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NFL Draft

49ers Will Have Successful 2021 Season If…

  • The Draft Network
  • June 28, 2021
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A successful season for the San Francisco 49ers? What a thing to consider. From the NFC’s Super Bowl representative, to a 6-10 finish, to a megadeal into the top of the 2021 NFL Draft, and a new quarterback in the building, no team has ridden a more violent rollercoaster over the last 18 months than Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. Accordingly, few teams are tougher to calibrate expectations for. 

Should San Francisco be considered a Super Bowl contender with a healthy roster? Probably! But man, those feel like lofty expectations for a team enduring a lot of change. I focused on two more reasonable measuring sticks for Year 1 of the Trey Lance era in San Francisco. If they hit both of these marks and go no further, I think we’ll still be able to confidently say “stock up in San Francisco” come season’s end.

1. The Offense is Demonstrably Better

As everyone has said since the fateful day of the trade-up in March: The 49ers’ offense wasn’t terrible under Jimmy Garoppolo! San Francisco’s offense was ranked seventh in DVOA during Garoppolo’s one full healthy season. Since joining the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan in 2017, Garoppolo’s 6.98 ANY/A is the 10th best among all quarterbacks who have thrown 500 passes. That puts him above Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Justin Herbert, and Dak Prescott. Nothing to sneeze at!

But of course, Garoppolo hasn’t always been healthy, and while his passing efficiency looks solid, the Shanahan offense has produced plenty of efficient passers over the years. Running it back with Garoppolo would have been defensible under the argument of stability and known quantities—this man was playing in a Super Bowl less than two years ago! But a move forward was also justified.

The 49ers didn’t just replace Garoppolo; they swung for the fences. Any quarterback would have entered San Francisco with massive expectations given the three first-round picks the 49ers traded to make the selection at No. 3 overall. But the 21-year-old Lance, with only one full season of starting experience at the FCS level, has an even steeper cliff to climb. No quarterback in recent memory will be tasked with as large a jump from the college to pros.

And while the clock isn’t immediately ticking on Lance—Garoppolo is still on the 49ers’ roster and an option to start the 2021 season—you cannot spend three first-round picks on a quarterback and have a bad offense again. With stars returning to health (Nick Bosa, George Kittle), a talented pair of wide receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, and a rampant NFC West arms race, the 49ers don’t really have the time to afford a long on-ramp for Lance. If Garoppolo stays healthy and plays well—great! But if he goes down or limits the offense, Lance’s number will be called quickly.

And even if Lance isn’t a perfect passer early—okay, even if he isn’t a good passer early—the offense should still get a huge boost from his running ability. With a clear focus on YAC in the receiving corps, a college-style approach to the passing game featuring bubble screens, RPOs, and other constraint plays seems reasonable to deploy for Lance while still executing the offense at a competitive level.

2. Grab a Playoff Berth

It’s easy to forget, because the 49ers were recently on a Super Bowl run, that they’ve only made the playoffs once under Shanahan. In each of his three other seasons with the team, the 49ers failed to break .500 and even qualify for a wild-card spot. He’s 16-32 (.333) outside of 2019.

That’s not gonna cut it, especially now that his handpicked quarterback is in the building. Unfortunately for Shanahan, a changing of the guard at defensive coordinator from Robert Saleh to Demeco Ryans likely spells a less reliable defense early, putting an even greater onus on his offense to win tight games in the division.

The good news is that, given their fourth-place finish last year, the 49ers dodge a lot of NFC playoff teams that their competitors in the NFC West must play. In fact, Sharp Football Stats has the 49ers’ schedule as the easiest in the NFL off of projected win totals.

Despite recent high-profile departures like DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman, the defense still returns one of the league’s best front sevens, and the offensive line caught a recent buff. I think the playoffs are achievable for San Francisco, and even if they’re a quick exit given the youth along their offensive skill positions, they can mark the Lance trade as a win and Shanahan’s gambit a success if they’re able to turn his rookie season into a postseason berth. This is a -190 proposition on BetOnline, which means public expectations are strong that San Francisco plays a meaningful January game.

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