The Five Most Underrated 49ers

Grant Cohn

You can’t call the 49ers underrated anymore.

They’re elite and everyone knows it. They have some of the biggest stars in the NFL, from George Kittle to Nick Bosa to Jimmy Garoppolo.

But not all the 49ers get the recognition they deserve. The 49ers still have a group of relatively anonymous, talented underrated players, Either they don’t get the playing time they deserve, or other players simply overshadow them.

Here are the five most overshadowed, underrated players on the 49ers who could become big names in 2020.

1. Wide receiver Richie James Jr.

The 49ers took James with the 240th pick of the 2018 draft -- he almost was Mr. Irrelevant. Practically no one expected him to have a successful career in the NFL.

James is the 49ers’ return specialist, and he’s a good one. But this offseason, the 49ers signed Travis Benjamin, who also is a returner. And he played for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan on the Browns in 2014. And Shanahan loves his former players. So the 49ers might cut James.

What a mistake that would be.

James has serious potential as a wide receiver because he makes big plays. In 2019, he averaged a whopping 27.5 yards per catch. But Garoppolo threw James only 10 passes all season. James caught six of them. Averaged 16.5 yards per target.

Compare James to Pettis, the 49ers’ second-round pick in 2018. Last season, Pettis averaged only 9.9 yards per catch. Garoppolo still threw him 24 passes. Pettis caught just 11 of them. Averaged a measly 4.5 yards per target.

Pettis didn’t earn those 24 targets. The 49ers should have given them to James instead. He earned them. Now, he’s entering his third season, when young wide receivers tend to make their biggest improvement. And the 49ers need a No. 3 receiver to complement Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne, because Brandon Aiyuk is a rookie and Trent Taylor always is injured.

Give James a freaking chance.

2. Running back Jeff Wilson Jr.

The 49ers starting running back should be Raheem Mostert. That’s obvious. But who should back him up? Not so obvious.

The backup almost surely will be Tevin Coleman, because the 49ers pay him $4.25 million per season and he started 13 games in 2019 including the playoffs.

But Jeff Wilson Jr. should be Mostert’s backup, not Coleman.

Coleman averaged 4.0 yards per carry, and Wilson averaged 3.9. But 10 of Wilson’s 27 carries came inside the 10-yard line -- he was the 49ers’ goal-line back. And it’s much more difficult to run near the goal line when the defense is compact. And yet, he still averaged 2.6 yards per carry inside the 10-yard line and scored four touchdowns. Good numbers.

Coleman averaged only one yard per carry inside the 10 last season, but the 49ers gave him 15 carries in that part of the field anyway. He scored three touchdowns. Those carries should have gone to Wilson.

In the open field -- meaning outside the 10-yard line -- Coleman averaged 4.3 yards per carry, while Wilson averaged 4.6 yards per carry. And as receivers, Coleman averaged 8.6 yards per catch while Wilson averaged 11.3 yards per catch.

Wilson is better than Coleman in every way. Just a matter of time before the 49ers realize it.

3. Tight end Ross Dwelley.

Dwelley is the Kendrick Bourne of 49ers tight ends.

Let me explain.

Last season, Bourne received six targets in the red zone and scored five touchdowns. He was a red-zone monster. As opposed to Deebo Samuel, who received 17 targets in the red zone and scored just one touchdown.

Dwelley also was effective in the red zone. He received three red-zone targets and scored two touchdowns last season. As opposed to Kittle, who got 16 red-zone targets and scored just two touchdowns in that portion of the field.

Of course Kittle is better than Dwelley. But Dwelley is good, too. He’s not fast or elusive with the ball in his hands, but he gets open. None of the 49ers’ safeties could cover him one on one during training camp. Not Jaquiski Tartt. Not Tarvarius Moore (Jimmie Ward missed training camp with a broken collarbone).

Dwelley also almost never drops a pass. And he’s tall -- 6’5”. Meaning he’s a perfect red-zone receiver. The 49ers should give him one red-zone target every game. Same goes for Bourne.

4. Free safety Tarvarius Moore.

The 49ers drafted Moore in 2018, and he was a cornerback his rookie season. Then he moved to free safety in 2019, and he started the first three games of the season because Ward injured his finger. And Moore missed a couple tackles, which is why the benched him for Ward.

Ward is a good tackler and a solid player. In 2019, Ward played 994 snaps including the playoffs -- he was dependable. But he broke up just eight passes and intercepted none. Didn’t make game-changing plays.

Moore played just 239 snaps including the playoffs, and broke up five passes and intercepted one. And the interception came in the Super Bowl.

Moore is a playmaker. Ward is not. Once Moore improves his tackling, he will take Ward’s starting spot.

5. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt

Tartt is the best safety on the 49ers.

They think Ward is their best safety. This offseason, they gave him a three-year, $28.5 million contract. Tartt will be a free agent in 2021 and it’s unclear if the 49ers will re-sign him. They’re running out of cap space.

But Tartt makes a bigger impact than Ward. When Tartt played in 2019, the 49ers gave up just 16.3 points per game. During the four games he missed with broken ribs, the 49ers gave up 31.8 points per game.

Tartt tends to miss at least four games per season. He throws his body around so violently, he breaks bones. But if he can stay healthy in 2020, the 49ers defense will be fantastic once again and he will receive a mondo pay day from some team in 2021.

Comments (1)
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Nicholas Cothrel
Nicholas Cothrel


Jaquiski Tartt doesn't get the love he should. Big time player on the back-end.