Four key starters 49ers need healthy this season

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throws a pass during a drill at the team’s NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Tuesday, June 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

SANTA CLARA — Privately, the 49ers feel they’re an elite team.

They believe they have the talent and depth to beat any team they play for the first time since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch joined the organization in 2017. This belief is why they drafted a punter in the fourth round this year. They felt other rookies would struggle to make their final roster because it’s vastly improved.

Anything less than a playoff appearance would be a major disappointment for the 49ers.

And yet, despite all the talent and depth they have acquired since 2017, their success next season may depend on just four key starters coming off catastrophic leg injuries: running back Jerick McKinnon (torn ACL), cornerback Jason Verrett (torn Achilles), linebacker Kwon Alexander, (torn ACL) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (torn ACL).

The 49ers need all four of them to compete at the highest level. Here are the questions each player faces heading into training camp:

This article has 80 Comments

  1. You’re looking at four key injured players who should be/are supposed to be starting. Got it.

    There are other key players who happen to be healthy (at the moment) whose loss to injury would be rather disruptive–Kittle for one, Buckner, Warner…

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  2. Like every team in this league, the season lives and dies based upon the health of it’s starting QB. Every single team puts QB on their list of players that need to be healthy for the year.

    Varrett won’t play more than 7 games this year. Just forget about the secondary being anything but horrible again. The front office slapped a dirty used band aid on a hemorrhaging artery hoping to make it to next years DB draft class.

    The player this team needs healthy other than Jimmy is going to be Dee Ford. When Bosa starts missing time it’ll come down to Buckner and Ford to keep teams from stacking up 30+ on this defense.

    Offensively, outside of the QB they need Staley and the offensive line to remain healthy. It’s already a questionable unit, add health issues in and you have the makings for another long season.

      1. “the sky is falling; the sky is falling…”

        That was two seasons ago when they hired a color commentator to be our General Manager and then handicapped him by forcing him to run all his decisions by a glorified offensive coordinator.

        You’re all walking around in the dark thinking this is how it’s supposed to look.

    1. Unfortunately, I agree with this comment. The 49ers secondary may be the worst in the NFL. Relying on pass rush to improve a terrible secondary is a terrible strategy.

  3. Injured players have a predisposition to re-injure their injury. Then, when they do, it becomes catastrophic, and career threatening. They may overcompensate for their injury, and injure the other side. Fully healthy players may become injured, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL.
    ACL and Achilles injuries do not heal overnight. It usually takes at least a season and a half to recover, and at least 2 seasons to be fully healed. Even then, there is no guarantee that the player will ever play at the same level before the injury. Many players lose a step, and play tentatively, so as not to re-injure his knee or Achilles.
    Maybe the best strategy, instead of this Mash unit, is to select fully healthy players with no injury histories.
    This is like putting Durant out there, before being fully healed. He tore his Achilles and will not play next season. Making injured players play before they can demonstrate they are fully healthy, is just asking for trouble.
    Look at Richard Sherman. The Niners let him play, because he wanted to obtain all of his contract benchmarks and incentives. However, Grant told us all that he was slow, and the only reason they did not target him, was because Witherspoon was worse. Now, Sherman is saying he can finally run, but he still may be a step slow. If he has lost a step, they should seriously consider playing him at safety.
    Baalke loved those ACL picks, but Paraag must even more. Such ‘Good Value’. Analytics look at their potential, and ignore the realities. How many have worked out? Not Carradine, Reaser, Lattimore, Brandon Thomas, Millard, Redmond or Smelter. Now we have Street, who has not played a down, and Hurd, with a bum knee. When will they ever learn?
    I hope they go conservative, and work JG back slowly. Mullens is perfectly adequate, until JG can demonstrate he can take a hit with no further injury. I hope they sit Verrett, and put him on IR with a mid season designation to return. He is following in the footsteps of Sherman, and will not have fully recovered from his Achilles.
    Kwon should also get special treatment, and not be rushed back too soon. They need to protect their investments. McKinnon has to prove he is not crystal, like Todd Shell, but they should not count on him contributing at all. Then, if he does play well, it will be a pleasant surprise.
    When a quarter of the team cannot practice due to injury, they need to take a step back, and re-evaluate their organization. They may be talented, and look good on paper, but if those players cannot get on the field, the Niners will be living in a fool’s paradise.

