2021 NFL Preview: 49ers can have a huge season, as long as they manage their QB controversy

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Kyle Shanahan isn't Mike Shanahan, but let's take a look back at some telling history. 

In 2005, Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos had a fantastic season. They gave Tom Brady his first playoff loss. Then in the AFC championship game, at home against the No. 6 seed Pittsburgh Steelers, Jake Plummer struggled. The Broncos were upset. Mike Shanahan decided Plummer needed to go. 

In the offseason, the Broncos traded up to draft Jay Cutler in the first round. The Broncos started the 2006 season well, and were 7-3 going into a Thanksgiving game against the Chiefs. Someone leaked a story that Plummer would be benched after the Chiefs game unless he played very well, and maybe that wouldn't even be enough (whoever leaked that story to then-NFL Network reporter Adam Schefter did a good amount of disrespect to Plummer, and his teammates too). Plummer didn't play great, the Broncos lost and Cutler started the rest of the season. 

The moral of the story is that once Shanahan gave up on Plummer, there was no turning back. It was a different era and rookies didn't start Week 1, and it took Shanahan a long time to finally make the switch when the Broncos started winning (Plummer was popular among teammates, and benching him when the team was off to a great start wasn't going to happen). But it was inevitable and happened at the first opportunity. 

And now onto the tale of Mike's son, Kyle, and his new rookie quarterback. 

At some point — perhaps when Jimmy Garoppolo struggled in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl loss, like Plummer struggling against the Steelers — Kyle Shanahan decided Garoppolo wasn't his long-term answer. That happened despite the 49ers posting a very good record with Garoppolo at QB, much like the mid-2000s Broncos with Plummer. The 49ers traded a ton to move up to No. 3 overall and draft a quarterback. They took multi-talented Trey Lance (after some needless drama), who might not exactly be Cutler but is the 49ers' new shiny toy. Now we just wonder how soon is too soon for Kyle Shanahan to make the switch. Hopefully it doesn't involve leaked stories about Garoppolo the night before a game. 

It sets up a weird situation for a talented team. Forget about last year's 49ers, who finished first by a mile in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost to injury metric. It was a team battered by injuries and dealing with COVID-related issues too. This year's 49ers should look much more like the 2019 version that made and almost won a Super Bowl. The run game will be great again behind a good offensive line, there are some dominant options to catch the ball and the defense can be one of the NFL's best. Everything is in place, and there's a quarterback controversy. 

The 49ers are going to enter the season with Garoppolo and Lance, which is weird. Garoppolo has a $24.1 million salary, and players like that don't sit. Lance was the third pick, and players like that don't sit anymore either. It's a unique situation and the 49ers' prospects for this season ride on how Shanahan handles it. 

If history and bloodlines tell us anything, Shanahan will make the move as soon as he can. 

Trey Lance was the third overall pick of the draft to the 49ers. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Trey Lance was the third overall pick of the draft to the 49ers. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The move up for Trey Lance was an interesting one. The 49ers could have continued to use draft capital to build around Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped the 49ers to within a quarter of a Super Bowl win. Instead the 49ers sent the No. 12 overall pick this year, a first- and third-round pick in 2022 and a first-round pick in 2023 to the Miami Dolphins for a new quarterback. The 49ers made a major free-agent move, retaining offensive tackle Trent Williams on a six-year, $138 million deal. They still had enough left over to sign center Alex Mack away from the Atlanta Falcons and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam from the Los Angeles Rams. Receiver Kendrick Bourne signed a big deal with the New England Patriots, but the 49ers shouldn't miss him too much. Overall it was a solid offseason, as long as Lance is as good as the 49ers think. 

Grade: B

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Trey Lance is a top prospect, but not without risks. He played at North Dakota State, with only one game in 2020, and he faces a steep learning curve going from FCS to the NFL. Two things could keep Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter longer than he might in normal circumstances: Lance's inexperience and a soft 49ers schedule that could lead to a fast start. Physically, there's no reason Lance can't play right away. Kyle Shanahan will have a lot of fun devising ways for Lance to use his mobility and his cannon arm. It's very hard to envision a scenario in which Lance doesn't play — since Philip Rivers in 2004, Jake Locker is the only QB picked in the top 20 to not make a start as a rookie — but the question is when. If it's not Week 1, maybe Lance's first start comes after the team's Week 6 bye. A lot of that will depend on the 49ers' record, because it goes against conventional NFL wisdom to bench any quarterback if his team is winning. Shanahan said Garoppolo had his best offseason with the 49ers, which is a good sign for him as preseason approaches. 

