Week 16: Top 5 storylines in 49ers-Lions matchup


Week 16: Top 5 storylines in 49ers-Lions matchup

DETROIT -- A couple weeks ago, this game looked a lot more promising for the 49ers than it does right now.

While the game matches a pair of teams that have known for the second half of the season that there would be no playoff chances, 49ers and Detroit Lions are going in different directions. The 49ers (4-10) continue to struggle with poor play and injuries, while the Lions (5-9) are playing well as they near the finish line. Here are five storylines for Sunday’s game at Ford Field:

1. O-line looks to the future
One of the major issues for the 49ers as they move into next season is the offensive line. Guard Alex Boone might have played his final game. The 49ers on Saturday placed him on injured reserve with to a knee injury. Marcus Martin is out with a concussion. Rookie Trent Brown could have a future at right tackle, and he is expected to see a lot of playing time in Sunday’s game. How he reacts to blitzes early in the game could determine if the 49ers stick with him for the entire game. Andrew Tiller showed promise at right guard, and he could see more action on the left side. If Brown and Tiller show some good things, the 49ers might feel better about the line going into the offseason.

2. Tomsula’s statement
Coach Jim Tomsula is probably a popular man in the locker room for delaying the team’s trip to Detroit for a day to enable his players to spend much of Christmas with their families. Will they repay him with a strong effort? As of right now, it appears likely Tomsula will get a second season as 49ers head coach after signing a four-year contract in January. But if the team completely falls apart, it might force CEO Jed York to reconsider his plan.

3. Gabbert looks to bounce back
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been OK since taking over for Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the season. But at some point for Gabbert – and for offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, too – the 49ers need to prove they can score more than 20 points in 60 minutes of football. The 49ers have not topped 20 points in regulation since their Week 6 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. (They scored 26 in an overtime victory against Chicago three weeks ago.) The 49ers rank last in the NFL in scoring. San Francisco and Dallas are the only teams that have not scored 30 points in a game this season. The Lions’ defense ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 25.9 points per game.

4. Johnson-Johnson challenge
Dontae Johnson did not know he would play most of last week’s game against Cincinnati, but he took over at right cornerback in place of Kenneth Acker early in the game and held up well. At 6 foot 3, Johnson appears to provide the best physical matchup against 6-5 wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who has posted six consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Lions. “You get to showcase what you’re doing and see how you measure up against to the best,” Dontae Johnson said. “He’s freak-of-nature big, strong, fast and has great hands. He’s everything you want in a prototypical wide receiver.” Johnson has been held to just one reception in both of the past two games. With a scheduled $24 million cap hit for next season, Johnson is certainly not guaranteed to be back with Detroit. This could be his final home game. You can bet quarterback Matthew Stafford will want to get the ball in his hands early and often.

5. Hayne back in uniform
Jarryd Hayne spent nearly two months on the 49ers’ practice squad to concentrate on learning the sport of American football. He is back on the active roster, and is likely to see some action on Sunday. He could see some action at running back. Hayne could see some action on punt returns. While he does not figure to have a huge role, the presence of the former rugby league star figures to promise this game will receive more attention in Australia than in the United States.

49ers' George Kittle voted top NFL tight end over Chiefs' Travis Kelce

49ers' George Kittle voted top NFL tight end over Chiefs' Travis Kelce

Who's the best tight end in the NFL?

While many feel strongly on the subject, there really are only two acceptable answers. You can bicker back and forth as to who is superior between 49ers tight end George Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, but they're clearly in a tier unto themselves.

If you're partial to the intricacies of route-running, Kelce might be your choice. If you like a bruiser who contributes in all aspects of the offense, Kittle surely is your guy.

If there is a separation between the two, it's by hairs. Don't take my word for it. More than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players recently voted on the top 10 players at 11 different positions for the upcoming 2020 season, and the top two tight ends were separated by the slimmest margin of any position group.

To the delight of 49ers fans, and the ire of those of the Chiefs, Kittle came out on top. Just barely.

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

After the first round of votes, ESPN's Jeremey Fowler reported Kittle and Kelce sat at a dead-even split. Additional voting and follow-up calls were required, which ultimately tilted the result in Kittle's favor.

Just like Kelce, Kittle was ranked as high as No. 1 at the position, but no lower than No. 3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski was the only other player to receive a first-place vote, but last I checked it's 2020 and not 2015.

"Consecutive 1,000-yard seasons make Kittle a top contender, but his blocking and intensity helped earn him nearly half the first-place votes," Fowler wrote. "Where Kittle beats everyone is at the line of scrimmage and with the ball in his hands, as he forced a league-high 20 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus."

