The 49ers have a strong core.
Raise your hand if you have heard this more than once in the last week.
While it is true the talent level in the franchise has increased since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over, that opening sentence deserves some further examination.
Having a strong core is essential in many things -- let’s use exercise for example. Your core muscles, the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen, are what helps you maintain your balance and stability. In short, it’s your core muscles that allow you to build those leg muscles, a strong chest, shoulders, arms.
You may be asking yourself; How does this relate to the 49ers? Just like in your body, the core of a football team is the group of players that you can build off to have a successful season. Let’s go through the roster, by position group, and see how strong the core truly is. To be included in this list the player needs to already be signed for 2021, be a restricted free agent (RFA) or an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA).
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens (RFA), Josh Rosen (ERFA)
There are a number of questions around Jimmy Garoppolo but it’s clear that of this group he gives the 49ers the best chance to win, their record with him on the field shows this. The biggest issue with Garoppolo is his ability to stay on the field. Since coming to San Francisco, Garoppolo has been healthy for only 31 out of 52 games, missing all but nine games in 2018 and 2020. Not being able to count on Garoppolo to play a full season creates a tremendous amount of instability for the 49ers.
Nick Mullens has shown that he understands and can operate the offense but he cannot seem to overcome turning the ball over, often multiple times per game. It is likely that he would have been brought back for 2021, but he injured his throwing elbow in Week 15 and will likely need Tommy John surgery which would keep him out for the season.
Josh Rosen was signed following the Mullens injury, the 49ers had no other quarterback available at the time because Josh Johnson was on Covid-19 IR. Rosen is an interesting player moving into 2021. He was taken by the Arizona Cardinals with the 10th overall selection in the 2018 draft, but they moved on from him in favor of Kyler Murray after just one season. He spent 2019 with Miami, starting only three games for them before being cut in training camp in 2020. Rosen then signed with Tampa Bay where he was a member of their practice squad before being signed by the 49ers. He may be brought back to compete for a backup spot in 2021.
Core players: None
Running Back: Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr (RFA), JaMycal Hasty, Austin Walter (ERFA)
When healthy Mostert is one of the best running backs in the NFL. With his speed he has the ability to take every carry the distance. The only question is his durability. Mostert has played in 31 of the 49ers last 48 regular season games, missing the final seven games of 2018 and a total of eight in 2020. Mostert’s 151 touches in 2019 is a career high.
Jeff Wilson Jr has shown flashes whenever given an opportunity. He started 2020 near the bottom of the 49ers running back depth chart, but due to injuries and ineffectiveness he gradually moved his way into a starting role. Wilson finished the season with an impressive average of 4.8 yards per carry, but that is inflated a bit by big games against New England and Arizona. Outside of those two games, Wilson averaged 3.5 yards per carry. He has shown the ability to be a good complimentary back, but the lack of consistency could be an issue moving forward.
Hasty was a fan favorite early in the year thanks to a few splash plays, but when his workload was increased the production fell off. Walter is a similar case.
Core players: None. Mostert could be, but he has not shown the ability to stay on the field as the main back. Wilson is nice, but you can’t be a core player if you are a backup.
Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Richie James Jr, River Cracraft (ERFA)
Samuel is definitely a guy who fits well within Kyle Shanahan’s system. While he isn’t a prototypical wide receiver, he brings tremendous versatility to the lineup. On any given play Samuel can be found lining up out wide, in the slot, or even in the backfield. Samuel injured his foot during the offseason which kept him out of the lineup through the first three weeks of the season, and battled through a number of other injuries throughout this season which ultimately limited him to only seven games. The biggest concern with Samuel is that he has a long injury history going back to his time in college at South Carolina where he played a full season only once during his four seasons with the Gamecocks.
Aiyuk admitted that he struggled a bit with the speed of the game early in the season, but he showed a lot of growth throughout the season and is the best wide receiver on the 49ers roster. Limited to only 12 games, Aiyuk most likely would have bettered Jerry Rice’s franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie. If Aiyuk is able to stay healthy and build off his rookie year the 49ers may have a top 10 wide receiver on their hands.