“Jimmy came in in great shape, really locked in, [and] was in a good place physically and mentally,” Shanahan said, according to the Mercury News

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The 49ers' win total at BetMGM is 10.5, and I'll confidently take the over. I'll completely throw out the 49ers' 6-10 record last season. This is a very good team and I trust Kyle Shanahan. Trey Lance is going to be a monster the moment he gets the starting QB job. If he wins the job by Week 1, he'd be my bet to win offensive rookie of the year (+700 odds at BetMGM) over Trevor Lawrence. Also, NFL analyst Warren Sharp (who uses win totals to project strength of schedule) has the 49ers with the NFL's easiest schedule this season by a wide margin. I like the 49ers at +180 to win the NFC West and feel free to grab some of them at +1200 to win the Super Bowl. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Although the Niners could easily have a Top 5 NFL offense, and they have five players in fantasy football’s Top 100 by ADP, I’m concerned this team’s real production might be much better than its fantasy haul. Picking the right running back week-to-week could be a tough ask, and it’s possible the passing tree will be crowded and inconsistent. And we’re not sure when the baton will be passed to Trey Lance, a superb prospect but still very young (21) and inexperienced (he played one game in 2020). And no one really considers Jimmy Garoppolo a fantasy kingmaker.

"I understand the potential here, and the sexiness of the fantasy candidates. But in traditional leagues, you need weekly, projectable volume and production. I’m not confident the Niners game scripts will be consistent or decipherable on a week-to-week basis. Tread carefully. I'll consider plenty of players here, but only when the proper value is gettable. For me, they will not be proactive picks."

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George Kittle had a 48-634-2 line last season and Deebo Samuel put up 33-391-1. Considering Kittle played eight games and Samuel played seven, with the 49ers offense getting only six games from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, that's not too bad. The thought of the 49ers offense getting relatively healthy seasons from Kittle, Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk (who was fantastic at times as a rookie) and the running back duo of Raheem Mostert and rookie Trey Sermon is exciting. It might not matter who is playing quarterback if the 49ers catch a little more injury luck on offense this season. 

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How will Robert Saleh's departure affect the defense? 

Saleh was a great hire by the New York Jets to be their next head coach, and he'll be missed in San Francisco. The energetic Saleh oversaw a big improvement with the 49ers defense that peaked in 2019 when San Francisco had a top-10 defense and made a Super Bowl. There will be a transition without Saleh. The 49ers are also hoping Nick Bosa bounces back from a torn ACL and some cornerbacks step up to fill a weakness on the depth chart. 

DeMeco Ryans, who was playing linebacker in the NFL as recently as 2015, takes over the coordinator role. He won't just copy what Saleh did, scheme-wise. 

“You will see some similarities there, but you will see some wrinkles,” Ryans said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “You will see my brand of football on it. … We’re going to let our defensive line get off the ball and attack, and we’re going to clean up things behind. But we will be a more aggressive, attacking defense.”

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No rookie quarterback has ever started a Super Bowl. Tom Brady and Kurt Warner did it in their first years starting, but that's not the same. But it's a new era for quarterbacks. They're far more prepared to succeed right away. Trey Lance has a huge jump in competition coming, but he also has an infrastructure few other rookies quarterbacks have ever had. Lance's dual-threat ability will allow him to experience success right away. And the 49ers will always be a run-first team with Kyle Shanahan coaching. There's a ton of talent on both sides, and Lance could provide an element that game manager Jimmy Garoppolo can't. I think Lance has a shot to be the first rookie QB to start a Super Bowl. The 49ers are that good around him. 

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The only football game Trey Lance has played since 2019 was against Central Arkansas. That's not exactly the same as facing Aaron Donald on a Monday night. If Lance isn't ready right away, Jimmy Garoppolo will start until he is. The 49ers can win a lot of games with Garoppolo, of course, but everything else needs to go well. If the 49ers need to rely on Garoppolo too much, it's not their best recipe. A quarterback controversy is always a tough thing to navigate, too. The 2006 Broncos that we referenced earlier went from 7-2 to out of the playoffs, and Mike Shanahan was fired two seasons later. The 49ers have a lot of talent, and plenty of challenges ahead too. 

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I can see a good start for the 49ers this season, and an even better ending. Jimmy Garoppolo can lead the 49ers to a solid record against an easy schedule, and then Trey Lance is going to start at some point. I think he can be electric in Kyle Shanahan's offense. I'm buying stock in this 49ers team, and it wouldn't surprise me if they reached a Super Bowl in a fairly weak NFC. Letting a rookie play the closer role after the veteran starts the season isn't the normal road to success, but I think it can work for these 49ers. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Los Angeles Rams

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