This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The 49ers experienced a complete 180 once Jimmy Garoppolo took over late in the season, so the team's success in 2018 will be tied closely to how the rising star performs. Add in a revamped secondary led by big-name free agent Richard Sherman, and the Bay Area has reason to be optimistic.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN GAROPPOLO KEEP UP HIS WINNING WAYS?
Jimmy Garoppolo dominated the national headlines after graduating from Tom Brady's understudy to full-on franchise quarterback in one fell swoop last December. Considering how offensively challenged this team looked at the beginning of the season, it was amazing to witness what a drastic difference the 26-year-old made. His systematic dismantling of the Jaguars' top-rated defense Week 15 was the signature moment that truly caught the attention of the football world. Garoppolo's 67.4 completion percentage would have ranked fourth among all NFL signal-callers if he had enough games to qualify. The stellar rate wasn't due to checkdowns either, as his 13.0 yards per completion would have finished behind only Deshaun Watson. Of course, it usually isn't wise to overreact to small sample sizes, but nothing about Garoppolo's breakout seemed fluky. The 49ers clearly believe in him after opening the checkbook and locking him up through the 2022 campaign. It would be understandable for a quarterback who went undefeated in his first chance to run the offense and earned a huge contract to crumble under the weight of a storied franchise's expectations this year. However, Garoppolo clearly picked up on the calm demeanor of Tom Terrific while learning behind him and appears up to the challenge.
NEW FACE LEADING BACKFIELD COMMITTEE
Carlos Hyde had been the lead dog in San Francisco's backfield over the past few years, but there were concerns regarding whether the veteran was a good fit for coach Kyle Shanahan's new offense last season. Hyde thus left for the Browns, and GM John Lynch and Shanahan signed "their guy," Jerick McKinnon, to a four-year, $30 million contract. McKinnon spent the past four seasons in Minnesota, totaling 991 scrimmage yards (570 rushing) and five total touchdowns last fall. The 26-year-old hasn't averaged more than four yards per carry since 2015, but Shanahan believes in his potential beyond the surface numbers. Money doesn't always dictate playing time in the NFL, but the 49ers' big offensive pickup will have the second-highest cap hit among all running backs this year, and the team did not exhaust a draft pick on another runner in the 2018 draft, so McKinnon appears poised to lead this new committee. Matt Breida, an undrafted free agent in 2017, figures to be the 1B to McKinnon's 1A after averaging 4.4 YPC. That said, Breida's usage as a pass catcher during Jimmy Garoppolo's five-game stretch as the starter (four targets) indicates McKinnon will be the safety net in that regard. It remains to be seen if the McKinnon-Breida duo can resemble what Shanahan had in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
A COMMITMENT TO IMPROVING SECONDARY
The 49ers ended their 2017 campaign on a high note after finding their franchise quarterback, but the offseason took a turn for the worse due to linebacker Reuben Foster's troubling legal issues. For awhile, it appeared that the team would need to burn a few picks on the position, but after new developments temporarily cleared the young star's name, the franchise was able to address its true glaring need: the secondary. Safety Eric Reid and cornerback Dontae Johnson – stalwarts from the previous regime – were allowed to walk in free agency. A relationship tarnished due to injury concerns freed up arguably the best shutdown corner in recent memory, Richard Sherman, and he wasted no time signing an incentive-laden deal with one of his former employer's NFC West adversaries. The 30-year-old will fill a veteran leadership role that the 49ers have lacked in the secondary for a long while, and they will need that mentorship after acquiring seven rookie defensive backs as of press time. As far as safeties go, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward proved to be a more than capable starting pair, but they will have to prove they can stay healthy after missing significant time last season. This added depth on the back end could be the final piece to help take coordinator Robert Saleh's young and talented defense to the next level.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo bided his time after being dealt from New England but made his presence felt down the stretch, turning a one-win team into a veritable juggernaut upon his insertion into the lineup. With five consecutive victories to wrap up the season, he proved himself worthy of the moniker "face of the franchise."
RISING: Marquise Goodwin
Goodwin took off with Jimmy G under center, averaging 5.8 receptions and 76.8 yards over the last five games of the season. A full campaign together could result in the speedy wideout comfortably clearing 1,000 yards.
FALLING: Trent Taylor
Taylor was serviceable as the 49ers' slot man and primary punt returner last year, but the fact that the team used a second-rounder on Dante Pettis puts a lot of pressure on the sophomore to produce out of the gate.
SLEEPER: Joe Williams
Williams essentially was redshirted last season after being placed on IR with an ankle injury. The 2017 fourth-round pick possesses an explosive power/speed combo but will have to earn his stripes in camp.
KEY JOB BATTLE – SLOT RECEIVER
The 49ers' top two receiving spots are going to be filled by Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon, and the slot receiver role appeared to be Trent Taylor's for the taking after performing adequately in his rookie season (430 yards and two touchdowns on 43 receptions). That plan went by the wayside when the club drafted Dante Pettis in the second round of the 2018 draft. Taylor is still in a position to hang on to the pseudo-starting role this season, but he will face immense pressure from Pettis for the job leading up to, and during, the regular season. With San Francisco's offense looking like a well-oiled machine under new quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, the club's starting slot receiver may actually have fantasy relevance again (at least in PPR formats) after enduring years of aerial offensive struggles.
Jerick McKinnon – RB (from Vikings)
Signs big contract to lead group of young, explosive backs.
Richard Sherman – CB (from Seahawks)
Looking to prove that he can rebound from torn Achilles.
Dante Pettis – WR (Rd. 2, No. 44 – Washington)
Dynamic punt returner but lacks polished receiving skills.
Mike McGlinchey – T (Rd. 1, No. 9 – Notre Dame)
Could be left tackle of the future but will help right side immediately.
Carlos Hyde – RB (to Browns)
Solid 2017 season, but franchise wanted to go in a different direction.
Eric Reid – S (FA)
The team went younger at the safety position instead of keeping the vet.
Trent Brown – T (to Patriots)
Traded away to clear starting spot for first-rounder McGlinchey.
Dontae Johnson – CB (to Seahawks)
Physical corner turned in career year, then left for division rival.
THE INJURY FRONT
Pierre Garcon, WR – Garcon missed the entire second half of the 2017 season after suffering a neck injury Week 8. The veteran is reportedly fully healed after the long layoff and ready to resume his expected role as one of the 49ers' starting wideouts. Fellow starter Marquise Goodwin experienced somewhat of a breakout in Garcon's absence last season, but this scenario is shaping up to be a 1A/1B type of starting duo, with the latter serving as the more-polished route runner and possession receiver.
Richard Sherman, CB – Sherman was the 49ers' big-name acquisition this past offseason, joining the team on an incentive-laden deal after spending eight dominant seasons in Seattle. The 30-year-old is rehabbing from a torn Achilles, but he expects to be ready by Week 1. Given his age and the severity of his injury, it will be interesting to see if Sherman can resume his status as a lockdown corner in San Francisco.
Joe Williams, RB – Williams appeared to be a draft day discount when off-field issues allowed the Utah product to be taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. That notion quickly dissipated when the rookie failed to impress in camp, eventually landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury in the final week of the preseason. The 24-year-old has reportedly gotten in better shape and impressed coaches early in camp this year, but he will still have to earn his spot on the team with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida clearly ahead of him on the depth chart.