Richie James Jr had a similar experience in 2020 to that of Jeff Wilson Jr in that he didn’t get a lot of opportunities early on, but he made the most of them when his number was called. With Kendrick Bourne set to be an unrestricted free agent, James may have an opportunity to earn a larger role in the offense come 2021.
Cracraft was signed in late August, and seems to have caught the eye of Kyle Shanahan. As the season wore on Cracraft found himself on the field more often. He will be pretty inexpensive to bring back to fight for a spot on the roster.
Core players: Brandon Aiyuk. The history of injuries makes Samuel a question mark and keeps him off the list.
Tight End: George Kittle, Charlie Woerner, Ross Dwelley (RFA)
There is no question that Kittle is among the top tight ends in the NFL. As a receiver only Travis Kelce is better, but Kittle is unrivaled as a blocker. While Kittle was fantastic in 2018 and 2019, his positive effect on the offense became crystal clear throughout 2020. Kittle missed eight games, and his run after the catch ability was sorely missed. With Kittle on the field he also opens up space for everyone else because the defense needs to put so much focus on him.
Woerner was a sixth-round draft pick in 2020 and was used primarily as a blocker until the last quarter of the year. Woerner finished with three catches for 36 yards on only four targets. He may see an increased role in 2021 as an H-back if the team moves on from Kyle Juszczyk as expected.
Dwelley played a career high 502 snaps in 2020, finishing with a career high 245 yards on 19 receptions. Dwelley showed improvement as a blocker throughout the season, and should be brought back to be the second tight end if the team does not add someone through free agency or the draft.
Core players: George Kittle, maybe. Of course, Kittle is a huge part of the 49ers offense, but he’s missed 10 games over the last two years and his playing style invites contact. If Kittle can stay healthy that maybe becomes no doubt.
Offensive Line: Mike McGlinchey, Laken Tomlinson, Weston Richburg, Daniel Brunskill (ERFA), Justin Skule, Colton McKivitz, Shon Coleman
McGlinchey is a very good run blocker, but a very below average pass protector. Time and time again in 2020 pass rushers were able to take advantage of McGlinchey’s inability to move his feet in pass protection, especially when McGlinchey didn’t have the help of play action.
Tomlinson needs to thank McGlinchey for taking the pressure off. Nobody along the offensive line benefitted more from the focus being on the struggles of the right tackle more than Tomlinson. He’s definitely better than what the 49ers have at the other guard spot, but that’s not saying much at all.
Richburg missed all of 2020 after suffering a torn patellar tendon late in the 2019 regular season and it is very likely that he will be let go this offseason.
Brunskill is a jack of all trades with the ability to play every position along the line. He will be back with the 49ers next season, and while he doesn’t thrill anyone, he provides a great deal of flexibility up front.
Skule and McKivitz are both late round draft picks that have played like one would expect a late round draft pick to play. Neither will be going anywhere this offseason.
Coleman was acquired through a trade with Cleveland near the end of the 2018 preseason and was expected to be the swing tackle prior to suffering a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula in the first preseason game of 2019 and then opted out for 2020.
Core players: None
Cornerback: Emmanuel Moseley (ERFA), Ken Webster (ERFA), Tim Harris Jr
Moseley worked his way into a starting role late in 2019 and carried that over to 2020, starting the first eight games. Moseley dealt with a hamstring injury throughout the second half of the season and couldn’t get back into the starting lineup. He showed some versatility though, playing nickel corner after K’Waun Williams and Jamar Taylor went down with injuries. He will be back and competing for a starting role in 2021.
Webster played a total of 11 defensive snaps for the 49ers in 2020, but did play 226 in 2019 as a member of the Miami Dolphins. Webster was drafted in the 7th round in the 2019 draft by New England.
Harris, a 6th round draft pick of the 49ers in 2019 has played a total of 18 NFL snaps, all on special teams.
Core players: None
Safety: Jimmie Ward, Tarvarius Moore, Marcell Harris (RFA)
Ward is signed through 2022, and while often injured early in his career has missed only five games over the last two seasons combined. Ward does a good job on the back end of the 49ers defense, but doesn’t make very many plays. Ward doesn’t have an interception since 2016, but he forced a fumble in back-to-back games against New Orleans and Los Angeles.
