Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down a group that’s nearly set in stone — the Niners’ quarterbacks.
This is the second edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the first edition — covering the 49ers’ intense competition at running back — here.
In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers are slated to spend 40 percent more at the quarterback position than any other team in the NFL — and this was by design, given the team’s excess cap space situation at the conclusion of the 2017 NFL season. With the vast majority of the Niners’ spending going to a single player – quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — there’s no question who will start under center for the team this season.
We also know who Garoppolo’s backup will be — QB C.J. Beathard — given the draft capital general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan spent on the second-year player. While the 49ers are nearly assured to begin the season with just two quarterbacks on the roster, one more QB will make the team’s practice squad, and that spot is up for grabs. Let’s take a look at each of the team’s quarterbacks, beginning with the San Francisco 49ers’ new franchise QB:
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Everything changed for the San Francisco 49ers’ franchise when Lynch traded for Garoppolo. The addition of the former New England Patriots quarterback shifted the 49ers’ rebuild into overdrive, instantly transforming the team from one of the NFL’s worst to a legitimate playoff contender. Garoppolo’s play and leadership during his five straight wins earned him a lucrative five-year contract that briefly made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. “The Jimmy Garoppolo Effect” was felt by the previously one-win team, as Garoppolo’s Niners led the league in yards-per-drive, points-per-drive and scoring percentage. Garoppolo is the new face of the 49ers’ franchise, and a player who will hopefully provide highlights for years to come.
QB C.J. Beathard
Beathard’s rookie season was a disappointment after Shanahan pushed Lynch to trade up in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft to select the former University of Iowa quarterback. Beathard wasn’t an obvious improvement over veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer, who was winless when Shanahan finally decided to give the rookie a chance at the 49ers’ starting QB job during a Week-6 loss to the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately for Beathard, the Niners suffered blowout losses in each of the next two games, and then the team traded for Garoppolo. Outside of his lone victory over the New York Giants, Beathard had a difficult time sustaining drives, leading his team on just three touchdown drives in his other four starts. Beathard finished the season with a quarterback rating just under 70, but the rookie also showed flashes of competent play. With a price tag under $1 million in each of the next two seasons, Beathard is the team’s short-term solution for Garoppolo’s backup spot, but the quarterback will need to show improvement over the next two years if he expects to finish his rookie contract with the team.
QB Nick Mullens
Second-year quarterback Nick Mullens spent the 2017 season on the 49ers’ practice squad, after the team signed the QB as an undrafted free agent. Before signing with the Niners, Mullens was a productive college quarterback at Southern Mississippi, but his small frame and sub-par arm strength will likely preclude him from having a long-term career in the league. However, the 49ers’ coaching staff was happy with Mullens last season, and given his knowledge of Shanahan’s system and his year of experience with the team, Mullens is the front-runner for the job, and should be the second quarterback off the bench when preseason games begin.
QB Jack Heneghan
Rookie quarterback Jack Heneghan will look to unseat Mullens for the role of 49ers practice squad quarterback. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Heneghan is a more prototypical NFL-sized quarterback than the 6-foot-1, 187-pound Mullens; however, Heneghan was less productive in his two years as Dartmouth’s starting QB. The 49ers liked what they saw from Heneghan during his local Pro Day workout, although the quarterback is certainly viewed as a long-term developmental project. Heneghan will see playing time this preseason — particularly in the 49ers’ final preseason game — where he’ll be fighting for a spot on the 49ers’ practice squad, and a potential future in the NFL.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
- Ahkello Witherspoon will bounce back
- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney
Podcast for Thursday, September 20
- Guest: Jeff Deeney, 49ers media correspondent for Pro Football Focus
- Injury report
- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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