Inevitably, all 32 teams in the NFL are going to have at least a few breakout stars and some guys who fall short of expectations, and San Francisco is no different. With a quarter of the campaign in the books, we’re looking at the Niners’ three most pleasant surprises and three guys who need to step up.
1. RB Matt Breida – Making it clear that it wasn’t a fluke when he averaged 4.4 yards per carry while taking the rock 105 times last year, Matt Breida hasn’t just kept the Niner ground game from becoming a non-factor; he’s been the team’s clear-cut MVP through the first four weeks. Exploding out of the starting blocks by racking up 313 yards and a score on 41 carries (8.6 yards per carry) while also hauling in 10 receptions for 85 yards, Breida enters Week 5 as the league’s third-leading rusher.
Not too shabby for a 23-year-old Georgia Southern alum who didn’t even hear his name called on Draft Day about a year-and-a-half ago, and even after San Francisco’s strong showing at the 2017 NFL Draft, the Niners’ most impactful player from that group may turn out to be the undrafted Breida, in both the short- and long-term.
While the Niners have yet to give him more than 14 touches in a game this season, the quicker-than-a-hiccup running back looks like a man with something to prove, running decisively behind an offensive line that has been formidable but not spectacular and looking like a threat to take it to the house every time he carries the rock.
In 146 career carries, Breida is averaging an eye-popping 5.33 yards per carry, and if he keeps producing at or anywhere near this level, the “small sample size” argument will go by the wayside, and Breida’s status as one of the elite running backs in this league will be emphatically confirmed.
2. LB Fred Warner – At the very least, San Francisco knew it was getting a versatile linebacker-safety hybrid who possessed the speed and length coveted by Robert Saleh. Four games into the former BYU standout’s young career, it looks like they’ve gotten so much more.
Playing like a man possessed, Fred Warner has been all over the field during the first quarter of the season and has exceeded expectations despite having a lot on his plate: He picked up the slack during Reuben Foster’s two-game suspension, he’s posted double-digit tackles in all four games and he’s already been entrusted to relay play calls to his teammates. He leads the team with 32 tackles, which is more than double the amount posted by Elijah Lee, who is second with 14.
While it’s not really Warner’s forte and he might be too good in pass coverage to take him out of that role on obvious passing downs, at what point is the do-it-all linebacker called upon to blitz the quarterback more often to provide a boost to the pass rush?
Given the Niners’ inability to turn up the heat on the quarterback, and since Warner’s Achilles heel is arguably that he occasionally over-pursues, it might be worth a shot to let him off his leash and get after the quarterback, at least once in a while.
Either way, there’s clearly tremendous upside with Foster, who may go on to vastly outperform his status as a third-round draft pick.
3. DL DeForest Buckner – 49er Faithful had high hopes for San Francisco’s third-year defensive tackle, and even so, he’s arguably given the defense more than what was expected.
After posting just three sacks in 16 games a season ago – despite delivering a league-high 19 quarterback hits – DeForest Buckner has already racked up 3.5 sacks and has seemingly found the extra gear he needed to drop the signal-caller before he releases the ball.
Buckner, who is 14th in the league in sacks, has been one of the few bright spots on a unit that’s surrendered 118 points, which is seventh-worst in in the league, and it’s scary to think where the defense – and especially the pass rush — might be without their hard-charging defensive tackle.
While his 74.1 PFF grade and No. 34 ranking out of 106 interior defenders doesn’t quite scream “elite” (it falls into PFF’s “good” range), it doesn’t change the fact that the Oregon product is on pace for 14 sacks, despite not getting a ton of help from his linemates.
The scariest thing about DeFo for opposing offenses? Even with such stout production in the season’s early goings, it feels like he still hasn’t come close to hitting his ceiling.
Need to Step Up
*Note: We’re giving a pass to players whose performance has likely suffered/still is suffering due to injury.