    1. Sleb
      * “Injured players have a predisposition to re-injure their injury. Then, when they do, it becomes catastrophic, and career threatening.”

      * A good example, is RB Frank Gore! Two ACL injuries at U of Miami. A groin injury in his rookie year as a SF 49er and a broken hand in preseason his second year. In 2009, Gore injured his ankle and suffered a fractured right hip in 2010. In 2011, under new HC Harbaugh, he sustained a knee injury and was deemed injury prone and cut by that dastardly villain Baalke! * Proving Sleb the genius, correct……

      1. GEEP, Frank Gore is an exception to the rule. Just like the 86 year old smoker, with 480,000 tobacco related deaths each year.
        Not too many RBS have 15 year careers with almost 15,000 yards rushing. You might infer that all QBs all elite, looking at Tom Brady’s 6 rings, and assume all QBs are busts looking at Jamarcus Russell.
        Citing Frank Gore does not prove you right. 20% of ACL players never return, and for the ones who do return, their performance drops by up to a third. Only about one in ten make it back to performing just as well as before the injury. Not good odds, and Frank Gore was one of those 10. Nine others regressed.
        You really should not be calling others geniuses. You do not have the assessment skills to make that determination. Except, maybe everyone is a genius compared to you, which puts you on the bottom end of the scale.
        Still waiting for your bona fides. I am beginning to wonder if you did gain a GED.

  4. I don’t believe that Mckinnon is that essential. While he would certainly make the offense better, he would not be as missed as several other players were they injured. RB is one position that the Niners are especially solid in. This year is not like last year. In fact, they can easily afford to bring him back very slowly.

    1. Agreed,
      His big contribution last year was supposed to be as a pass-catching running back. Since then Brieda has emerged as a solid receiver out of the backfield and the niners have added one of the better combo backs in the league.

      After his injury last season I stated there was a good chance McKinnon never sees the field as a 49er in the regular season. I still believe that might be the case, even if I believe he likely will due to the idea that management might want to prove they were not wrong in way overpaying him.

      IMO, the prudent move would be to offer him an injury settlement and move on. He is going to be way overpaid as a spot player and that’s likely what he will be.

  5. Don’t be surprised if McKinnon begins the season on PUP. The have the ammo at the position to do it.

    By all reports, Witherspoon was the best cb in OTA’s. Having a player of Verrett’s quality coming off the bench is a luxury not all teams can afford.

    Alexander The Great is another candidate to begin the season on PUP. Another position where they can do it.

    Football has always been 80% mental, 50% physical whether you’re coming off injury or not. As long as Jimmy doesn’t try to get anymore extra yards instead of going out of bounds, he should be just fine. He’ll be a little rusty the first couple games, but I expect by game 4 he’ll be rounding into shape….

    1. “Alexander The Great is another candidate to begin the season on PUP. Another position where they can do it.”

      Can they Razor? I listened to the Better Rivals podcast on the Wide 9 alignment and came away even more concerned about the quality needed at LB. The wider gaps put more pressure on the ILBs. A healthy Alexander will be a great addition. However, wasn’t Warner selected primarily because of his ability to pass defend in the intermediate area? He had a large number of missed tackles last year that I’ve heard he is trying to correct. I’m a Warner fan, but I’m not sure if this alignment will suit his strengths. I’m not sure how he will hold up with increased responsibility on run downs.

      Now it’s true that nothing forces the defense to use the Wide 9 alignment in either the under or over defense. I really hope that the coaching staff doesn’t force the Wide 9 alignment when it is ill advised (for example, against teams that run the ball well and often). I have every confidence that our front 4 (or 5) can stop any running team assuming that they are in the correct defense and alignment. But as you know, I don’t have much faith in Saleh. We’ll see about Kocurek. But who will be calling the defenses and alignments: Kocurek or Saleh?

