At long last, the NFL season has returned. As such, it’s time to make predictions about the 49ers’ season which will assuredly all come true.
Last season, I went 4-for-15 (George Kittle eclipsed five receiving touchdowns, with exactly seven, Jimmie Ward had exactly two interceptions after none since 2016, Aaron Banks did not win the starting right guard job and Laken Tomlinson made the Pro Bowl), with some egregious misses, like predicting 10 Trey Sermon touchdowns and thinking the Bengals would be a bottom feeder.
Let’s, er, try and do better than last season. Keep in mind, some of these are a little galaxy-brained, but that’s part of the fun in making predictions.
1. The 49ers will set a franchise rushing record, breaking their previous record of 2,544 yards in 1998
Some of those predictions from last season, like this one, were predicated on Trey Lance having some sort of consistent role in the offense.
Coupled with a 17th game, the addition of a run-friendly QB in an already run-heavy offense, it seemed like a logical conclusion. But Lance played just two games in earnest.
The 49ers still finished seventh in rushing with 2,161 yards, but it wasn’t quite the ground assault predicted.
That comes this year. The 49ers will run options and other college-style concepts they have rarely employed in the past. Lance will run more than any SF quarterback since Colin Kaepernick, and the offense as whole will break the team’s rushing record.
For reference, only the Philadelphia Eagles, with 2,744 rushing yards, would have crossed that threshold last season. The Colts, at 2,540 rushing yards, were close. The Ravens missed Lamar Jackson for most of last year; they set the NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards in 2019.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo will not be traded at the deadline
If the 49ers got the offer they wanted for Jimmy Garoppolo, he would not be on the team. But they didn’t. And he’s, as you may have noticed, still on the team.
There are some folks who believe Garoppolo will be traded by or at the trade deadline. I think a trade earlier in the year would make more sense.
The later the year goes, and assuming the 49ers are competitive — if they are not, him getting dealt at the deadline makes plenty of sense — I’d find it harder and harder to believe the 49ers will deal him.
Garoppolo is exceedingly likely to secure a compensatory third-round pick for the 49ers. So, unless someone offers a second-round pick, which seems outlandish at this stage, why would you accept it, unless there’s major friction in the locker room, or unless Garoppolo is desperate to leave?
If you’re Kyle Shanahan and you get to the deadline with a competitive team, why take anything less than the third you’re assured in the offseason, and risk your invaluable quarterback depth?
This isn’t saying Garoppolo won’t be dealt. If it’s early in the year and an expectedly competitive team has their quarterback go down and makes a compelling offer for Garoppolo, that would hold water. But how much would a team really offer for a rental? Unless Garoppolo pushes his way out, it’s tough for me to see.
3. Brandon Aiyuk will be the team’s receiving yards leader
This is less a slight at Deebo Samuel and more a statement of how improved Aiyuk looked in training camp, coupled with the stunning, consistent connection he showed with Trey Lance.
Lance is going to target different areas of the field than Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo is a short- and mid-range game stud who attacks almost exclusively the middle of the field. That’s generally been Deebo Samuel’s territory.
While the 49ers don’t operate with strict X, Y, Z receiving roles, they do have tendencies, and Aiyuk has largely been employed as an outside receiver, targeting the areas of the field oft-ignored by Garoppolo.
Lance likes Aiyuk, and he likes to take shots. He will take them and he will hit them, at least more than Garoppolo did.
Even with a year that seemed “down” last season, Aiyuk had 826 yards, more than the 748 of his rookie year.
Yes, he missed a game to COVID-19 that rookie year and there was an additional game added to the schedule last season, but he was similarly productive, with 5 TDs in both seasons.
Given how significantly he improved in the second half of last year, his consistent displays in camp, and the effectiveness he’s showed with a quarterback who will likely look to target him more than his predecessor, a 1,000-plus-yard season could be in the cards for Aiyuk.
4. Jason Poe will start at left guard by the end of the year
This is in the hot take area. I’m not honestly sure I believe it. But every prediction article needs some hot takes, and I really like Jason Poe.
He is a supremely athletic prospect whose 6-and-a-half(ish)-foot frame allows him to be the low man and get solid leverage. As Trent Williams described it, he has a rare athleticism for the guard position, which allows him to recover in pass protection in a way that most guards can’t.
Coming into the league, Poe put out this highlight tape of himself as a fullback, showing off his athleticism and versatility.
Aaron Banks isn’t a sure thing. Neither is Spencer Burford, nor Jake Brendel. And injuries happen, too. If he gets a shot, I think he’ll take that opportunity and run.
This isn’t to say Banks or Burford will struggle and lose their jobs, but there hasn’t been a clear vote of confidence from Kyle Shanahan or offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster. They believe in their long-term promise, but know it’s a results-driven league.
It should also be noted that the 49ers have added a mini putting green to their locker room. Danny Gray told KNBR that Poe is the current putting leader in the clubhouse. Do with that what you will.
5. The 49ers will acquire a No. 2 complement to George Kittle at the trade deadline
This has less to do with the current groin injury that appears likely to keep Kittle out of the season opener, and more about the fact that he gets injured often.