The voters were full of compliments for Kelce, but Kittle's mentality, leadership and scheme flexibility proved to be the tie-breakers.

"Be on the field, and see how he elevates the play of everyone in the offense. It's tangible," one NFC coordinator said. "He lifts everyone up."

"The passion on tape is unmatched," an AFC executive explained. "He's got that dog in him. More competitive than Kelce."

"Unreal passion, energy, toughness, blocking," said another executive.

[RELATED: Mahomes contract could put pressure on 49ers signing Kittle]

Kittle might have won the vote, but last time he and Kelce were on the same field, the Chiefs tight end got the better of him, both in the box score and in the Lombardi Trophy department. Of course, if Kittle isn't called for that questionable-at-best offensive pass interference penalty, it might be a completely different story.

In any case, there's no shame in Kelce being ranked below Kittle, nor would there be if it was the other way around. They're both extremely special players, and it's not a coincidence that their teams arguably are the two best in the NFL.

Why A.J. Green trade doesn't make sense for 49ers unlike other big names

Why A.J. Green trade doesn't make sense for 49ers unlike other big names

I've argued that the 49ers should pursue trades for New York Jets star safety Jamal Adams and Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku. The latter certainly would be accomplished the easiest of the two, though the former is worth the extra trouble. 

I stand by both of those arguments as each player would be an upgrade over what San Francisco already has, while both are young and still have bright futures ahead of them. Though he surely is quite talented, the same cannot be said of Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green.

Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox recently listed the one personnel move he believes each NFL team should make before the start of the 2020 season, and a trade for Green is precisely what he recommended for the 49ers. That is one big-name player, however, that San Francisco has very little reason to consider.

For starters, time simply is not on Green's side. Unlike Adams and Njoku, who both will be 24 years of age when the season starts, Green will be 32. Then there's the matter of availability. Unlike Adams and Njoku, Green has quite a long injury history, posting only two full seasons in the last six, while missing 29 games over the last four. That number includes the 16 games he missed last season while sitting out the entirety of the campaign.

Both of those matters could be easily overlooked for the purposes of this coming season -- if not for one major deterrent. As Knox pointed out, the 49ers could have a major need at receiver, depending on the health of Deebo Samuel. 

"Though the recently oft-injured Green may no longer be the elite pass-catcher he once was, he could be the sort of reliable and consistent veteran San Francisco had in Emmanuel Sanders over the second half of 2019," Knox wrote. "Adding Green would give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a go-to target in clutch situations. It would also provide insurance for second-year wideout Deebo Samuel, who suffered a foot injury while training this offseason."

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

If only it were that simple.

That aforementioned deterrent is a financial one. Green will make nearly $17.9 million on the franchise tag this coming season, a salary San Francisco couldn't absorb without shedding a significant amount of other expenses. Not to mention, the 49ers have to leave open the possibility that they might have to use the franchise tag on George Kittle. 

And that's just for this coming season. 

Green reportedly doesn't want to play on the franchise tag, and the Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon reported in December that he wants to be paid like "one of the best receivers in the NFL." Obviously, that would mean a significant, long-term financial commitment, which the 49ers can't realistically offer him. Assuming Kittle is re-signed to a lucrative contract extension, they have nowhere near that kind of room in the salary cap moving forward to be able to pay Green what he is seeking.

And that's another area where the potential pursuits of Green and Adams differ. San Francisco is led by one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. Coach Kyle Shanahan is a luxury in the respect that he is able to get more out of his offensive weapons by scheming them open, which is why you don't see any large salaries -- Kittle aside -- at San Francisco's skill positions. 

[RELATED: Mahomes contract could put pressure on 49ers signing Kittle]

Shanahan, though, doesn't have nearly as much impact on the defensive execution. He is more reliant on the talent of the personnel on that side of the ball, which is why the 49ers have paid large annual sums for the likes of Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander and Richard Sherman. Adams would help in an area that Shanahan cannot. 

Green could be extremely effective in Shanahan's system, but it would be fiscally irresponsible to a tremendous degree to funnel the team's remaining resources to an aging receiver who might not be any better than what San Francisco already has at this point. Not to mention, the cost it would take to acquire Green from the Bengals. 

They had every opportunity to trade him last season, when they surely would have received a massive haul in return. Cincinnati then invested the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on quarterback Joe Burrow, whose transition surely would be aided by having a veteran receiver like Green to throw to. So, it seems highly unlikely that any team could acquire him on the cheap. 

If San Francisco is going to invest both draft and financial capital in a difference-maker, it needs to be on someone who is a certainty to both improve the odds on and extend the current championship window. Green doesn't check either of those boxes for the 49ers, which is why they're extremely unlikely to do what it would take to acquire him.