      1. Point taken, Cubus but they’ve got Smith, Mayo and the rookie Greenlaw. Lee has shown his competence as well.

        I imagine that avenue of approach would be contingent on where McKinnon/Alexander are in their rehab, and just how confident the staff feels they can emerge from the first 5 or 6 games with a winning record using the players mentioned….

        1. “Point taken, Cubus but they’ve got Smith, Mayo and the rookie Greenlaw. Lee has shown his competence as well.”
          Not one of those guys are even average nfl starters. They are competent in terms of the rest of the world but not for NFL linebackers.

          1. With five 1st round picks in front of them, that’s all they have to be until the upgraded reinforcements arrive….

            1. We run a 5-3 now?
              Now our linebackers are good enough as long as they are not complete trash?

              I’m not trying to be negative nancy here, I just don’t buy the “we have a great team talk” until I actually see some of them produce on the field. Just naming new players and believing they are upgrades doesn’t make it true. Malcolm Smith wasn’t an upgrade 3 years ago and he’s not today. Mayo has not even reached 70 tackles in his career and he’s been in the league for 4 years… I’m not asking for much, just for players that I couldn’t describe’s play without thinking toilets and sewers.

              1. “I’m not asking for much, just for players that I couldn’t describe’s play without thinking toilets and sewers”
                Hahaha fair enough Shoup!

                Malcolm Smith hasn’t had a decent game since winning the Super Bowl MVP. Mayo has never had a decent game. Greenlaw will shock the world if he’s decent, even if he “models his game after Patrick Willis” (cool, so did I. Problem is I was still sh!t”)
                Lee is actually decent though. By no means a game changer, but he gets his job done, and was actually better than Foster last season.
                Point is Kwon better be healthy, but I’d rather have him on the PUP if he’s not ready to go.
                The talent on the d line will help everyone, but it isn’t a solution. We really need to hope Moore can be a stud a free safety, because Ward won’t make game 5.

        1. Oregon has that sky has already fallen over the past 4-5 seasons. When has it risen? Best case scenario the players are awesome for the 49ers. You’ve got to admit there’s a lot that has to go perfect for this team to rise. I hope it goes right.

        2. No, Mayo may be the answer. If he can play at a high level, they can afford to wait on Kwon. Lee may also be a good replacement.
          Greenlaw may be a high character guy, but I think he needs seasoning.

  6. It’s all about the jump the O-Line takes from 2018 to 2019 in Shanny’s offense.

    The Niner’s certainly have the weapons in Goodwin, Mathews, Deebo, Petit, hurd , James, Bourne , Kittle and Tevin Coleman.

    Now they just need to keep JG upright for a season.

  7. Personally, I don’t think that we can really count on any of Grant’s four key players until we play the first two preseason games and see which players suit up and actually play.
    At best 2 of the 4 maybe ready by the first regular season game and hopefully the other 2 will be able to complete by midseason.
    Jimmy and Alexander possibly by the first game, so I guess we will have to wait for Brand’s preseason reports to see how this season plays out.

  8. Wide Receiver Jalen Hurd is wildcard of 49ers’ 2019 draft class:

    Although he recently measured in at 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, Hurd played at a heavier weight as a running back in Tennessee, which was evident in his powerful running style. Hurd also displayed a surprising level of short-area quickness for a bigger runner. Although he lacked breakaway speed, his combination of power and elusiveness helped him rack up over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns during in his second college season.

    The fact that Hurd was able to tally 1,155 total yards and seven touchdowns, with the majority of his production coming through the air, was an impressive feat for a first-year wide receiver.

    But even if he begins the 2019 season as a primary slot receiver, the six-foot-five wideout coming over the middle on third down will be a lot for a nickel corner or undersized safety to handle.

