Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

LOS ANGELES -- This was the day the 49ers turned from being a nice underdog story into a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

Seriously? Seriously.

The 49ers, playing without four key starting players, went into the stadium of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and turned it into their home -- complete with their own fans bringing the volume.

The 49ers’ defense was relentless and did more than enough to overcome some of the team’s expected offensive shortcomings in an eye-opening 20-7 victory over the Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The 49ers took the field without Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, their starting offensive tackles. Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filled in nicely.

They used a combination of different offensive personnel groupings, including extended runs for reserve tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo to compensate for the loss of do-everything fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was playing at a high level when he was lost for approximately a month with a foot sprain. But backup Emmanuel Moseley has stepped in, and the pass defense has not missed a beat.

Are the 49ers elite? At this point -- nearly one-third into the season -- there can be only one correct answer.

It is fair to recognize the 49ers as one of the top teams in the NFL through five games. After all, the 49ers (5-0) and the New England Patriots (6-0) are the league’s only unbeaten squads.

But coach Kyle Shanahan, perhaps, is sending a message to his team that he believes the 49ers are capable of much more. When he was asked if “elite” is an apt description of the 49ers, he was not ready to go there.

“No, [I’m] not going to ever used that word. Good trick,” Shanahan said with a laugh.

“But I’m very happy with how we played. We’re 5-0, which is a great thing. But we’re not playing our best ball. We could do a lot of things better than that.”

Even with a dominating defensive performance that limited quarterback Jared Goff and the high-powered Rams offense to a meager 56 yards of net passing, the players on defense believe they can get better. There's also little doubt that the 49ers can tighten things up on offense and special teams, too.

So, can it be said now? Are the 49ers for real?

“We would like to say,” 49ers defensive end Dee Ford said. “But we still understand we got things to work on. The record shows right now, but we got to keep going. We got a lot of good teams ahead. The challenge is going to be stiff every week, and we got to answer it.”

“We’re just getting started," linebacker Fred Warner said. "We’re 5-0, which is great, but we have a long season ahead of us. It’ll take us one week at a time.”

The 49ers now hold a three-game lead in the loss column over the Rams, who fall to 3-3.

The Rams have lost back-to-back games to NFC West opponents, falling in Week 5 at the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams now face an uphill climb to get back in the division race and cannot afford too many more stumbles to remain in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.

There was no denying the importance of this game for the 49ers, especially after the Rams handled them quite easily in their two meetings last season en route to their second straight division title in Sean McVay’s first two seasons as coach.

“L.A. has gotten after us the last couple of years,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “It was a game for us to come out and show we’re for real.”

[RELATED: Grading 49ers in their win over Rams]

Said rookie defensive end Nick Bosa: “It was definitely emotional, but we definitely expect to win every game we play now. We have that confidence offensively and defensively. It’s only up from here.”

Despite their five-game win streak to open the season and the temptation to get full of themselves, defensive end Arik Armstead said he plans to stick with the same approach that has made the 49ers successful up this point.

“My mindset is to take it week by week,” he said.

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

49ers running back Raheem Mostert wants a raise or to be traded. The problem for him is, he doesn't really have any leverage. Regardless of what he deserves, that's just the reality of the situation.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan favors a running back-by-committee approach. He will be able to employ that, regardless of whether or not Mostert wants to be a part of it. The 49ers have ample depth at the position, even after trading Matt Breida earlier in the offseason.

Tevin Coleman isn't going anywhere. Cutting him would result in a $2 million dead cap hit, and San Francisco can't afford to waste cap space at the moment.

Jeff Wilson scored five touchdowns on 30 total touches last season. He seemed to make a play whenever given an opportunity, and the coaching staff has plenty of faith in him.

The 49ers also signed undrafted free agents JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed, who originally might have been ticketed for the practice squad, but there's a reason why San Francisco pursued them. Shanahan has a long track record of creating productive rushers out of thin air, and Mostert's performance last season only backs that up.

But there's one major wild card in San Francisco's backfield: Jerick McKinnon.

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

Having signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the 49ers on the opening day of free agency in 2018, McKinnon was hand-picked by Shanahan to transform San Francisco's offense. Though never a bell cow, he offered the speed and matchup versatility that Shanahan covets. McKinnon rushed for 570 yards and hauled in 51 receptions for another 421 yards in his final season before joining the 49ers, and in Shanahan's system, the possibilities were endless.

And then, all dreams were dashed.

McKinnon tore his ACL one week before the start of the 2018 season, and then sat out the entirety of the 2019 campaign after requiring additional surgery. After not stepping foot on the field in a single game over his first two seasons with the franchise, McKinnon agreed to a pay reduction for the 2020 season that will see him make $910,000 in base salary, a sign of his commitment to the team. He was scheduled to make $6.8 million in 2020 prior to the restructuring.

Given his injury history, the 49ers would be wise to be cautious with their dependence on him. That said, he has had nearly a full year to recover from the most recent surgery, and last month his trainer said McKinnon is "in the best shape of his life."

He had been working with Rischad "Footwork King" Whitfield, and on Wednesday, McKinnon posted more workout videos to his Instagram Story.

The 49ers are optimistic they'll finally be able to unleash McKinnon this coming season, with Mostert recently going so far as to predict that McKinnon will "surprise people." If he's healthy, there's no doubt Shanahan will be itching to involve him in the offense, creating yet another potential matchup nightmare for the opposing defense. Plenty can happen between now and then, but San Francisco has to be feeling good about the progress "Jet" has put on tape.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

If the 49ers go into the season feeling like they can count on McKinnon, Mostert inevitably will get fewer touches. There are only so many to go around, especially with receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd liable to take a few of their own. Mostert rightfully feels like he deserves a significant raise, but that's under the assumption he is going to be the lead back in Shanahan's system.

That might still be the case, regardless of McKinnon's status. But the 49ers haven't forgotten about McKinnon, and until they do, the odds are against Mostert getting what he wants.

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

49ers running back Raheem Mostert's trade demand carries another motive, according to his agent.

Within an hour of announcing Mostert's trade demand Wednesday, Brett Tessler told NFL Media's Ian Rapoport that Mostert "simply" wants his salary "in line" with teammate Tevin Coleman's.

Coleman's $4.55 million base salary is nearly $2 million more than Mostert's $2.575 million, according to Over the Cap. Mostert's salary is not guaranteed, whereas $2 million of Coleman's became guaranteed on April 1. Coleman can earn nearly $4.9 million after workout and roster bonuses, and Mostert can make up to $2.825 million if he hits all his roster bonuses.

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

Mostert (151) and Coleman (158) had nearly the same number of total touches during the regular season, with each player rushing an identical 137 times. But Mostert led the team in regular-season rushing yards (772) and rushing touchdowns (eight), becoming the 49ers' top back down the stretch and having over twice as many carries (117) and touches (126) as Coleman (55; 58) from Week 13 onward.

Prior to that stretch, Mostert had 113 rushing attempts and 127 touches in the preceding 31 games. Coleman, meanwhile, signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2019 after averaging 165.5 touches per season in four years with the Atlanta Falcons.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

Whether the 49ers meet either of Mostert's demands remains to be seen.

He still has two years left on his contract (including 2020), and the 49ers currently have the NFL's eighth-highest salary-cap number on running backs. San Francisco has just over $12 million in salary-cap space, but that number conceivably could diminish if star tight end George Kittle's contract extension includes a reworked 2020 cap number.

Kittle's set to count just over $2.2 million against the cap this season. Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who has the NFL's highest cap number at the position, counts just shy of $12.5 million against the cap.