The 49ers are heading into the 2022 season with high expectations after nearly making it to the big dance in 2021.
Everyone on the roster will need to contribute for a repeat visit to the NFL playoffs, but there are a few players that impact the team’s progress on a higher level.
Based on the level of importance for the team’s success, Matt Maiocco and I each compiled a top-10 list of the most important 49ers players looking ahead to the 2022 season. We considered how much potential the player has to impact the outcome of the season, as well as how much the team is relying on said player to perform this fall.
Here are our lists:
Matt’s No. 10
RG Aaron Banks
The team spent a second-round pick on the guard who has yet to see the field as a starter. After Laken Tomlinson signed as a free agent with the New York Jets, there is an expectation for the Notre Dame product to step in where Tomlinson left off and realize his potential on the field.
JLC’s No. 10
S Jimmie Ward
As the “eraser” and the longest tenured member of the 49ers' secondary, Ward is the key to the defense’s success. Not only is his leadership important to the young defensive backs, but his ability to stop anyone that gets to the third level of the defense is imperative to keep opposing teams out of the end zone.
Matt’s No. 9
K Robbie Gould
The 49ers have a tough schedule facing the stacked AFC West in 2022, which potentially could lead to many close games. Gould could be the player who tips the scales. If the 40-year-old can stay healthy and continue to make clutch kicks late in games, it could help propel the club into the postseason.
JLC’s No. 9
WR Brandon Aiyuk
Trey Lance has a lot of pressure on his shoulders that the third-year receiver can help alleviate. As a reliable target for the young signal-caller, Aiyuk’s attention to detail and chemistry with his quarterback will be a key to the offense’s success.
Aiyuk has already taken up a leadership role among the wideouts and spent part of the offseason working out with Lance away from the facility. The Arizona State product’s performance on and off the field in 2022 is undeniably important.
Matt’s No. 8
DT Arik Armstead
Armstead’s newfound success in the middle of the defensive line will need to continue as an impactful part of both the 49ers’ run defense and ability to pressure the quarterback. The lengthy lineman will not only need to clog the middle of the field, causing third-and-long situations for opposing offenses, but improving on his six sack total from 2021 will only help take attention away from Nick Bosa.
JLC’s No. 8
LB Fred Warner
Warner got off to a slow start in 2021 following his All-Pro season the year prior. The linebacker put undue pressure on himself following the signing of a five-year contract extension that keeps him with the team through 2026 season, but finished the season strong with a regular season career-high 137 total tackles.
If the “quarterback of the defense” can keep the momentum rolling starting in Week 1, the odds of a winning record for the club only increase.
Matt’s No. 7
TE George Kittle
Another weapon that can take pressure off of Lance is the three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro tight end. If Kittle can stay healthy and continue to contribute, not only as a receiver but as a run blocker and in pass protection, the young quarterback will be set up for success.
JLC’s No. 7
FB Kyle Juszczyk
A productive run game is a priority for Kyle Shanahan, and Juszczyk is a key component in the head coach’s scheme. The fullback not only is a lead blocker for the ball carrier, but has shown he can also do it himself earning his sixth straight Pro Bowl nod in 2021.
With an inexperienced center, Juszczyk will need to provide physical/blocking support on the line of scrimmage and veteran leadership, making sure there are no communication issues by giving support to Lance in the backfield.
Matt’s No. 6
LB Fred Warner
Warner is the first crossover player on both lists, and finding new ways to utilize the linebacker will only help the defense be more productive on the field. While Warner had a good 2021 season with seven tackles for a loss, he has the potential to be even better. That could include blitz packages along with his coverage skills.
JLC’s No. 6
TE George Kittle
Lance’s success is directly connected to Kittle and his ability to help the offensive line in pass protection, as well as being a reliable target. The tight end has the ability to make a big play out of a check down that only makes the quarterback’s job easier.
Matt’s No. 5
RT Mike McGlinchey
After missing eight games in 2020 due to a knee injury, the right tackle is set up to be ready for Week 1. With the interior of the offensive line newer to the scene this season, McGlinchey’s consistency on the right side of the field will be important for the club’s success.
If the fifth year lineman from Notre Dame can have a bounce-back season, it will open up the offense for Lance while also minimizing pressure from the right side.
Matt’s No. 4
S Jimmie Ward
Ward has been an incredibly consistent contributor for the 49ers' defense, but he can be even better. The veteran safety has the potential to be a game changer if he can produce more takeaways. 2022 is Ward’s chance to really step up.
JLC’s No. 4
The starting center
It has not yet been determined who will earn the starting role at center for the club. While Jake Brendel took most of the first team reps through the offseason program, Daniel Brunskill has more experience with 546 regular season snaps at the position in 2020.
No matter who starts for the club, the offense’s success in 2022 begins in their hands -- literally. Their ability to make the call and communicate with Lance and the rest of the offense could be the make-or-break point for the group.
Matt’s No. 3, JLC’s No. 2
DE Nick Bosa
It's not as important for Bosa to beat his 19.5 sack total from 2021 as it is to draw attention away from everyone else on the defensive line. The star pass rusher being held and double teamed only opens opportunities for the players on the the other side of the line, including Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and rookie Drake Jackson.
JLC’s No. 3, Matt’s No. 2
WR Deebo Samuel
Samuel was one of the biggest reasons the 49ers appeared in the NFC Championship game in 2021. The “wide-back’s” continued contribution on offense is key to their potential going forward. Not only will Samuel keep opposing defenses guessing, but the wideout’s chemistry with Lance will be important to the 49ers' offensive productivity.
Lance and the All-Pro receiver have yet to work together extensively during the offseason but have plans in the works, the young play-caller reported during minicamp.
Matt and JLC’s No. 1
CB Charvarius Ward
The 49ers' big-ticket free agency signing was Ward. Shanahan and John Lynch are counting on the cornerback to not only provide leadership in a young defensive back room, but to lockdown one side of the field.
Ward playing a consistent game will allow DeMeco Ryans flexibility in his scheme, allowing the defense to continue in their dominant way. Ward's performance is vital to the club's potential to make an appearance in the playoffs for the second year in a row.
The undisputed, most important overall player of the 2022 season: QB Trey Lance
The young quarterback’s success this season will show whether the 49ers made the right decision in trading significant draft capital to move up to the No. 3 overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft and choosing Lance to be the leader of the 49ers.
Lynch and Shanahan are giving the young play-caller all of the tools necessary for him to thrive in his second season with the club. Finally healthy after injuring the index finger on his throwing hand during the preseason of his rookie year, Lance’s passes have already been more crisp and accurate during OTAs and minicamp. The 22-year-old will have all eyes on him as he heads into his first full season as the starting quarterback for the club.
If all players on this list realize their potential, the club playing in games past Week 18 should become a reality.
For an even more detailed breakdown, listen to the 49ers Talk podcast.