The San Francisco 49ers had a down year in 2018, thanks in large part to Jimmy Garoppolo‘s season-ending injury in week 3. Heading into year three with the team, he, Dante Pettis and Ahkello Witherspoon are poised for breakout seasons.
The 49ers traded for then New England backup Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, giving up a second-round pick in the process. He wasted no time flashing his potential, leading a then 1-10 team to five straight wins. Among those wins were two against playoff teams, the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. An offseason of hype ensued, leading some to say they could make it as far as the Super Bowl. Whether that kind of optimism was warranted is up for debate. But it goes to show how excited people were for Garoppolo’s potential.
We will never know what the 49ers would have been, as Garoppolo tore his ACL in week three against the Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers season ended with him. Heading into his third year with San Francisco, questions are being asked about his durability and how good he is given his small sample size.
The one thing Garoppolo believers can hang their hat on is this: Bill Belichick was willing to trade Tom Brady and move on with Garoppolo. In other words, the greatest coach of all time was ready to trade the greatest quarterback of all time because of Garoppolo. Of course, concerns exist, specifically mechanically. However, his talent and upside are apparent. The time is now for Garoppolo to prove the doubters wrong.
The 49ers selected Pettis in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Pettis had an up and down rookie year, missing some time with an injury, but showing out at times on the field. The appeal from Pettis coming out of college was his explosiveness. As Bleacher Report states, he was an excellent punt returner with speed after the catch to turn any play into a big play. His 17.3 yards per reception would have been the 4th best in the league had he enough receptions to qualify (he was eight short).
The wide receiver depth chart in San Fransico is pretty crowded these days, with the free agent signing of Jordan Matthews and draft day acquisitions of Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, the latter who will be used in a plethora of roles across the offense. Given his draft pedigree, Pettis is in no danger of not making the roster. However, any hiccups or setbacks could see him cede playing time to the rest of the group. With his innate route running ability and impressive athletic profile, said hiccups are unlikely to occur.
There are a couple of reasons to believe Pettis will stay on the field and produce. This training camp will be his second with Garoppolo, giving him a leg up on the three receivers previously mentioned. His explosive playmaking ability will make it hard for Pettis to be kept off the field. He could even make a mark on special teams, acting as the primary punt returner. There will be plenty of ways for Pettis to make plays in 2019, especially with offensive guru Kyle Shanahan calling plays.
The secondary must improve its play if the San Francisco 49ers want to return to relevancy in 2019. Despite the poor play in 2018, the 49ers opted to add just two players: free agent acquisition Jason Verrett and 6th round pick Tim Harris. The onus to improve the unit primarily lies with the players returning from last year.
Moreover, Richard Sherman and Verrett (as long as he’s healthy) are the two most prominent cornerbacks the 49ers can offer. Both will play on the outside, where Witherspoon will rotate in. In terms of draft pedigree, Witherspoon has just Tarvarius Moore who is on par with him (both being third-round picks). The two may battle it out for playing time. However, with Moore seeing time at safety, and fitting in well, the nickel spot may offer Witherspoon some opportunities if K’Wuan Williams struggles.
As a rookie, Witherspoon had some excellent games at cornerback. He earned elite coverage grades in two games according to Pro Football Focus. Additionally, he finished as “above average” on the season. His play fell off in 2018, along with the rest of the 49ers secondary. With Witherspoon potentially receiving a plurality of snaps inside, his turn around will be of the utmost importance to the success of the 2019 49ers.
The San Francisco 49ers have amassed a talented group for 2019. Injuries and depth remain the most significant question marks for this squad. As long as everyone is healthy and plays up to their potential, there is no doubt San Francisco will be a playoff contender in 2019.