Moore, a third-round draft pick in 2018, made his way into the starting lineup over the second half of the season in place of Jaquiski Tartt. Moore struggles at times with his pursuit angles, but showed improvement with more playing time and should be penciled in as a starter for 2021.
Harris will be a restricted free agent, but is likely to be brought back. Harris is a strong backup and played well when called upon in 2020, with really strong performances in wins at New England and Arizona.
Core players: None
Defensive Edge: Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead
Bosa was the defensive rookie of the year in 2019, but suffered a torn ACL in his left knee early in the second game of 2020 and missed the remainder of the year. This is the second knee injury that Bosa has suffered, having torn the ACL in his right knee as a senior in high school. Bosa was able to recover quickly the first time around, playing 12 games for Ohio State as a freshman in 2016 and recording five sacks. The 49ers hope that he will be able to do that again this time around.
Ford played a total of 46 snaps in 2020, all during Week 1, before being placed on IR for the remainder of 2020 with a back injury. It is unlikely that Ford will be back with the team in 2021, he will likely be released around June 1.
Armstead had a breakout season in 2019, and the 49ers rewarded him with a 5-year, $85 million contract. Armstead struggled throughout 2020, finishing with only 3.5 sacks. Armstead showed repeatedly that he needs to be inside to be an effective pass rusher, and without Bosa, Armstead, or DeForest Buckner around he was forced to play on the outside. If this continues moving forward the 49ers will be in a lot of trouble as Armstead is set to count more than $20 million against the salary cap starting in 2022.
Core players: Bosa, maybe. If Bosa can come back healthy and play like he did in 2019 he will be a core player that should make everyone else around him better.
Defensive Tackles: Javon Kinlaw, Kevin Givens, Kentavius Street
Kinlaw, the 14th pick in the 2020 draft, was faced with the impossible task of replacing DeForest Buckner and definitely fell short. Kinlaw missed the final two game of the season after suffering a minor knee injury against Dallas in Week 15, finishing with 33 tackles, including three for loss, four quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, and an interception which he returned for a touchdown in the second win over Los Angeles. All of this is a far cry from what Buckner produced as a rookie, and what he meant to the Colts defense this season.
Givens, an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, showed an ability to be a strong rotational piece in the middle of the 49ers defensive line. Despite playing 160 fewer snaps than Kinlaw, Givens was nearly able to match the production of Kinlaw.
Street is a defensive end, but plays inside a lot as well which is why I have him listed here. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2018 draft after tearing an ACL during his pro day, Street was finally able to get onto the field on regular basis in 2020. Street played in 15 games, recording 11 tackles and one tackle for loss.
Core players: None
Linebacker: Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Mark Nzeocha
Warner was voted into his first Pro Bowl this season, and cemented himself as one of the best linebackers in the game. Warner led the 49ers in tackles with 125, and was tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. In addition to be a terrific player, Warner has also been an iron man for the 49ers, playing at least 94 percent of defensive snaps in all three seasons with the organization.
Greenlaw, taken in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, was able to improve on a strong rookie campaign, finishing second on the team in tackles with 86. Greenlaw’s improvement allowed the 49ers to trade Kwon Alexander to the Saints in the middle of the season.
In Warner and Greenlaw, the 49ers have their next version of Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman and should be set for years to come.
Al-Shaair did a very good job when called upon, as did Flannigan-Fowles when he was called upon to start the season finale. Nzeocha had a key role on special teams, but there is a strong likelihood that he will not be back with the team in 2021.
Core players: Fred Warner is an absolute stud. Greenlaw has shown that he has the potential to be a core player, and just needs to stay healthy moving forward to be included.
There you have it. The only true core players on the 49ers are Fred Warner and Brandon Aiyuk, with Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Dre Greenlaw all having the potential to be core players if they can stay healthy. And therein lies the problem, many of the 49ers key players cannot be counted on to play a full season. Throw in a starting quarterback who can’t stay healthy and you are playing Russian Roulette between going 13-3 or 6-10. Seems like the 49ers would be well served to spend a few minutes during every workout doing some crunches or planks.