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.
49ers vs. Packers: San Francisco Week 6 Game Balls & Highlights
We hand out a pair of game balls to the San Francisco 49ers from the Niners’ heartbreaking last-second loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers under the lights on Monday Night Football.
On Tuesday’s Locked On 49ers Podcast, host Brian Peacock provided a rundown of the Niners’ game — including game notes and key takeaways — and handed out two game balls from the San Francisco 49ers’ near-upset of the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 of the 2018 NFL regular season.
After what will hopefully be the 49ers’ worst game of the 2018 season, San Francisco put up a fight during their Week 6 matchup at Lambeau Field, as the team held the lead over Green Bay from the second quarter until the two-minute warning. Unfortunately, the Niners allowed the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers to stay within a score in the closing minutes of the game. Two drives later, Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby finished the 49ers off as he booted his fourth field goal of the day through the uprights as time expired.
Although the 49ers weren’t able to pull off the upset, their players showed heart by rebounding after last week’s poor showing. Our weekly game balls go to two Niners who kept San Francisco in the game with their strong offensive performances:
49ers QB C.J. Beathard
After losing the game for his team in Week 5, 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard came to play against Green Bay on Monday Night Football, and outplayed Rodgers over much of the game. Beathard was nearly perfect in the first half of the contest, as the QB connected with wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on a pair of long touchdown passes.
Although he was in an obvious groove, Beathard wasn’t given the opportunity to continue at the same pace in the second half. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan made an obvious attempt to milk the clock, although San Francisco only held a one-score lead. Then, at the end of a passive second half, Beathard picked the wrong time to take a risky shot downfield, after he was given great field position and had minimal yardage to gain for a game-winning field goal try.
On a crucial third down, instead of going with a high-percentage throw, Beathard elected to air it out deep to Goodwin. Unfortunately, the duo’s first-half magic was gone, as the poorly thrown pass was intercepted by Green Bay. Given one final opportunity, Rodgers — with a bit of help from the officiating crew — led the Packers down the field to victory.
Even though the 49ers weren’t able to leave Lambeau Field with a win, Beathard played near peak levels until the final drives of the game. When a backup quarterback hangs tough against a future Hall-of-Fame QB, he deserves a weekly game ball:
49ers WR Marquise Goodwin.
As 49ers top wide receiver Marquise Goodwin returned to the field from injury on Monday, so did the explosiveness of San Francisco’s offense. A week after each of the Niners’ wideouts failed to average over 10 yards a reception, Goodwin averaged over 30 yards per catch against the Packers on Monday night.
A healthy Goodwin is the missing piece the 49ers’ offense has lacked in 2018, as his ability to stretch the field gives the Niners a true deep threat, while also opening up San Francisco’s intermediate passing game. Goodwin’s blazing speed combined with his improved route-running skills places cornerbacks into constant conflict; when corners try to keep pace with the wideout, he shows off his ability to score from anywhere on the field, but when defensive backs respect his deep game, Goodwin simply works his way open for easy receptions.
Goodwin finished the contest with 126 yards on four catches, including touchdown scores of 67 and 30 yards. If Goodwin remains healthy, expect more of the same from the San Francisco 49ers’ No. 1 wide receiver:
Listen to Locked On 49ers host Brian Peacock’s review of the San Francisco 49ers’ Week 6 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football — including game notes and key takeaways from the Niners’ last-second loss — on Tuesday’s Rapid React podcast:
Podcast: What’s Going On With Solomon Thomas?
Podcast for Thursday, October 18
- Guest Dylan DeSimone of Fourth and Nine
- Solomon Thomas has gone from top-3 pick to part-time player
- Mike McGlinchey has been a stud rookie for the 49ers
- Getting through the social media venting period as L’s mount
Podcast: Crossover Wednesday with Locked on Rams
Podcast for Wednesday, October 17
- Guest: Brad Mader of Locked on Rams
- Todd Gurley is a man-child
- Jared Goff’s development under head coach Sean McVay
- Key Matchups on Sunday