Jerick McKinnon

49ers Mailbag: George Kittle not slowing down with extra rib padding

49ers Mailbag: George Kittle not slowing down with extra rib padding

If there is one thing you should know about 49ers tight end George Kittle, it’s that nothing seems to impede his progress.

Whether it’s fractured ribs cartilage or a defender having a firm grasp of his face mask while others are jumping on his back, Kittle has proven to be a virtually unstoppable force.

Kittle has fashioned a different look in the 49ers’ Week 16 and 17 games, catching the attention of some viewers. But his production remained unchanged.

And that’s how this playoff bye-week edition of the 49ers Mailbag kicks off ...

Sure enough, Kittle was not wearing additional ribs protection in the 49ers’ Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

But he wore the extra padding in the 49ers’ regular-season games against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks. The padding is very similar to what Kittle wore last season after he sustained fractured ribs cartilage in a Week 9 game against the Raiders.

Kittle wore the padding for the remainder of the season but did never talked about it.

Again, he is not talking about it. (But, also, I don’t know that any reporter has asked him about it.) He has not missed any practice time, according to the 49ers’ practice participation reports. He has not been listed with any kind of injury requiring medical attention.

Of course, Kittle set the all-time, single-season record for tight ends last season with 1,377 receiving yards. The ribs' condition did not impact his performance. And it has not slowed him down the past two games, either.

It is my understanding the 49ers will wear their traditional home reds for as long as they remain alive on the NFC side of the NFL’s postseason bracket. But that does not necessarily mean we have seen the last of their alternate, all-white uniforms.

The AFC champion will be the home team in the Super Bowl, and the representative from that conference will have their choice of jersey.

Each of the six teams from the AFC wears their dark jerseys at home. Therefore, it is expected that the team representing the NFC must wear their white uniforms. Teams are allowed to wear alternate jerseys up to three times a season. The 49ers did it against Carolina at home and in Week 17 at Seattle.

I’m not 100-percent sure that it would be allowed for the Super Bowl, but if the 49ers advance that far, it is a possibility the 49ers could pull out the all-whites one more time.

The 49ers signed veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell this week to provide depth on the defensive line. General manager John Lynch reached out to him a week earlier to begin the process that led to the reunion.

Mitchell appears to be in OK shape. He is certainly not in “football shape,” but the 49ers are not expecting him to step in and play a whole lot. My best guess is that he is on the field for approximately 15 plays in the 49ers’ playoff opener on Saturday, Jan. 11.

Robert Saleh is reportedly interviewing with the Cleveland Browns on Saturday. Up to this point, he is the only defensive coach to receive an interview with Browns. He went in with a plan for putting together his offensive staff.

It seems logical that he would want to bring some of the 49ers’ coaches with him to fill more-prominent roles. But any assistant coach who remains under contract to the 49ers through 2020 would have to be let out of his contract.

A year ago, Kyle Shanahan declined permission to Green Bay and Arizona to hire Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel. LaFleur is the 49ers’ passing-game coordinator, while McDaniel is the run-game coordinator. Shanahan said neither young coach would have received a promotion. At Green Bay and Arizona, they were still going to be non-play-calling coordinators.

Shanahan does not want to lose good coaches, but he also does not want to stand in the way of career advancement for anyone on his staff. His first priority is to surround himself with the best people for the 49ers.

When the season started, Dre Greenlaw was the starting strong-side linebacker, with Kwon Alexander starting on the weak side and Fred Warner playing in the middle.

So when Alexander comes back, Greenlaw will still be a starter. But, here’s the difference: Greenlaw would be on the field for only on base downs. When the 49ers shift to five defensive backs, K’Waun Williams enters the game at nickel back and the strong-side linebacker goes to the sideline.

If you consider Top Five “elite,” then elite they are.

The 49ers ranked second in the NFL in points per game (29.9) and No. 4 in total yards. I’m not sure I would consider the 49ers’ offense on the same level as some other teams, but maybe I should.

At first thought, I just don’t think the 49ers have the kind of game-breaking offensive players that you associate with elite offenses. But there’s not a whole lot wrong with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing or handing off to Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert.

Kittle deserves to be paid more than just the top five. He deserves to be No. 1 and reset the tight end market. The sooner they can do that, the more it benefits both sides.

There just are not enough touches for four running backs. Really, there are not enough opportunities through the course of a game to satisfy three running backs. That’s why Jeff Wilson has not been active. He did a good job in short-yardage situations, and he might be the best route-runner among the team’s backs. But, right now, there is no room for him to breakthrough in a backfield that consists of Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida. The 49ers need their game-day depth in other spots.

