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San Francisco 49ers

Rookies Flash Great Potential Against Vikings

Jon Chik

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49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis

San Francisco’s top three picks in the 2018 NFL Draft — Mike McGlinchey, Dante Pettis and Fred Warner — all stepped onto the U.S. Bank Stadium gridiron for their first taste of NFL regular season action, but how did they fare against a Vikings team that many are picking to go to the Super Bowl?

RT Mike McGlinchey

From the moment San Francisco drafted Mike McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick back in April, the Niner Faithful knew there was a lot to like about the team’s first-round selection. McGlinchey arrived in San Francisco with the hype that always accompanies a top-10 draft pick, but position versatility wasn’t something the Niners were banking on.

When starting guard Mike Person and backup Josh Garnett each left the game with injuries, however, McGlinchey was about to receive an unusual request. Conventional wisdom suggested that Garry Gilliam would be the next man up to fill the void, but San Francisco instead allowed the 27-year-old veteran to step into his normal position at right tackle and asked McGlinchey to kick inside.

Learning a new position on the fly in your NFL regular season debut is a tall order for any 23-year-old rookie, but McGlinchey didn’t hesitate when asked by his coaches.

Going up against one of the top defenses in the NFL, McGlinchey did his part to generate a small push in the ground game, and while the 3.65 combined yards per carry from Alfred Morris and Matt Breida is certainly underwhelming, it’s at least forgivable after the Niners’ two top right guards were injured and McGlinchey had to move to an unfamiliar position during his first taste of NFL action.

The O-line – which allowed three sacks — struggled with the hard-charging Viking defense, but when McGlinchey was faced with the thoroughly unexpected challenge of switching positions in the middle of his debut, he showed himself to be a team-first guy by playing right guard for the first time in his life. And even though the Niner line was outplayed by Minnesota’s front seven, McGlinchey wasn’t noticeably overwhelmed by the Vikings’ swarming defenders.

In a best-case scenario for the 49ers, McGlinchey will never be asked to play guard again, but Kyle Shanahan and company have to feel better knowing that McGlinchey can at least handle the position in a pinch. Prior to shifting to guard, McGlinchey was turning in a solid debut at his typical right tackle position, and he’ll aim for more of the same against Detroit.

WR Dante Pettis

While his afternoon in Minnesota wasn’t perfect, Dante Pettis flashed the kind of game-breaking ability that enticed the Niners to trade up for him in the second round of the draft.

Targeted five times, Pettis reeled in a pair of receptions for 61 yards, including a spectacular 22-yard touchdown catch that got the 49ers back into the game early in the third quarter. Pettis showed great instincts on the play after he was defended on his initial route, recognizing that Jimmy Garoppolo was being flushed to his left, reacting accordingly by breaking for the back-left corner of the end zone and displaying soft hands and impressive footwork to stay in bounds after making the grab.

Prior to the touchdown, Pettis nearly hauled in another deep bomb from Garoppolo, and only an outstanding pass-breakup prevented another acrobatic scoring reception.

On the flip side, Pettis muffed a punt before being bailed out by Ahkello Witherspoon, who alertly pounced on the ball near the sideline. One error likely won’t deter San Francisco’s coaching staff from unleashing Pettis – especially after he set an NCAA record by returning nine punts for touchdowns in his college career — but ball security is paramount in the NFL, and it’s possible he was looking to make a move upfield before securing the pigskin. In his short time as a 49er, Pettis has developed a reputation for being the type of player who doesn’t make the same mistake twice, and that will be put to the test immediately against the Lions.

Pettis was also targeted when Xavier Rhodes picked off a pass early in the fourth quarter when he didn’t seem to be on the same page as Garoppolo.

It was truly a mixed bag for Pettis, but even a casual football observer could see the enormous potential, and Pettis could be in for a gigantic uptick in snaps in Week 2 if Marquise Goodwin misses the home opener against the Lions. No one wants to see a quality person and player such as Goodwin wearing street clothes on gameday, but Pettis will have a golden opportunity to carve out a significant role in the offense if Goodwin isn’t ready to go on Sunday.

Goodwin’s job will undoubtedly be waiting for him when he returns, but if Pettis continues to flash his trademark explosiveness in his stead, the coaches will have to figure out ways to keep the rookie speedster involved in the aerial attack.

LB Fred Warner

Looking like he was shot out of a cannon, Fred Warner didn’t exactly stick his toe into the water in his NFL regular season debut. Instead, the rookie third-rounder racked up a team-high 12 tackles, notched a pass defensed and forced a fumble (recovered by Richard Sherman) by closing quickly from behind and punching the ball from the grasp of Dalvin Cook after Minnesota’s second-year back broke several tackles and fought his way up the middle for a 15-yard gain.

Warner delivered at least two big hits on Minnesota’s ballcarriers, and he was just as effective hauling down the Vikings’ pass-catchers, making several sure-handed tackles in the open field to prevent potentially long gains. His elite read-and-react skills were on display all afternoon, as the BYU product routinely showed a nose for the ball.

Furthermore, Warner was entrusted to relay defensive play calls from Robert Saleh to his teammates, a duty which isn’t usually thrust upon a rookie, and he handled the responsibility with all the poise of a seasoned veteran.

Since Warner and Reuben Foster only have 11 games of combined NFL experience under their belts, comparisons to the destructive tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are a bit premature, but Niner fans have every right to be excited about their young linebacking duo, and it will be a sight to behold when they’re on the field together for the first time in Week 3 against the Chiefs.

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San Francisco 49ers

Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes

Jon Chik

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Defensive end Solomon Thomas

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.

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San Francisco 49ers

Podcast: Friday Mailbag

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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

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San Francisco 49ers

Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney

Brian Peacock

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© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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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