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San Francisco 49ers

Six unsung heroes in Niners’ disappointing season

Jon Chik

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Guard Mike Person and Fullback Kyle Juszczyk

You have to look close to find them, but even with a 2-8 record, the 49ers have their fair share of unsung heroes in 2018. Here’s a glimpse at six of them.

FB Kyle Juszczyk

It’s very easy to overlook Kyle Juszczyk given the oftentimes thankless nature of the position he plays. Many teams have phased the position completely out of their game plans, and some don’t even roster a fullback. In fact, only five have seen enough snaps to qualify for Pro Football Focus’ rankings, and guess who’s No. 1?

San Francisco’s battering ram has earned a grade of 76, more than 10 points better than second-ranked Andy Janovich.

But Juszczyk’s accomplishments go beyond PFF’s grades; he’s been Kyle Shanahan’s ace in the hole all season, and the second-year coach has gone to Juszczyk several times as a way to throw a curveball at defenses. His receiving stats (23 receptions for 265 yards and a touchdown) don’t jump off the page, but Juszczyk seems to capitalize every time he has a rare opportunity to get his mitts on the ball, and he has excelled in run-blocking (73.5).

K Robbie Gould

Now in his second season with the 49ers, Robbie Gould has been money, and when you have an offense that struggles to punch it into the end zone, it’s even more important to have a kicker who can consistently salvage drives with three points.

After setting a new franchise record by making 33 straight field goal attempts between last season and this one, Gould saw his streak snap in Week 5 at home against the Cardinals, but that’s still the only field goal he’s missed all year, as he’s booted 21 out of 22 between the uprights.

With a career field goal percentage of 87.374, the former Chicago Bear is the sixth most accurate placekicker of all time, and given that he did most of that while playing his home games in The Windy City, it’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that the Penn State product could be the greatest kicker in NFL history. The Niners are fortunate to have him.

Offensive Line Coach John Benton

Now in his second season as San Francisco’s offensive line coach, John Benton had his work cut out for him coming into the 2018 campaign, as Joe Staley was the only returning starter from Week 1 of the previous season, and all five starters had at least a question mark or two.

Could the veteran Staley hold up for another season? Would Laken Tomlinson prove that his breakout last year was no fluke? Could Weston Richburg bounce back from an injury-plagued 2017? Can journeyman Mike Person hold down the fort at right guard? And could first-round rookie Mike McGlinchey immediately live up to the hype that comes with being selected in the top 10 picks? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. And Benton is the man behind the scenes making it happen.

With uncertainty surrounding his unit, Benton has somehow put the pieces together and now presides over Pro Football Focus’ 14th-ranked offensive line. While that’s narrowly above average, the results could have been far worse for a group with so much uncertainty.

All five starting linemen except for Richburg are ranked in the top half of qualified players at their position, McGlinchey is the league’s top-ranked run-blocking tackle (82.9 grade from PFF), Person is having the best season of his eight-year career (more on him in a minute) and Benton’s group has been instrumental in the success of two undrafted free agents, Matt Breida and Nick Mullens.

Benton deserves enormous credit for making all the pieces fit the puzzle and getting the most out of his guys.

LB Fred Warner

Fred Warner may initially seem out of place on this list because most Niner fans are aware that he’s off to a promising start through the first 10 games of his career, and let’s face it: Third-round draft picks are selected to be big-time contributors.

While Warner has occasionally been caught out of position this season – not uncommon for rookie linebackers who are expected to be all over the field – Warner has excelled at showing a nose for the football and making sure-handed tackles. In fact, the BYU product has been nothing short of a tackling machine, as he’s racked up a team-high 58 stops, and what you may not realize is that he’s notched 30 more than San Francisco’s second-leading tackler, K’Waun Williams. For that eye-popping stat alone, Warner must be on this list.

LT Joe Staley

We all know Joe Staley is one of the greatest offensive linemen in 49er history. He’s off to another fantastic start in 2018, receiving a 78.9 mark from PFF as the league’s 10th-ranked tackle out of 76 qualifiers, and he could be ticketed for Cooperstown whenever he hangs ‘em up. He’s been so good for so long that it’s easy to take him at least somewhat for granted.

The squad’s elder statesmen makes this list for something a little less tangible, something that doesn’t immediately meet the eye: His ability to keep the 49ers together through some very difficult times.

The 49ers started last season 0-9; they’re 2-8 this year. And with the exception of Ahkello Witherspoon’s brief exasperation after he allowed a touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. on Monday, there has been no finger-pointing, no bad-mouthing, no divisive anonymous quotes. While a unified locker room can be attributed to the coaching staff, one must think that the longest-tenured player on the team has something to do with that as well.

By all accounts, Staley has gone out of his way to take Mike McGlinchey under his wing, knowing full well that the rookie right tackle may one day take his job. That’s the kind of selfless leadership that it takes for an NFL franchise to be successful, and Staley continues to be San Francisco’s tone-setter. He’s been the one constant on Niners’ overachieving offensive line.

RG Mike Person

After signing with San Francisco to little fanfare in the offseason, Mike Person wasn’t a guarantee to be a member of the 49ers come Week 1. Far from it.

But he’s become a shining example of someone who took an opportunity and ran with it, as the eight-year pro beat out a pair of former first-round picks (Josh Garnett and Jonathan Cooper) and hasn’t looked back.

The seventh-round journeyman is PFF’s No. 9-ranked guard with a 73.7 grade, has excelled in pass protection and would appear to have a stranglehold on the right guard gig if he remains with San Francisco after the season. Considering it took him years to become so entrenched in a starting lineup, Person would presumably be looking to do just that.

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