    Shanahan’s playbook like the blaze out and pivot route against college defenders, he has much to learn before becoming a top-end NFL wideout. Luckily, he a pair of former professional wide receiver in Wes Welker and Miles Austin to learn from. Hurd also has Shanahan, who turned Marquise Goodwin from a two-route receiver to a legitimate No. 1 receiving threat in a matter of months.

    1. TomD…I get this feeling that we’re gonna’ need a program to know who the ’53 is going to be….

    2. I’m excited for Hurd too. His skill set could be huge for this offense
      I think he’s a strong candidate to start the season on the PUP though.
      Hope not, but it’s starting to feel that way.

  9. I think the running game Offensive line and defensive line is the difference between this being a borderline playoff team and a 5 win team.

    They need to run the ball early and often and rush the passer aat all costs in order to win some sqeakers.

  10. JG is a no brainer. Every team in the NFL will have their starting qb at the top of this list. So let’s talk about the other players that need to stay healthy and produce. 1–although it would be nice to see McKinnon in this offense, there is enough depth at RB to where the other backs and wide outs would make his lose bearable with no overall lose of production. I would replace him on the list with Kittle. With Kittle on the field, there will b greater opportunities for the other skill positions. 2–Alexander is in the same boat as McKinnon. It would b better with him there, but with Smith, Lee, and Greenlaw we would b fine. In his place I would put Dee Ford. Our new and improved pass rush starts and ends with Ford. 3-i agree with Verrett. A young, true shutdown corner will go a long way on this (or any) defense. 4–the other player I would pick instead of JG is the C Richburg. Last year he was hurt and we had no one to replace him. With no significant upgrades to the interior OL, he has to have a healthy, good year.
    So my four are, qb being a given, are

    1. I agree with Kittle and Ford as important, with Verrett as a complete wild card, but I’d move Richburg up to the tippy tops. We need him to play as advertised consistently, and through 16 games. No one of note comes to mind behind him….

  11. Finally real fan who actually pays attention. I’ve never seen a team with so many injury prone players. Can’t count on any of them to stay healthy. Could be a very long season

  12. Being a New Englander,I hated to see Jimmy G go but I think he and Kittle will provide a 1-2 punch for San Fran….Providing he has offensive line to back him up..No injuries to Jimmy

    1. They do not need to give up a body part. They just need to get over their anger at some one protesting silently and peacefully against injustices.
      Those teams who have drek QBs should give up their prejudices, but they would rather lose without Kaep, than win with him. Thankfully, the Niners have JG, so they do not have a drek QB. JG is a leader, and is accurate, so the only question mark is his health.
      Maybe Vrabel will give up his brain, since it sounds like he is not using it.
      A blood sacrifice sounds macho, but how will it help him win?

  13. I just want the 49ers to all play with with their full potential & either make a deep playoff run or win a super bowl

      1. I’ve been one of the Defenders Of The Faith too, but I’d like to see it bear some fruit this year.

  14. Players I am most concerned about other than the most obvious.

    Sherman & Verrett – This was the worst secondary in the NFL by almost every metric last season, and they are banking on these two returning to form in order to improve it.

    Bosa – While Ford is the main Pass Rusher, Bosa is the one that should give their defense the most flexibility.

    Richburg – The interior of the oline is not good, however, if Richburg can be who the niners thought they were getting he can make both guards look better… and help Jimmy not face so much pressure straight up the gut.

    1. 100% on all of these.
      Maybe none more than Bosa. Not just in terms of productivity, but also for the optics of the Niners missing on another high draft pick.

      1. “Not just in terms of productivity, but also for the optics of the Niners missing on another high draft pick.”

        Don’t say it, lest it come true :D
        In all seriousness… I liked him more than the other available prospect, but he isn’t a sure thing IMO, and that is very real, very frightening possibility.

        1. I really do think he’ll be a beast.
          He’s a carbon copy of his brother, and Joey tilts the field.
          As long as they’re cautious with his recovery, he’ll ball out.

  15. I Think Jimmy G elevates us if healthy…
    But seeing what Mullens did last year….im not sovsure id panic this year if *Jimmy is out again…(knock on wood…i hope not)..

