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San Francisco 49ers 2021 Season Preview

Are they playing for now or the future?
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Stuck in limbo.

The 49ers are one of the oldest teams in the league, and yet this offseason they traded up for a 21-year-old quarterback. 

Are they playing for now or the future?

The veterans clearly want to play for now and prove last season's disaster was a fluke, a pandemic one-off they can blame on an unprecedented number of injuries. They still see themselves as an elite team that should have won the Super Bowl in 2019 with Jimmy Garoppolo as their quarterback. They love Garoppolo and 2019. When they have a good day of practice, they say they feel "2019 vibes." They clearly haven't moved on.

But the front office was so unsatisfied with 2020 in general and Garoppolo in particular, this offseason it traded three first-round picks and a third for Trey Lance, a completely different type of quarterback who will take the offense an entirely different direction.

But the 49ers surprisingly didn't let Lance compete for the starting job -- Kyle Shanahan didn't think he was ready. And Garoppolo didn't play well in camp -- he threw 11 picks. So Shanahan says he might use two starting quarterbacks, which means he might have none right now.

Here's what to know about the 2021 49ers:

OFFENSE

The 49ers could lead the NFL in rushing this season. 

In 2019, they ranked No. 2 in rushing behind the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, the 49ers had lots of injuries at running back, and the league seemed to catch up to their cutting-edge running scheme.

So this offseason, the 49ers retooled and evolved. They drafted two running backs -- Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell. Mitchell is a speedy scat back, similar to the rest of the 49ers running backs. Sermon is a big bruiser who can finish out games in the second half when the 49ers have the lead. If only they had a running back like him in the Super Bowl, they might have won.

But the biggest addition to the run game, and the catalyst of its evolution, is Lance. Even if he doesn't start immediately this season, he will play, and he will run. And he should establish himself quickly as the most dangerous zone-read runner in the NFL other than Lamar Jackson. Certainly more dangerous than Garoppolo, a statue, Lance is fast, elusive, powerful and big. He's built like a bell-cow running back. He can run between the tackles like a young Cam Newton.

Any time Lance is on the field, he will enhance the 49ers running game. Even if he hands off 10 times in a row, he'll have a positive impact because the opposing defense will focus on him, not the running back.

But the passing game could be an issue. The 49ers have terrific receivers -- George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk -- but don't have good pass protection, nor a quarterback they trust to throw. Garoppolo attempts mostly short passes and still throws interceptions at an alarmingly high rate. And Lance hasn't yet learned how to harness his arm strength and throw with touch consistently.

Right now, the offense is one-dimensional, but that one dimension is phenomenal. And if Lance finds touch, the passing game could explode.

DEFENSE

This defense is one of the best when healthy. And right now, it's healthy.

Nick Bosa and Dee Ford both will play Week 1 and should have no restrictions -- those two missed all but one game in 2020. The 49ers also will have Samson Ebukam, whom they signed from the Rams. He will be a third edge rusher, and he specializes at containing mobile quarterbacks -- a valuable skill.

Javon Kinlaw also seems healthy. He has a recurring knee injury, and he had surgery to address it this offseason.

In the secondary, everyone is healthy. Cornerback Jason Verrett looks like a shutdown corner. And the safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, form one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.

And the best player on the defense is middle linebacker Fred Warner, who has improved every year he has been in the league, and looks better this season than last season when he was an All-Pro. 

The defense has game-changers at all three levels.

The main question that faces this defense is the new coordinator, DeMeco Ryans. He replaces Robert Saleh, who became the New York Jets head coach this offseason. By the end of Saleh's time with the 49ers, he had become an expert game planner and mid-game adjuster. Ryans has never done either of those things -- he hasn't even called a play. Not his fault -- he's a rookie. Saleh struggled with those things when he was a rookie coordinator. He needed experience, and so will Ryans.

PREDICTED RECORD: 10-7

The running game and the defense will keep the 49ers competitive in every game, and it's possible the 49ers can make the playoffs with 10 wins. But until Shanahan starts to trust Garoppolo or Lance to throw the ball when it counts, the 49ers won't go far enough.

EXPECTED DEPTH CHART

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X-Receiver: Deebo Samuel, Trent Sherfield

Z-Receiver: Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield

Slot Receiver: Mohamed Sanu, Jalen Hurd, Jauan Jennings

Left Tackle: Trent Williams, Jaylon Moore.

Left Guard: Laken Tomlinson, Tom Compton.

Center: Alex Mack, Daniel Brunskill

Right Guard: Daniel Brunskill, Aaron Banks.

Right Tackle: Mike McGlinchey, Tom Compton.

Tight end: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner.

Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo AND Trey Lance.

Running Back: Raheem Mostert, Trey Sermon, JaMycal Hasty, Elijah Mitchell

Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk

Left Defensive End: Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Samson Ebukam

Left Defensive Tackle: D.J. Jones, Zach Kerr.

Right Defensive Tackle: Javon Kinlaw, Kentavius Street, Kevin Givens.

Right Defensive End: Nick Bosa, Arden Key.

Strong-Side Linebacker: Azeez Al-Shaair, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles.

Middle Linebacker: Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair.

Weak-Side Linebacker: Dre Greenlaw, Marcell Harris.

Left Cornerback: Emmanuel Moseley, Deommodore Lenoir

Strong Safety: Jaquiski Tartt, Tavon Wilson

Free Safety: Jimmie Ward, Talanoa Hufanga

Right Cornerback: Jason Verrett, Ambry Thomas

Nickelback: K’Waun Williams, Dontae Johnson

Kicker: Robbie Gould

Punter: Mitch Wishnowsky

Long Snapper: Kyle Nelson