack of offensive weapons around him. I'd have the Seahawks third just because of the greatness of Wilson and then the Cowboys, who need to show me they can live up the hype.

The 49ers have the inside track, but the NFC is loaded and the road back to the Super Bowl won't be easy.

How Patrick Mahomes' contract compares to 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo deal

How Patrick Mahomes' contract compares to 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo deal

As expected, the NFL’s quarterback market has been completely reset by Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City Chiefs inked the quarterback to a 10-year contract Monday, worth $503 million (yeah, not a typo there) that is added on to the final two years of his rookie contract.

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo already was knocked out of having the league’s highest base salary for 2020 by Dak Prescott’s franchise tag with the Dallas Cowboys, and Jimmy G now has the fourth-largest total contract in the NFL after Mahomes’ record-obliterating contract extension.

Mahomes' new deal sets him up for an average annual salary of $47.7 million, by far the league's highest value. Garoppolo now sits No. 11 overall among NFL QBs, with an AAV of $27.5 million.

I’m not going to waste your time comparing Garoppolo and Mahomes as quarterbacks, we all know which one is better. But just for fun, here is how they matched up statistically in 2019 (Mahomes missed two regular-season games with injury).

Garoppolo: 69.1 Cmp%, 3,978 yards, 27 TDs, 13 INT, 8.4 Y/A, 5.7 TD%

Mahomes: 65.9 Cmp%, 4,031 yards, 26 TDs, 5 INT, 8.3 Y/A, 5.4 TD%

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Although the two aren’t in the same stratosphere as quarterbacks, they do lead two of the NFL’s most dominant teams. The 49ers’ punishing defense and buttoned up offense bulldozed teams last season all the way to the Super Bowl, before running into Mahomes and the Chiefs’ battering ram of an offense in Miami Gardens this past February.

[RELATED: 49ers sign cornerback Jamar Taylor, waive Teez Tabor to clear roster spot]

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the two teams match up in at least one more Super Bowl down the road, especially with how well the 49ers handled this offseason, reloading through two first-round draft picks and a big-time trade for Trent Williams.

Winning a Super Bowl and a league MVP within your first three seasons as a starting quarterback is incredibly rare, and Mahomes earned every dollar of that contract. But every other quarterback in the league, Garoppolo included, have to be intrigued about how this will impact their future contracts now that Mahomes has secured the half-billion-dollar bag.

How 49ers can compete with Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs after huge contract

How 49ers can compete with Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs after huge contract

Patrick Mahomes always will be "the one that got away." Not just for the 49ers, not just for the Chicago Bears, but for a handful of teams.

Mahomes somehow fell to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and now he isn't going anywhere for a long, long time. Mahomes and the Chiefs agreed to a 10-year contract extension Monday, worth $503 million.

The 49ers, who owned the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft and selected Solomon Thomas after trading back one spot with the Chicago Bears, saw Mahomes' greatness firsthand on the brightest stage just five months ago. San Francisco forced Mahomes into two interceptions and sacked the 2018 NFL MVP four times. Still, that wasn't enough. 

Mahomes and the Chiefs trailed the 49ers by 10 points with just over six minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIV. They then scored 21 unanswered points, beating the 49ers 31-20. In the blink of an eye, Mahomes stole the Lombardi Trophy from Jimmy Garoppolo and the rest of the 49ers. 

While they don't play in the same conference, Mahomes staying in Kansas City for at least the next dozen years is a significant obstacle in the 49ers winning their first championship since the 1994 season. How can they compete with the Chiefs long-term for their own Super Bowl rings? Here are three keys to a tough task. 

Jimmy G's development 

This is where I put on my Captain Obvious hat. Yes, it all starts with Garoppolo, who was playing as good or better than Mahomes for much of the 49ers' Super Bowl loss. But Garoppolo fell short, there's no denying that. 

We also have to remember this was Garoppolo's first full season in Kyle Shanahan's system, one year after tearing his ACL. Yet he still led the 49ers to 13 regular-season wins while passing for nearly 4,000 yards, and completed 69.1 percent of his pass attempts. Garoppolo wasn't on Mahomes' level last season, but he was very good. 

The simple fact is Garoppolo ranked in the top five in the NFL in touchdowns (27), completion percentage and yards per attempt (8.4). He deserves more respect, and his coach feels the same way. 

“Jimmy was one of the better quarterbacks in the league (last) year, and there’s still a ton of room to grow, though,” coach Kyle Shanahan said during the 49ers’ State of the Franchise virtual event. “And he knows that. I know that. To have only one year in this league for him to do what he did is very exciting.

“I can’t wait to get started with him this year. And I expect him to get better and better each week.”

The 49ers have defended Garoppolo all offseason. He has his faults, sure. He also is one of the better QBs in the league. If the 49ers are to make multiple championship runs, Garoppolo has to continue developing his game. 

It all starts with Jimmy G. 

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Re-sign George Kittle

The offense starts with Garoppolo, but Kittle might be the biggest cog in the machine. There's a reason why he was Pro Football Focus' highest rated player in the game last season. 

Kittle is football's biggest unicorn. He's part bruising offensive lineman and part bulldozing receiver. The tight end truly is the best of both worlds. He also is due for a huge payday. 

San Francisco's All-Pro is set to be a free agent after this season. The goal, however, is to never let him get there. His agent believes Kittle will be a 49er long-term, but it will take a hefty new contract.

“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said to NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “And those things take time for both sides. It’s a nice problem for everybody to have.

“At the end of the day, I trust the Niners will do the right thing and take good care of George, as they should. But I trust the process. I won’t comment where we’re at, or numbers or anything like that. But hopefully it gets done.”

It has to get done. The 49ers are a Porsche with Kittle on the field, and a beat-up Honda Civic -- à la my own car that has become The City drivers' favorite target practice -- without him.

[RELATED: Lott believes Shanahan is 49ers' modern version of Walsh]

Keep Fred Warner long-term

For how important Kittle is to the 49ers' offense, Warner nearly has as big of an impact on the defense. He is the perfect hybrid linebacker in today's modern NFL, one who can actually slow down elite QBs like Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. 

In the Super Bowl alone, Warner put on a show. He had seven tackles, one pass defensed and intercepted Mahomes.

Warner has averaged 121 tackles through his first two seasons in the league. Even more importantly, he's dominant in defending the passing game. He already is among the best linebackers when it comes to breaking up passes, and had a 74.5 coverage grade across 1,166 total snaps last season. That was the fifth-best grade of any linebacker who played at least 1,000 snaps.

Through two seasons with the 49ers, Warner has three interceptions and 15 passes defensed. He also added three sacks and three forced fumbles last season. 

Warner, a 2018 third-round pick, is signed through the next two seasons. The 49ers have to keep him in the Bay Area for much longer.

Everything starts with Garoppolo and Kittle is the engine that makes the offense run. Warner, however, is at the forefront of a breed of linebackers who can change the game on defense, even giving stars like Mahomes headaches for years to come.