Big things are expected from the San Francisco 49ers offense this season after the way they finished things off in 2017, winning their last five games while ending up 12th in the league in total offense. The 49ers averaged 28.8 points per game over that stretch, a dramatic turnaround from earlier in the season when they were held to 10 points or less in five of their first nine games (all losses). The biggest reason for the turnaround was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who took over as the starting quarterback during that five-game stretch and threw for 1,560 yards, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. The stats don’t tell the full tale of Garoppolo’s success, as the offense as a whole functioned noticeably better with Garoppolo at the controls, while the players around him began putting up numbers they hadn’t been earlier in the season.
All that was done despite Garoppolo not having a full handle on head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex offense. Garoppolo will have had a full offseason to digest the offense this year, so the expectation will be that he could wind up being even better in 2018, which could mean big things for the 49ers offense. He’ll also have more experience under his belt with his skill players and an improved level of talent around him, with wide receiver Pierre Garcon returning from a season-ending neck injury and running back Jerick McKinnon, guard Jonathan Cooper and center Weston Richburg coming aboard via free agency.
But in spite of how important he is to the team’s success, is Garoppolo already the top starter on the 49ers offense? And who ranks above and below him? Here’s an attempt at answering that question, based on where each projected starter stands heading into the 2018 season.
11. OT MIKE MCGLINCHEY
McGlinchey is here by default at the moment, having never played an NFL game. He’s the man to beat for the starting right tackle position, and based on a report last week from Steve Wyche of the NFL Network, the 49ers think they have a big-time talent here. “It’s hard to judge offensive linemen in OTAs because they’re not in pads and the contact is very limited, but (general manager John) Lynch is through-the-moon excited about McGlinchey,” Wyche said. “He said he is a plug-and-play draft pick. He’s going to come in and start at right tackle. He said McGlinchey is so excited to get in there and compete. Everybody can sense it – they know they’ve got a player there.”
10. G LAKEN TOMLINSON
Tomlinson is listed here as a projected starter, but it’s not guaranteed he winds up winning a spot. He started 15 games last season after coming over from the Detroit Lions in a preseason trade, with varying degrees of success. He had some issues early but also had his moments as the year went along and wound up finishing with a 70.7 grade for the season at ProFootballFocus.com (No. 32 guard overall). Meanwhile, Bleacher Report ranked him 39th among the guard position league-wide. He’ll compete with Jonathan Cooper, Joshua Garnett, Erik Magnuson, and Mike Person for a starting guard spot and certainly has an edge in starting experience in Shanahan’s offense.
9. G JONATHAN COOPER
Cooper finished neck-and-neck with Tomlinson last season in the aforementioned rankings as he placed 38th in Bleacher Report and 35th at Pro Football Focus. Like Tomlinson, Cooper is a former first-round pick who hasn’t panned out as expected in the NFL, although Cooper for the first time in his career was able to find some stability last season as he started a career-high 13 games with the Dallas Cowboys. Cooper before that bounced around between unsuccessful situations in Cleveland, New England, and Arizona. The Cardinals spent a top ten draft pick on Cooper back in 2013 but injuries got his career off to a slow start. The 49ers signed him to a one-year free agent deal with the hopes his career is finally trending upward, although like Tomlinson, he's not guaranteed a starting spot.
8. RB JERICK MCKINNON
McKinnon is somewhat of an unknown in terms of how good he’ll be as a starter this season. After four seasons with the Vikings in which he started 14 total games and rushed for 1,918 yards and seven touchdowns, McKinnon is about to get the opportunity to be a lead back he’s been waiting for. The 49ers gave McKinnon a $30 million free agent contract with the hopes he’ll flourish in Shanahan’s offense. Right now, we just don’t know how well things will work out with this situation, which is why he’s not ranked higher than eighth. But there’s plenty of reason for optimism here, and he’ll get every opportunity to show he can carry on full-time starting duties in an NFL offense after being stuck down the depth chart in Minnesota.
