Here goes the pre-season. After Thursday’s 23-21 loss at home against the Los Angeles Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers fall to 1-3 in the 2018 preseason. While this might bug some players and coaches (probably more some betting people), we all know what the pre-season really is about. It is the first and only chance to really simulate regular season game action for young or new additions to the team. Hence, I won’t spend too much time on the game recap, as especially this last pre-season game was basically played without starters. This gives me more of a chance to see who it was that performed well (or not so well) in this game. I will simply highlight a few players on each side of the ball.
Let’s start with the positives. Many wondered if Joshua Garnett was actually able to play. He had a terrible rookie season in 2016 and missed all of 207 and portions of 2018 preparation with a knee issue. He is slimmed down though and after a good start last week in Indianapolis, he continued to dominate players he was supposed to dominate. He solidified the right interior of the offensive line and starts to make a case for himself, challenging Mike Person for the RG1 spot on this team. If he continues this trajectory and stays heathy, he will eventually take over, I have no doubt about that. Garnett played only a third of the offensive snaps though, compared to the man everyone initially thought would challenge Garnett for the starting spot.
Jonathan Cooper played the entire game and showed glimpses of his potential at times. He consistently handled interior pressure by displaying his strength. He also regularly moved to the second level of the defense when run blocking. By no means did he have a perfect game, but the good easily outweighed the bad. He played his first full game coming back from a knee injury as well. All things considered, he was one of the better offensive players throughout the game. Unfortunately for him, this effort was too little, too late for him, as he was among the final roster cuts to trim the roster down to 53 players. His effort should earn him some backup spot somewhere in the league, though.
You hardly ever see a WR do this: Richie James has caught big passes from every single 49ers QB this preseason — Garoppolo, Beathard, Mullens, AND Heneghan.
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) August 31, 2018
This is true. In the Texans game, Richie James was not quite as present as in the pre-season opener, but since then he shined in both the Colts and especially in the Chargers game. He reeled in all but one target and was the flashiest 49er on offense. He also returned punts and kicks and overall had a strong game. Seen by many evaluators as a very talented receiver, he routinely left defenders in the dust and created a near perfect passer rating for any QB throwing to him. Time will tell if he can improve in a way like Antonio Brown (who James got compared to) did, but if this pre-season was any indication, the 49ers might have found another diamond in the rough in the 7th round. Shanahan and John Lynch recognized that and awarded him with one of the highly contested WR spots on the roster.
Two other players worth mentioning are QB Jack Heneghan and TE Ross Dwelley. Dwelley saw some game action earlier in the pre-season, but for Heneghan it was the first time he stepped onto the field. He looked sharp leading the offense to a 3 play, 30-yard touchdown drive and to a 16 play, 90-yard touchdown drive. He connected with Dwelley twice on the last drive for a first down. In fact, all three of Dwelley’s catches earned the 49ers a first down. Even though both did not survive the roster cuts, they deserve at least some form of recognition. Both definitely showed promise that they could be signed to a team’s practice squad.
Not everything the 49ers did on Thursday was praise-worthy, though. A lot of players did alright but did not really make a strong case for themselves and subsequently also did not enough to earn a roster spot. Jeremy McNichols blocked and ran better than most of his competition but fumbled deep in the own half that set up the Chargers for a 10-yard touchdown drive. Cole Hikutinideveloped into the second coming of former 49er Vance McDonald – talented and promising, but brick-handed. Nick Mullens’ early hype after the pre-season opener had already died down before the game and while he was alright for a third-string QB, he also displayed why he was a UDFA in 2017. He just lacks the processing speed and arm talent to leapfrog CJ Beathard for the backup QB spot. If he clears waivers, though, he should find his way back to the practice squad.
Unfortunately, I cannot ignore what is coming now – the offensive line. Except Cooper and Garnett, the entire unit was essentially a bad version of the Seahawks OL in mid-season form. It was bad. The only exception was practice squad candidate Pace Murphy, he consistently held his own on run and passing downs. After that it basically gets bad. Brace yourself, though. Remember Zane Beadles? I hate to bring up his name, but we all remember lively how bad he was at blocking. Even that poor a performance earned him PFF grades of 40 or higher. I just wanted to set the scale because in this last pre-season game, two linemen got pass-blocking grades of 3.1 and 2.1. Both J.P. Flynn and Darrell Williams were hilariously bad and appeared to have no plan of what was happening around them. They gave up a combined 2 sacks, 1 hit, 1 hurry and 3 pressures on a combined 44 pass block snaps. Both were among the first round of cuts on Friday. At the same time, the 49ers traded for T Shon Coleman from the Cleveland Browns. Albeit mixed performances in 16 games last year, he is good enough to play the swing tackle as a backup.
