SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers sure are getting a lot of attention for a team coming off a six-win season that hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs the past four years.
That’s what a season-ending five-game winning streak and the presence of a potential franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo will do.
One group not buying into all the hype is in the San Francisco locker room.
“There’s no one (here) who thinks we arrived,” said left tackle Joe Staley, the only player left from the Niners‘ last playoff team in 2013. “We have a ton of work to do. We were a 6-10 football team. We were happy with the way we finished last year, but that’s in the past.”
San Francisco put together that sterling 5-0 finish after a dreadful start to the first season under coach Kyle Shanahan that featured nine straight losses to begin the schedule, including a record five straight by three points or fewer.
That all began to change after the team acquired Garoppolo before the trade deadline from New England. After a few weeks to learn the offense, Garoppolo stepped in and showed why the Patriots had groomed him as Tom Brady’s successor.
He completed 67.4 percent of his passes last season, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt with seven TDs, five interceptions and a 96.2 rating to improve to 7-0 in his career as a starter.
Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts last season, Garoppolo ranked first in yards per attempt, fourth in completion percentage. His 308.4 yards passing per game in his five starts also would have led the league had he played a full season.
But more importantly, he changed the mindset of a whole franchise.
“Jimmy is confident in himself,” Shanahan said. “I think everyone felt that right away. That’s why guys gravitate to guys. It doesn’t matter what people say or how they act. People can tell when people believe in themselves and when they don’t. But, it shows the most on the field. When you’re having success as a quarterback, as a receiver, as anybody, that confidence is only going to grow. When people start seeing you, the more plays you can put together the higher it gets.”
Here are some other things to watch this season:
SHERMAN’S HEALTH: One of the most high-profile moves San Francisco made in free agency was signing Richard Sherman after his release in Seattle. After years of tormenting the Niners, Sherman has flipped sides in the NFC West rivalry. But how effective he will be will depend heavily on his health. His 2017 season was cut short by surgery on his Achilles tendon. Sherman hopes to overcome that at age 30. He was slowed by a hamstring problem in camp, so it’s uncertain how much speed he’s lost from his days as the league’s top cover cornerbacks.
REUBEN’S ROLE: Reuben Foster showed signs of being an elite inside linebacker as a rookie when he was on the field. The problem was he missed five full games with injuries and left several others for periods of time. Having Foster at middle linebacker is key and the Niners have tried to get him to use his hands more to limit the wear and tear on his body. But Foster already will miss the first two games because of a suspension following two offseason arrests, and San Francisco can’t afford to be without him much more.
RUSH THE PASSER: San Francisco failed to generate much pass pressure last year, getting only 30 sacks. Elvis Dumervil was cut after leading the team with 6 ½, and no one else had more than three. Despite the lack of production, DeForest Buckner is one of the league’s top defensive linemen. He generates consistent pressure and could get more opportunities outside to get one-on-one matchups that could lead to more sacks.
DEEP THREAT: One of the most impressive 49ers last year was speedy WR Marquise Goodwin, who smashed his career highs with 56 catches for 962 yards in his first season with San Francisco. The former Olympic long jumper proved he can be more than a deep threat as he ranked in the top six in catches (29) and yards (384) in five games with Garoppolo.
“He’s continued to get better in every facet of his game,” Shanahan said. “He probably hasn’t gotten faster, he’s always been fast. But his hands have gotten better, he’s gotten more consistent. He tracks the ball well. It’s not just catching the easy ones now, he’s starting to make some tough ones.”
RUN THE ROCK: The Niners let Carlos Hyde leave in free agency and replaced him with a more versatile back in Jerick McKinnon. The question remains whether San Francisco has the size in the backfield to get the tough yards when needed. McKinnon is a threat in the passing game but has never been an every down back and averaged less than 4 yards a carry the past two seasons. There were few proven options behind him until Alfred Morris signed midway through camp, but he might not even make the team. McKinnon and backups Matt Breida and Joe Williams were hurt in August, raising more questions about their durability.