That’s not a criticism of Kittle. He works as hard as anyone in the offseason. Injuries shouldn’t be held against players. They sure as hell don’t want to be sitting out hurt.
But Kittle gets hurt. He plays a physical position and plays it as physically as anyone. I’ve long been a proponent of the 49ers providing him a complement. Charlie Woerner is a solid blocker but isn’t convincing as a receiver. Ross Dwelley is the inverse, but he’s less convincing as a receiver than Woerner is as a blocker.
My bet? Austin Hooper of the Titans.
Shanahan showed interest in trying to sign Austin Hooper before he signed for the Browns, and he’s on a $6 million deal that only hits the cap for $2.83 million before hitting free agency this upcoming offseason.
If Ryan Tannehill doesn’t lead the team to success, they might consider making the switch to their 2022 third-round pick in Malik Willis, who showed quite a bit of promise in the preseason, and selling at the deadline.
6. The defense will lead the league in sacks
Another prediction recycled from last year, and one I still believe.
Last season, San Francisco finished fifth with 48.0 sacks. The Steelers led the league with 55.0 sacks. The 49ers will exceed that mark this year.
Aside from 2020’s injury-riddled implosion, this has been an elite defensive line. This is arguably as deep as it’s ever been, with bona fide starting-caliber players at every position.
Kemoko Turay, who had 5.5 sacks last season with the Indianapolis Colts, and has a filthy, 1-2 punch of an outside speed move and counter spin, is on the practice squad. He wants to be here. It’s a mystery why no one offered him a contract.
The fact that he’s on the practice squad is a reflection of this team’s outrageous depth.
Drake Jackson and Charles Omenihu could legitimately start at defensive end on plenty of NFL rosters. So could Kevin Givens and Hassan Ridgeway. To have Kerry Hyder Jr., who had 8.5 sacks in this system a couple years ago, and a capable edge and special teams stud in Jordan Willis as your 9th and 10th players, is absurd.
Even Alex Barrett, after slotting inside, looked impressive in training camp. And there’s also the potential to get Kalia Davis, a player likened to D.J. Jones, back for the second half of the season.
7. Nick Bosa will lead the league in sacks with 21.5
T.J. Watt outdid him last year with 22.5, while Bosa had 15.5 (plus 4.0 in the playoffs). He will be double-teamed and chipped plenty, but has said he’s learned how to deal with those approaches from teams better.
He’s also, in my opinion, the second-best defensive player in the NFL, behind Aaron Donald.
Bosa’s floor is 15.0 sacks. And that would be a “bad” season for him, but one in which he’d almost assuredly create sack opportunities for others.
There needs to be a better method for tracking sack opportunities. Pressures are nice, but there’s nothing that describes the sort of pocket collapsing players like Bosa who push the quarterback into the path of another rusher.
It’s hard to predict a breakout season for a player who came into the league as an elite pass rusher, but that’s what this will be.
8. Trent Williams will catch a first career touchdown pass
I need this. The sport needs this. The 49ers tried for this last year and it was shut down.
Williams is a freak athlete and Kyle Shanahan appreciates that as much as anyone, as evidenced by the play above and the two postseason plays when he went in motion.
It feels like the 49ers have to give him at least one shot at a touchdown reception, and I think they’ll execute it this time.
9. Ray-Ray McCloud will become the first 49er to return a punt for a touchdown and the first to return two touchdowns in a single season since Ted Ginn Jr.
San Francisco has struggled to find a solid returner for years. Brandon Aiyuk has been inconsistent on punts and Deebo Samuel has been solid on kicks, but both are so valuable as receivers that the risk on special teams has only ever seemed warranted in the playoffs.
Ray-Ray McCloud can change that. He’s looked solid as a receiver, but the 49ers have enough depth at the position and invested in McCloud to help their special teams unit.
It has been 11 years since Ted Ginn Jr. returned the team’s last punt for a touchdown, the same year he also brought back a kick return for a touchdown.
This is the year that changes. I predict McCloud will have two return touchdowns this season.
10. The 49ers will win the division over the Rams
This was written before the Rams imploded in the season opener on Thursday.
They’re still going to be a damn good team, and there will be overreactions to the fact that the Bills are just a monster, and should win the Super Bowl this year. But the Rams are not as good as they were last year, and the 49ers probably should have prevented them from making the Super Bowl.
Part of this has to do with Matthew Stafford’s elbow. The 49ers feel like a 10-7 team and maybe a 9-8 team, but that’s largely to do with the uncertainty over Lance. I think that uncertainty is warranted, but the surrounding team is Super Bowl caliber and Lance has serious talent and athleticism. He’s shown he’s a playmaker, even if he’s not necessarily making the “right” play.
The 49ers are a very well-rounded team. Lance doesn’t even need to be good for them to be good. And he’s going to be at his worst, most likely, at the start of this season, when the schedule is the easiest.
If they can get through the first slate of six games with a 4-2 record, they will win the division. Even if they’re 3-3, and Lance continues to improve, they’ll win the division.