7. TE GEORGE KITTLE
Kittle’s rookie season in 2017 didn’t go perfectly as he battled through a number of injuries and dropped a pass or two, but he showed to be a good find as a fifth-round pick with the potential to become much more this season. He finished with 43 catches for 515 yards and two touchdowns, with 15 of those catches coming over the final five games with Garoppolo as quarterback. Kittle heads into 2018 as the top tight end on the 49ers roster and could be in for a leap forward in year two with a full season of Garoppolo throwing him the football.
6. C WESTON RICHBURG
Richburg has the potential to rise a few spots on this list, which is something that will happen if he lives up to his free agent contract. He’s been plagued by injuries the past couple of seasons but played at a high enough level earlier in his career to think he can be a success in San Francisco if he stays healthy. The 49ers thought enough of Richburg to not just give him a $47.5 million contract but to trade away previous starter Daniel Kilgore even though he was signed to an extension in February. He’s set to be Garoppolo’s center for potentially years to come.
5. WR MARQUISE GOODWIN
Nobody on the 49ers benefited more from the addition of Garoppolo than Goodwin, who had 384 of his 962 receiving yards on the 2017 season in the five games Garoppolo was starting quarterback. The two formed an instant chemistry, and the 49ers liked what they saw enough to give Goodwin a contract extension earlier this offseason. Goodwin may well have broken the 1,000-yard mark last season had he not left the final game with a concussion, so he’ll be pushing to surpass that number in 2018. He proved to be a quality free agent pickup for the 49ers last year on and off the field after four disappointing seasons in Buffalo.
4. WR PIERRE GARCON
As mentioned, Garcon saw his season come to an early end due to a neck injury, but before that he was as good as anyone on the 49ers offense. Garcon had 40 catches for 500 yards in eight games and established himself as the team’s clear go-to receiver. The injury prevented him from playing with Garoppolo, so it’ll be interesting to see how the two of them mesh when they finally get on the field together. Garcon isn’t getting any younger as he turns 32 before the season, but he showed last year he should be a very effective weapon for Garoppolo if his health isn’t an issue.
3. FB KYLE JUSZCZYK
The 49ers gave big money to Juszczyk in free agency last season with the intent of making him into more of an “offensive weapon” than just being a fullback. It didn’t quite turn out that way early, as he had just 16 catches over his first ten games. He went on to have 17 catches over the final five games with Garoppolo at quarterback and it became more evident what kind of threat he can pose in the offense when things are running the way Shanahan likes (and along the way, his blocking wasn’t a problem). Juszczyk was the lone 49ers player selected as a Pro Bowl starter last season, the second consecutive year he received the honor of being chosen to the game.
2. QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO
Chances are by the end of the year Garoppolo will be at the top of this list, maybe even finding his name among the discussion for postseason honors if he puts together a season where he plays at a level matching what he showed in 2017. As of now, however, he still has only five starts as a 49er and seven as an NFL quarterback under his belt, which isn’t enough to unseat the top player on the list. The sky is truly the limit for Garoppolo though, both on and off the field, as he has the makings of a major NFL star with crossover appeal. He’ll be in for a challenge this year as every defense he faces will want to squash the Garoppolo hype train, but he seems to be the type of player who will be up to it.
1. OT JOE STALEY
Staley keeps plugging away at age 33, still performing at a level that puts him in the upper echelon of NFL left tackles. He was selected to his sixth Pro Bowl last season, the sixth time he’s earned that honor in the past seven seasons. Staley showed a great amount of toughness last season as well, remarkably missing only one game after suffering an orbital fracture in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles that landed him in the hospital. He still seems to have at least a couple good years left, and the 49ers think so too, as indicated by their decision to restructure his contract with a pay raise earlier this offseason.
Source: 247 Sports | Kirk Larrabee | June 2, 2018