I see what you did there. . . .

All things being equal, I think the 49ers would be wise to continue to invest in their defensive line. That is the one position where you can never – NEVER – have too many good players.

If everyone on injured reserve were healthy, the 49ers’ offense would look a lot different right now.

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Slot receiver Trent Taylor would be their best third-down receiver. Jalen Hurd would be on the field in two-minute and no-huddle situations to create all kinds of issues for defenses as they determine whether to go with base personnel or nickel packages. And Jerick McKinnon would be the team’s third-down back because he is much better route-runner than any of the team’s other running backs.

Taylor and Hurd, if healthy, will be back in 2020. It is possible the 49ers will try to bring back McKinnon on a low-level, one-year, prove-it contract. But Verrett signed a one-year deal, and it seems like a stretch that the club would be inclined to re-sign him.

49ers mailbag: Will Kwon Alexander return in time for NFL playoffs?

49ers mailbag: Will Kwon Alexander return in time for NFL playoffs?

The 49ers on Saturday will play their most-important game of the season.

Next week, the 49ers will play their most-important game of the season.

Then, the 49ers’ next game will be their most-important game of the season.

And so on. And so on . . .

You have questions, here are some answers in this week’s edition of 49ers Mailbag.

Coach Kyle Shanahan described the possibility of Kwon Alexander returning in the playoffs as a “long shot.” But the organization is not going to completely rule out his return. They do not want to discourage Alexander because they love how focused he is, and how much work he is putting in to get back.

The earliest Alexander could possibly play for the 49ers would be in the NFC Championship game. So this is not a decision that has to be made any time soon. And that’s the approach the 49ers are taking. They are not spending too much time thinking about it because any decision would be several weeks down the road.

Two players can return from injured reserved for each team. The 49ers have already brought back Kentavius Street. They are keeping one spot open. (Tight end Garrett Celek was on physically-unable-to-perform, not IR.)

The 49ers considered bringing cornerback Jason Verrett off IR, but opted to re-sign Dontae Johnson, instead. So, at this point, all options remain open.

Nose tackle D.J. Jones sustained a severe high-ankle sprain. There is damage to the ligaments that connect the tibia and fibula, which means there is a painful and immobilizing separation at the place where those bones connect.

It is my understanding that Jones is definitely out for the playoffs because he is required to spend at least eight weeks on IR, and eight weeks eliminates the possibility of returning even for the Super Bowl.

As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft, every penny of Solomon Thomas’ four-year contract was guaranteed. The 49ers save nothing by cutting him. If he is one of the team’s top eight defensive linemen next season – and I expect him to be – then I believe he will be on the team. That said, the 49ers will not pick up the fifth-year option for the 2021 season.

Dee Ford is an edge rusher who takes the 49ers’ defense from being very good to Super Bowl level. He is a dynamic, explosive pass-rusher. Because he is such a fast-twitch athlete, he is also like a sportscar who needs constant fine-tuning. If there is a procedure he needs in the offseason, that will happen. But I don’t see him going away after just one season. And I also do not expect to see the 49ers invest heavily to bring another outside pass rusher. The 49ers are still counting on him to return and be a major factor in the postseason.

Here’s one thing I know for sure: Jerick McKinnon will not be back at his scheduled pay of $6.8 million.

Here’s another thing I know for sure: The 49ers would be very open to re-signing him to a low-level contract that takes into account the money paid to him over the past two years when knee injuries kept him out of action.

McKinnon would be a valuable piece of the team’s third-down offense due to his skills in the passing game. While Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman can all catch the ball out of the backfield, none has the change-of-direction and route-running skills of McKinnon.

Maybe the 49ers add a running back that fits that description in the draft. If not, they will make an effort to re-sign McKinnon on a one-year deal.

So, yes, they will save some money on McKinnon’s scheduled contract. Sanders is a player they will certainly consider bringing back. A lot of that might depend on how they feel Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor are progressing from the injuries that kept them out this entire season.

The top two targets for lucrative multi-year extensions are DeForest Buckner and George Kittle.

As well as Arik Armstead has played this season, I do not believe the 49ers will do whatever it takes to bring him back if it reduces the chances of keeping both Buckner and Kittle around for a long time. Teams simply cannot pay everyone. Difficult choices must be made.

Breida is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. The 49ers will certainly tender him, and then they will have the right of first refusal if another team signs him to an offer sheet. I think he’ll be affordable to retain, but the market will decide.

Mostert will certainly be back. He is probably the only one of the 49ers’ running backs that I would make that guarantee. Mostert, Breida and Coleman have given the 49ers three 500-yard backs for only the second time in franchise history. But I would not be surprised if there is some degree of shake-up within this group.

