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The San Francisco 49ers open their 2019 campaign in Tampa against the Buccaneers Sunday.

With training camps and preseason games now a thing of the past, the 49ers have high hopes for their 2019 season, which could include a winning record for the first time since 2013.

Through two years of a new regime that generated hype from the beginning, the 49ers have combined for a 10-22 record under Shanahan. The expectations were through the roof last season at this time after Jimmy Garoppolo rattled off five straight wins to close out the 2017 season. Coming into 2019, expectations are more realistic.

It turns out, last season the 49ers did not have the kind of talent that they thought they did, and that ended up costing them once Garoppolo went down with a season-ending injury in week three. Fortunately, it’s a new season, and a new season brings new opportunity to Santa Clara.

Call in the reinforcements

This offseason was an extremely important one for Lynch and Shanahan. The duo had to be aggressive in free agency, the trade market, and the draft in an effort to bolster a roster that was riddled with holes. Here’s what the 49ers did to reinforce their team for the 2019 season.

What makes these new additions so important to the fabric of the 2019 49ers roster is that many solidified areas of absolute need.

The wide receiver core got better with the additions of both rookies, Samuel and Hurd. Even as rookies, both receivers are expected to play important roles in this offense, and should see a fair share of snaps.

The additions of Greenlaw, Ford, and Bosa have not only solidified the 49ers front-seven but has potentially given Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh one of the best pass rush attacks in the league. The improvement to the defensive backfield is still up in the air, but the addition of Verrett could pay off big time if the oft-injured cornerback is able to stay healthy and play close to his Pro Bowl level ability.

Nearly all of these players the team brought in, or drafted, made the final 53-man roster. The only two players to not make the team were Matthews and Harris, while the other thirteen players are expected to each play a role on this football team.

The 49ers NEED to get off to a good start

Just one day from their opener in Tampa, the 49ers open their season with some winnable games. The Bucs are a wild card of a team, we saw flashes of offensive success last season, but ultimately faltered, finishing with a 5-11 record in 2018. Sunday is certainly a winnable game for the 49ers if they can overcome the humidity and stay sharp against a beatable opponent.

After opening the season in Tampa, the 49ers travel to Cincinnati to play another beatable team in the Bengals. Led by quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals are a team that is not expected to make noise this season, and that could lead to a second-straight win to begin the season if all goes according to plan for the 49ers.

Beginning their season with two road games, the 49ers will return home for two tough matchups against two AFC North teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. With a bye week slotted in between the week three Steelers matchup, and the week four Browns matchup, the 49ers will be well-rested heading into their first prime time game against Baker Mayfield and the Browns. With a road game against the division-rival Los Angeles Rams in week six, the 49ers will be tested for three straight weeks against playoff-contending teams.

‘The best ability is availability ‘

How can the 49ers be successful in 2019? How can they reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013? Stay healthy. On paper, the 49ers have a talented roster, one that (if healthy) could find itself in the hunt for a playoff spot. Garoppolo is obviously the biggest x-factor on the team, as the 49ers franchise quarterback is still looking for that last bit of development that would take his play to the next level. Only starting ten games in his career, Garoppolo has yet to play a full season in the NFL. The determining factor of his true potential will come with a full, healthy season in Shanahan’s system. With plenty of chatter surrounding Garoppolo and his potential, the 49ers quarterback is excited about the new season.

Scot Tucker/SFBay San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) celebrates a first half TD as the Jacksonville Jaguars face the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, December 24, 2017.

Garppolo said in a press conference Wednesday:

“Yeah, it’s been a long time coming, so I’m excited to get back out there. I don’t know, you can’t really listen to all that stuff. We’ve got so much going on with our stuff, mentally, physically, that you’re trying to deal with all that. It’s exciting to be back.”

In addition to Garoppolo, the 49ers are hoping for healthy seasons for players on both sides of the ball. Wide receivers Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd both sustained injuries that kept them out most of the preseason, and will likely hold them both out for week one as well. Shanahan provided an update on Wednesday in regards to Hurd’s back injury and his status for week one.

Shanahan said:

“Most likely not going to play this week, haven’t ruled him out yet. But, if I had to say something today, he’s doubtful. … I’m thinking it’s more week-to-week as opposed to day-to-day.”

Tight end, George Kittle sustained a minor calf injury in the preseason but will be good to go for Sunday’s matchup. On the defensive side of the ball, safety Jimmie Ward and cornerback Jason Verrett suffered injuries in training camp that kept them off the field for preseason action. Prior to practice on Thursday, Saleh provided an update on Verrett, who is making progress and practicing, under the careful watch of the performance staff. The biggest question surrounding Verrett, is: “can he return to his Pro Bowl form?” He might have been close to doing that before he got hurt.

Saleh said Thursday afternoon:

“Yeah, I’m telling you, right before he got hurt, he showed a couple of plays where, God, he was close. It was really, really close. So now, like I said, he’s getting closer again, he’s just got to continue to work through it.”

On the defensive line, pass rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were both held out in the preseason due to injuries as well. Injuries crippled the 49ers in 2018, and the 2019 preseason came with an ominous sign. Health is absolutely the most important factor for success this season.