    Mckinnon…the same….
    We have so much depth at rb…
    Wouldnt panic either..

    The offense will flourish…

    Now…The defense is dependent on the pressure upfront…

    So …i think our 4 key players are on defense
    Bosa,Ford…Buckner ….need to be healthy
    And Sherman….

    We couldn’t close games last year and in 2017….so a great pass rush and pressure .will help us do that more effectively…

  16. I’d have to add Robbie Gould. The guy didn’t miss last season and I’m guessing a lot of 2019-20 49er games could come down to FG’s…

    Same with their new Punter, Wishnowsky. SF has to turn over the field and force opponents to have to sustain long drives.

    1. I agree.

      Grant’s been asked on a few occasions to dig a little deeper into the placekicker matter–is the current kicker on the roster (Jonathan Brown) good enough to take up the slack? As far as I can tell, Grant hasn’t responded.

  17. Questions answered –

    1. JG : Let’s see what he looks like in August. It is important that he gets reps with new teammates Coleman, Hurd and Deebo it is not worth risking a setback. I agree that he took some unnecessary hits last year but we also had some issues with the interior O-line in the early goings. Also he did not tear his ACL getting sacked in the pocket (Brady). He tore it while scrambling for a first down versus KC and was in the process of leading a Niner comeback.

    Kwon: There hasn’t been much news. He tore is ACL in November so it is conceivable that he starts the season on PUP as some of the other astute contributors have pointed out above.

    Verrett: I like him. He has had a series of freak injuries but I have a feeling he will bounce back. He posted a video last month and he was working out hard and appeared to have good mobility.

    McKinnon : I dont like him. If it were not for his bloated salary, I would hope he did not make the team. We would be fine with TColeman, Breida, Mostert. In fact, Grant wrote a column last year which detailed Breida’s superiority to Mckinnon in every measurable way. Breida>>> Mckinnon at a fraction of the cost.

  18. I have not given up on McKinnon. I just think he may take longer to fully heal.
    I want McKinnon to play, because he is a former QB and can present the halfback option plays that Coleman and Breida may not be able to do, since they were never QBs. He may give KS’s offense another weapon, which will stress the defenses.
    Verrett may be best, if they put him on the PUP list, with mid season designation to return. Then they will allow his Achilles to heal more, and he will not have to endure a full season. The Niners would get him in time for the stretch run, so he may help them win games when they count the most. Richard Sherman came back from his Achilles, but he was not at 100%. Still, they insisted he was fine all season, but recently, RS stated that he is finally running without pain, and feels fully healed.

  19. If Kwon dose not start day one somebody needs to get fired you don’t pay that guy that kind of money to put him on a pup list , especially when there were other free agents that could start immediately

    1. Nobodies getting fired if Alexander can’t go or has a setback. One LB isn’t going to make or break our season. We have adequate depth at the position….

  20. I don’t know why Verrett is in this list. Actually, I do. It’s because it flows better if all 4 super key players are injury question marks. But to say Verrett is more important than Buckner is laughable Grant. Just genuinely hilarious.

  21. OT, but just want to give kudos to the Giants. They are 8-2 their last 10 games, and it looks like their bats are coming alive.
    They are only 6 games under .500, so they are doing better than expected. They will not catch the Dodgers, because the Dodgers are winning 2 out of 3 games, but the Giants are trending upward. Many teams are hovering around .500, so a wild card berth is not out of the realm of possibilities.
    One thing they should absolutely not do, is trade with the Dodgers. Farhan will be considered a traitor, helping his former team, if he makes a trade with the Dodgers, and hands them a World Series. Farhan does deserve credit, for finding bats, but he would be giving up if he traded MadBum away.
    I like their pitching, and if they continue hitting, they may make some noise for Bochy.

  22. Bumgardner is the only viable trade value we have this season. He’s had a couple of good outings of late, but it helps that our bats have come alive to provide run support.