1. DE Solomon Thomas – Coming into the season, 49er Faithful pegged Solomon Thomas as something of a breakout candidate after an underwhelming rookie season. It still hasn’t materialized for last year’s third overall selection, who has received a 61.9 grade from Pro Football Focus, which puts him as the league’s No. 65 edge defender out of 99 qualifiers.
While the 61.9 mark technically falls into the “average” category according to Pro Football Focus’ scale, San Francisco didn’t take Thomas third overall with visions of mediocrity.
Despite moving from “Big End” to “Leo” in the offseason – a move that was designed to benefit Thomas and put him in position to be more of a playmaker — the Stanford product is still seeking his first sack of campaign while tallying just five tackles.
Just as perplexing as Thomas’ lack of production has been his head-scratching lack of playing time, as the 280-pounder hasn’t received significant snaps and has essentially become just another face in San Francisco’s oft-rotating defensive line. Even when he’s gotten onto the field, Thomas has been a ghost, notching just five tackles through the first four games.
There are plenty of reasons for the unit’s failures this season – poor play in the secondary, subpar tackling, a difficult schedule, etc. – but the Niner defense desperately needs more from Thomas after selecting him with the third overall pick.
However, given Thomas’ lofty draft status, the fact that he’s played only 18 pro football games between 2017-18, and the underperformance from everyone not named DeForest Buckner on the defensive line, Thomas arguably should be primed for more snaps with a mandate to sink or swim. At some point, the Niners really need to find out what the kid can do with a healthy helping of playing time.
2. WR Trent Taylor – Last year’s fifth-round pick emerged as Jimmy Garoppolo’s best friend in 2017, effortlessly separating from coverage with just a single cut, showing utter fearlessness by running crisp routes over the middle and hauling in critical third-down receptions.
Trent Taylor looked ready to emerge as one of the Niners’ biggest steals in what was a strong draft for the franchise. At the very least, the slippery wideout was all but certain to once again maintain his role as a dependable safety blanket who could move the chains on third down.
Instead, the second-year wideout is nowhere to be found in 2018, notching only nine receptions for 64 yards and no touchdowns a quarter of the way through the season. His best game of the campaign came in Week 1 when he posted season-highs in receptions (4) and yards (28).
It’s not all on Taylor; he’s only been thrown to 15 times and rarely seems to be the primary target, so perhaps his number should be called more often, especially on third down, where he excelled last season. Still, the Louisiana Tech product needs to create his own opportunities by rediscovering his exceptional separation skills.
Maybe it was at least somewhat unfair to place such high expectations on an undersized wideout who was drafted No. 177 overall before last season, but Niner fans cannot help but be overwhelmed with what they’ve seen (or, perhaps more appropriately, haven’t seen) from Taylor in 2018.
3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon — In most cases, young cornerbacks are expected to experience some peaks and valleys when they come into the NFL, as they play an incredibly demanding position in a league that’s more pass-happy than ever.
Still, it’s been tough to watch Ahkello Witherspoon regress to the extent that he has through the season’s first four games, as the 2017 third-rounder from Colorado was looking like a star in the making down the home stretch of last year.
Predictably, Witherspoon was targeted early and often when Richard Sherman was on the field during the campaign’s first two-and-a-half games since teams still tend to shy away from the former Seahawk, so that naturally resulted Witherspoon giving up more receptions and yards. Unfortunately, Witherspoon has had no answer, grading out as PFF’s No. 106 cornerback out of 109 qualifiers with a grade of 42.3.
With Sherman still injured, K’Waun Williams playing well while entrenched as the team’s nickelback, and Jimmie Ward once again struggling, Witherspoon isn’t about to be pulled off the field, and he’ll simply have to fight his way through this rough patch and rediscover the confidence that he exuded during last season’s stretch run.
Witherspoon, who received a 74.5 mark from PFF a season ago, is better than what he’s shown, and the Niners and their fans have no choice but to ride it out and hope he finds his game sooner rather than later. Like the rest of San Francisco’s defense, Witherspoon gets a reprieve with a Week 5 matchup against Arizona, which has produced a meager 9.25 points per game, dead last in the league by a wide margin.
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