The potential is there for a special offense

The 49ers enter their 2019 season with the most talented roster they’ve had in years. With plenty of offensive weapons, a defensive line to compete with the best of them, and a Head Coach that can scheme up some of the most creative plays in the league, there is potential for the 49ers to break out in 2019. If they were to stay healthy, the production Shanahan can get out of this offense could carry them far this season.

If Garoppolo can play up to expectations, he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. With two solid, athletic running backs in Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, the loss of Jerick McKinnon for the season still leaves the 49ers with a deep, dual-threat backfield. Having that kind of ability in the backfield will allow Garoppolo to feel confident in a situation where he may need to dump off a pass to one of his running backs.

Garoppolo said:

“Oh yeah, as a quarterback you love that. Just having those weapons at your disposal, you try to give them the ball in space and let them go be playmakers.”

Scot Tucker/SFBay San Francisco 49ers’ tight end George Kittle (85) runs upfield in the second half as the Arizona Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. (Scot Tucker/SFBay.ca)

It’s no secret that Kittle is one of the premier tight ends in the league. In 2018 he broke out in a big way, breaking the single-season receiving yard record by a tight end, with 1,377 yards. Now it may be irresponsible to expect that same level of production year in and year out from Kittle, but there should be no worries regarding the third-year tight end and the impact he should have on this offense.

This time last season, the 49ers rolled out a roster that had wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon starting week one, with Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor rotating in and out. This Sunday, the 49ers will likely start Goodwin at wide receiver on one side, with the starter on the other side yet to be determined. Any combination of Pettis, Samuel, Kendrick Bourne or Richie James Jr. would not surprise anyone, as specific roles have yet to be determined. Shanahan addressed the wide receiving core, and what determines who will be on the field.

Shanahan said Wednesday afternoon:

“No, that’s going to be interesting as we go through each game. A lot will do with how they practice in these three practices, what routes we have on, what personnel we have on, a lot goes into blocking, running routes the right way. That’s something that isn’t set and it depends on the play called and the personnel in.”

Pressure on opposing quarterbacks can lead to a defensive turnaround

The 49ers defense in 2018 was bad, and that might be an understatement. Allowing the second-most touchdowns (35) in the league, the 49ers defense was crippled by its lack of a pass rush and the weak secondary. Ranking 24th in the league in sacks (37), the 49ers pass rush did its secondary no favors, allowing opposing teams quarterbacks to extend plays downfield.

Scot Tucker/SFBay San Francisco 49ers’ defensive lineman DeForest Buckner (99) celebrates a sack as the Tennessee Titans face the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, December 17, 2017.

Arguably the most embarrassing (and revealing) statistic from 2018, were the seven total turnovers forced by the 49ers defense. Intercepting only two passes all season, while forcing only five fumbles, the 49ers turnover differential as a team, was -25. The worst in the NFL. If you are not familiar with that statistic, that means that the 49ers (on offense) turned the ball over 25 times more than their defense came away with turnovers. Now that may sound like the issue is coming from the offense, which of course is a big part of it, but even with the 49ers 2018 offense giving up the third-most turnovers in the league, the defense was historically bad at creating turnovers.

It’s safe to say, that winning the turnover battle is one of the top priorities on offense and defense this season. The newest additions, paired with DeForest Buckner, Fred Warner and Solomon Thomas on the defensive front seven might just help with that. With consistent pressure on opposing teams quarterbacks, resulting in more sacks, the 49ers defensive secondary can reap the benefits of what their teammates are doing upfront. With less time to make decisions, quarterbacks are more susceptible to indecisiveness and errant throws, while running backs are stopped with more pressure, resulting in more fumbles.

Defensive success begins up front, and that might just be the key for a turnaround season for the 49ers defense as a whole. Both Shanahan and Saleh have preached that their defense needs to do a better job at forcing turnovers, and time is right now.

Predicting a record for this team is nearly impossible

It could be a winning season, it could be a losing season, or it can be a completely average season. Some expect the 49ers to have a winning record, anywhere from 9-7, to 10-6. Some think the 49ers could have their third straight losing season, likely with a 7-9 record. A lot of people, like myself, are sort of in the middle.

  • If the 49ers stay healthy and exceed expectations: 9-7 or 10-6
  • If they stay relatively healthy and play as expected: 8-8
  • If they are once again bitten by the injury bug: 7-9 (it’s hard to see them finishing with a worse record than that, given the talent they have).

Even if the team were to stay healthy this season, their difficult schedule is not doing them any favors. A three-game stretch that features matchups against the Steelers, Browns, and Rams, is followed by games against the Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks again. The second half of the season for the 49ers could be very difficult, playing seven of their final eight games against potential playoff teams. The 49ers will need to be at full strength and have mostly everything go right if they hope to find their way into the playoffs.

There’s a common theme here, and its once again, health. This football team has some serious talent and should be able to compete with almost any team in the league. If they do indeed stay healthy, I can confidently say that they will not have another losing season.

Taylor Wirth

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