49ers

Why 49ers are primed for a return to elite status next season

49ers

The 49ers might be halfway through their season, but for all intents and purposes, it's over. The 37-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks likely sealed the deal, but things have been headed this way for some time.

One could make the case San Francisco's fate was sealed the moment the schedule was released. The back-to-back games at MetLife Stadium in Weeks 2 and 3 knocked the "revenge tour" off track, and the 49ers' ridiculously bad injury luck prevented it from getting back on.

But maybe it was just one year too early.

Things are bleak now, yes. But they shouldn't be for too long. There are a few main reasons the 49ers are primed for a return to elite status next season -- with one major caveat.

Let's start with the obvious one. While we can't say it with absolute certainty, the 49ers should be much healthier next season. At this point, how can they not be?

The 49ers been ravaged by injuries this season, and will soon have eclipsed $80 million in cap value on injured reserve. I don't care how stacked a roster is -- it's not surviving that. So many of San Francisco's best players have had extended absences, and there's little reason for them to rush back now.

But by the time next season starts back up, they should all be fully recovered or close. And while some of them likely will get injured again -- it is football, after all -- the odds are most definitely against the same avalanche of injuries occurring again.

 

At full strength, the 49ers still have one of the best rosters in the league. With any luck, they'll have a chance to prove it.

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And, that roster should get a nice talent boost, too.

The 49ers are 4-4, but even the most optimistic projections have them finishing below .500. At this point, 6-10 seems reasonable. That won't place San Francisco at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft, but it should have them picking within the top 10. A high pick obviously doesn't guarantee anything, but the likelihood of finding a difference-maker is that much greater.

It will be absolutely crucial that the 49ers have a good draft. Their current salary cap structure necessitates it. But unless something totally unforeseen occurs throughout the remainder of the season, they should be in position to do so.

Once the 49ers get through the draft, some more good news shouldn't be too far behind. Whenever the 2021 NFL schedule is released, they'll start licking their chops.

At this point, it seems fairly certain that San Francisco will finish dead last in the ultra-competitive NFC West. If so, that means the 49ers will face a fourth-place schedule next season, which inevitably will be far easier than the gauntlet they face this season after finishing in first place last year.

They'll still have two games against each of the Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals, but those might be the most difficult games on San Francisco's 2021 schedule. The NFC West is scheduled to face the NFC North and AFC South next season, so the 49ers also will play the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the 49ers do indeed finish last in the NFC West, the remaining two games on their 2021 schedule would be against the fourth-place teams in the NFC South (home) and NFC East (away). Right now, that would mean games against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants, respectively.

The same league structures aimed at creating parity that made things so challenging on the 49ers this season will have the opposite effect next year. With the talent that should remain on -- and be added to -- the roster, double-digit wins are most definitely within reach.

About that caveat, though ...

It's a big one, all right. All of the aforementioned reasons should set the 49ers up for a bounce-back season next year -- that is, if they can settle their quarterback situation.

Jimmy Garoppolo's season likely is over, and considering his contract for next season essentially is a team option, there's a decent chance he has thrown his last pass with the 49ers. San Francisco would incur only $2.8 million in dead money by releasing Garoppolo at the end of the season, which seems like a more prudent investment than bringing Jimmy G back for more than $24 million for each of the next two seasons.

 

If Garoppolo isn't the 49ers' quarterback, though, then who is? Backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard are precisely that -- backups. Neither is capable of taking the team to the next level. So, if the 49ers move on from Jimmy G, they'll have to bring in someone new.

There isn't an obvious answer that will be available in free agency. And given the huge extensions the 49ers will soon have to dole out to Fred Warner and Nick Bosa -- not to mention Trent Williams and Richard Sherman -- it would behoove them to have a lower-salaried QB. One on his rookie contract, for instance, would make a lot of sense.

As such, it would not be surprising whatsoever to see the 49ers draft a quarterback early. Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is certain to go No. 1 overall, so he's out of reach. The same is probably true for Ohio State's Justin Fields, though he'd be ideal. North Dakota State's Trey Lance oozes potential. BYU's Zach Wilson and Florida's Kyle Trask both currently project to be picked later in the first round. There certainly have been worse seasons to be looking for a QB in the draft.

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It's always possible the 49ers draft a QB and bring Jimmy G back. Or maybe they trade for a veteran or another young signal-caller in need of a fresh start. All of those options seem more likely than sticking with the status quo.

It's the biggest question mark the 49ers have moving forward. But if they can find a good answer, they'll be right back in business. The "revenge tour" isn't over.

It has just been postponed.