    I hate the idea of trading Bum because he has meant so much to our baseball team, but if Farhan doesn’t listen to offers from other teams he would not be doing his due diligence.

    I love that the Giants are having a little upsurge but they are not built for sustainable success in the immediate future. Keeping MadBum is (imo) tantamount to wasting his talent – which would be better served for a team that has post season aspirations.

    Sports teams replenish their rosters anywhere between 8-10 years. Unfortunately, some of our favorite players move on to make room for other players.

    1. AES, you may be right.
      However, there is still half the season to go, and if the Giants bats wake up, they are not out of the wild card race.
      Yes, Farhan needs to do his due diligence, but he also has a responsibility to put out a competitive team on the field.
      If they trade Madbum away, it will be like they are giving up. I do not think they want to do that to Bochy. It sure would be nice to see him go out on a high note. Also, keeping Madbum is not wasting his talents to the Giants, he will be helping them win.

      1. “Also, keeping Madbum is not wasting his talents to the Giants, he will be helping them win.”

        You make a good point Seb. But we just don’t know what we are going to get with Bumgardner these days. Is he the pitcher of the past few weeks or the pitcher that looked average early in the season?

        I say trading him while the iron is hot gives us the best opportunity to garner some young talent vs losing trade value if Bum reverts back to his early season pitching.

        Now, if the bats continue to stay hot, your scenario will be nice for the team, fans and especially Bochy.

        1. Wow, the Giants swept the Rockies. blasted them in the first game, then won on a pitcher’s duel in the second game. They are only 4 games under .500, so a wild card is very possible, especially if they continue to be hot.
          Mad Bum is needed for this stretch run. If they were 16 games under .500, I could see your point, but I am hoping the Giants will be making some noise for Bochy.

          1. Seb,
            The way the team has been playing lately, I’m starting to lean with your scenario.
            Go Giants!

              1. I will give Farhan kudos for trying hard to improve the team, finding diamonds in the rough, and succeeding.
                If he can improve the team enough to get into the playoffs, and do it without trading away MadBum, I will give him a ton of credit.
                They are 2.5 games out of the playoffs.

  23. Finally reached a long term deal with Gould.
    No details yet.
    Better keep them kicks good RG.

    1. Details are in.

      , he’s landed a two-year, $10.5 million deal that is fully guaranteed, with an option of becoming a four-year, $19 million deal ($15 milllion guaranteed), ESPN first reported

  24. At least they have a field goal kicker for when these four players go down…LOL…..Gould will prob be the leading scorer…Robbie is a bonafide red zone threat LOL….lets just hope they don’t trade Mullins…JimmyG won’t play all 16 games me thinks….hard to believe this team is banking on injured players so much…didn’t Baalke do the same crap? yikes….

  25. Personally, while it will be great getting Jimmy back, Mullens can play, and win.

    I don’t think any of the offensive players are the key 4, other than linemen. The scheme seems to work no matter who’s catching or running, as it’s about creating openings and space. We have some unproven / adequate talent that has done well, leading me to believe stars aren’t the big issue. Remember just a few months ago it was Celek time, then it wasn’t. Then we found a new star, Kittle.

    Defense seems the key to this team getting over 500.

    If the rush is substantial enough, those close games turn into wins.

  26. Talk is cheap. Actions prove the talk. Win and go to the NFC championship, and I’ll say you’re elite, even if you lose. If you don’t make it there, you’re just a run-up and not elite.

    That said, you cite NO SOURCES; thus, it’s just akin to gossip, Grant, unless you provide sources. Not sure if you went to J-school (you definitely should have), but a basic tenet of journalism (including sports journalism — I wrote about sports from my high school and college newspapers to newspapers I managed) is using sources.

    If you went to J-school, you should know, and do, that. You should practice the art of journalism, guided by the 5 W’s & H.

    For instance, you say: “They believe ….” WHO is they? Why don’t you tell us? You mean everyone on the 49er coaching staff believes what you say? I find that difficult to believe. That’s why you should cite sources. Until you do, you’re a gossip-monger.

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