It seems unlikely that Dante Pettis can work his way back into the picture this season. Currently, he is the fifth wide receiver on a team that has found roles for only three.

But, for the future, the team has not given up on Pettis. The 49ers were extremely disappointed that he did not put in the kind of offseason work to increase his strength and durability coming into his second NFL season.

Pettis’ ability to run “choice” routes is elite. It’s why coach Kyle Shanahan had such high hopes for him when they moved up to select him in the second round of the 2018 draft. Pettis’ ability to set up defenders and then break off those routes against man coverage is better than anyone on the team, other than Trent Taylor.

Pettis has a chance to bounce back in 2020, but he must put in tons of work in the offseason to get there.

I believe Jordan Matthews is an insurance policy at this stage. He is the team’s sixth receiver. So if there is an injury or two, he could be called upon. Part of the issue with Matthews is that he does not bring much value to special teams. That versatility is important for backup wide receivers.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could receive some attention for head-coaching openings. Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel could be attractive candidates for full-fledged offensive coordinator positions. LaFleur is the 49ers’ passing game coordinator. McDaniel is the run-game coordinator. It’s possible other teams could go after those three 49ers assistants, in particular.

Just curious, did you feel this way immediately after the 49ers’ win in New Orleans?

My guess is probably not. So that means you’re basing your feeling on the team’s lackluster Week 15 performance against Atlanta. And that is completely understandable.

I don’t think they’re regressing. In fact, I think Jimmy Garoppolo is playing the best football of his season (and career). But the 49ers' defensive backfield was down three of their top five players, and the outside pass rush is clearly not as strong without Ford.

I do not believe the team is regressing, but I also believe the team is not as strong as it was earlier in the season when everyone was healthy.

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The NFC is wide open.

The 49ers can certainly benefit from holding one of the top two seeds and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. Is there any other way to the Super Bowl? Of course. A third seed or a fifth seed does not eliminate them from the Super Bowl picture, but it does make the road a whole lot more difficult.

Yes.

A lot of pieces would have to fall into place for the Seahawks to lose to the 49ers in Week 17 and still win the NFC West.

The 49ers’ game Saturday night against the L.A. Rams is still very important, though. The 49ers really need a first-round bye in the playoffs. The only way they can guarantee that would be to win both of their remaining games.

If the 49ers lose to the Rams and beat the Seahawks, they would still likely win the NFC West. But they could fall to the No. 3 seed (if both Green Bay and New Orleans win their final two games). Only the top two seeds earn first-round playoff byes.

NFL mock draft 2020: 49ers pick Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins

NFL mock draft 2020: 49ers pick Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins

The 49ers enter Week 16 with the No. 2 rushing offense in the NFL. They have totaled 2,058 rushing yards and are averaging 147 rushing yards per game, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens in both categories. 

And yet, could the front office focus on a running back in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft? ESPN's Todd McShay sent Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins to San Francisco at No. 31 overall in his first mock draft, and it makes more sense than you might think. 

The 49ers have used a plethora running backs this season, but still don't have a true No. 1 option. Raheem Mostert, who entered the season as a special teams star, leads San Francisco with 662 rushing yards on 116 carries. Matt Breida is second with 607 yards on 119 attempts and veteran Tevin Coleman has 500 yards on 127 carries. 

But Breida and Mostert very well might not be on the 49ers next season, and Mostert is better served as a top backup option. Breida becomes a restricted free agent after the season, and Coleman doesn't have any guaranteed money on his contract next year.

It also seems likely the front office moves on from Jerick McKinnon, who has missed the last two seasons with injuries after signing a four-year, $30 million contract in March 2018. 

Enter, J.K. Dobbins. 

The Ohio State product has put on a show as a junior this season. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 217 pounds, Dobbins has rushed for 1,829 yards this year while averaging 6.5 yards per carry and has scored 20 touchdowns. He also has 17 receptions for 200 yards and two more touchdowns. 

Entering the College Football Playoff, Dobbins has racked up 4,883 total yards and 42 touchdowns in 41 career games. He also shows up in major ways in the biggest games. 

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In the last three weeks of Ohio State's season, Dobbins has rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns against Penn State, 211 yards rushing and four touchdowns against Michigan and 172 yards rushing with one touchdown against Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game. 

The 49ers only have six picks in the draft, so they also could look to trade down and target Dobbins or another back later on Day 2 or Day 3.

Coach Kyle Shanahan has one of the best rushing schemes in the league. Adding a weapon like Dobbins could only make it even more explosive.