In comparison, this side of the ball was easy to evaluate. Shanahan did not play quite as many starters as he said he might, but Thursday’s first-team defense was all over the Chargers offense. Solomon Thomas looks like he slowly develops into a guy that is worth of a #3 overall draft pick. He blew up plays on his own, as did Reuben Foster, D.J. Jones, Dekoda Watson, Ronald Blair, Jullian Taylor and Sheldon Day. The kind of pressure generated by these players made it tough for the Chargers quarterbacks to get comfortable in the pocket all night long. The entire front seven finished the night with 3 sacks and 11 hurries and all the aforementioned players made the roster.
The only surprise from this position group in general was the release of Jeremiah Attaochu. He signed with the 49ers on a prove-it deal coming from the Los Angeles Chargers. The former 2nd round pick always had problems staying healthy down south and injuries is what kept him off the field in San Francisco as well. He appeared in only two games and as Dekoda Watson emerges as a real pass rush threat with an insane get-off, the coaching staff and front office decided that Attaochu was expendable.
Most career sacks on #49ers:
DeForest Buckner: 9
Earl Mitchell: 6.5
Arik Armstead: 6
Cassius Marsh: 6
Malcolm Smith: 6
DE Jeremiah Attaouchu, who was released today, has 10 career sacks.
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) September 1, 2018
This leaves DeForest Buckner the career leader in sacks with an entirety of 9 sacks, but Shanahan apparently feels he can win without edge pressure. If that holds true, we will see. Call me skeptical, but Armstead finally looks healthy and ready to go and Solomon Thomas looks like a different player as well early on. If they can be who the coaching staff thinks they can be, they might actually have a point.
The defense was not just good up front, though. Even the cornerbacks and safeties played well. Most of the pass yards given up came with LBs Toomer and Coyle in coverage, they gave up 40 of the 71 total pass yards. And even though the defensive backs did not limit receptions drastically, they did limit yards after the catch to 4. It was a sound, all around showing. However, only Moore and Mabinsurvived initial cuts, Moseley, Powell, McFadden and Exum Jr.all got released. I would not be surprised, though, if any of those came back onto the team’s practice squad.
I talked earlier about the release of Attaochu and the lack of true pass rushers. Let’s sort through the roster quickly. I expect four players to play this role. Arik Armstead, Cassius Marsh, Dekoda Watson and Ronald Blair. I do not think anyone of these four is the guy, but I do think a fully healthy Armstead can cause some headaches for offensive lines. Cassius Marshmight not be the long-term or full-time answer, but he was good in a limited role last year. He had the teams third highest pass rush productivity on a per snap basis, ahead of even one man wrecking crew DeForest Buckner. Dekoda Watson was just behind him. I do not think Attaochu was significantly better than any of these guys, hence I do understand why the team releaed him.
Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL. I know that sucks, but it is not the end of the world. Fans and teams alike had high hopes for him, I know I did as well. He was reportedly amazing catching the ball out of the backfield. Now the 49ers are left with Morris, Mostert and Breida. It is anyone’s guess if the decide to roll with them or bring in another back, but the free agent market is not really full of options. Maybe they bring back Jeremy McNichols, but I would say it is even more likely that they trade for a back. Who that is? No idea. I am just guessing. But if the team should decide to pursue another back, look out for Ameer Abdullah or Duke Johnson as both would be a great fit with the Shanahan offense. However, since Morris looked like his Washington Redskins self, a backfield with Morris and Breida does not sound too bad. Think of it this way: I would take this backfield over last year’s backfield and I am a fan of Carlos Hyde.
Remember: this team is still in a rebuild. Shanahan just 18 months ago inherited the worst roster in the NFL. What he and John Lynch did so far borders at greatness. And since they acquired their franchise QB already, the 49ers should be competitive throughout the season, even if they don’t win every game or reach the playoffs. The contender window won’t open for another year, especially with some roster holes yet to fill. Just enjoy the trajectory the 49ers are on and who knows, maybe they do win 9 or 10 games and make the playoffs. I know I am excited to find out. Go Niners!