We're less than three weeks away from the 49ers' first game of the 2021 NFL regular season, and there is every reason to expect San Francisco to have more success than in 2020. ESPN's Bill Barnwell published on Tuesday his annual list of the handful of teams most likely to improve upon the prior season, and sure enough, the 49ers were included in that group along with the Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos.
Of those five teams, none won more games last season than the 49ers (6-10), so in that respect, they'll be the most challenged to produce a better record in 2021. However, Barnwell highlighted three main reasons why they should have no problem doing so.
First and foremost, the 49ers should be much, much healthier than they were last season. As Barnwell pointed out, they were the NFL's most injured team in 2020 by adjusted games lost, and by a considerable margin. 17 players were on Injured Reserve or the Physically Unable to Perform List at season's end, and only seven starters managed to play in all 16 games. It is incredibly unlikely that the 49ers will have such bad injury luck in 2021. They have one of the strongest rosters in the league, and with improved health, that depth of talent should result in more victories.
Next on the list of reasons to expect the 49ers to finish with a better record in 2021 is the turnover factor. San Francisco committed 31 turnovers (second-most in NFL) last season and posted a minus-11 turnover differential (third-worst in NFL). History suggests that the 49ers will be much better in that category this coming season. As Barnwell noted, there have been 103 teams that have posted turnover margins between minus-10 and minus-15 since 1989. The following season, those teams improved their differential by an average of 9.3 turnovers and their record by 1.4 wins.
And, finally, the other main reason why the 49ers should finish with a better record in 2021 is their schedule. After facing the fourth-most difficult schedule last season according to ESPN's Football Power Index, the 49ers will face FPI's third-easiest schedule in 2021. There are countless projection models, but the theme is the same throughout. As Barnwell wrote, "The rankings mean less than the general idea: San Francisco is going to go from a tough set of opponents to much less imposing opposition."
While Barnwell is extremely confident that the 49ers will be improved in 2021, he doesn't necessarily believe a return to the Super Bowl is in the books. Only time will tell on that matter, but perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised if it is.