Skip to main content

State of the 2021 San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl or bust in Kyle Shanahan's fifth season

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the 49ers organization, Faithful fans around the world and those who hope I'm picking San Francisco to win just three games this season:

Last year is behind us. There is no use looking back at what happened in the past, but instead, just looking toward the future. The proud 49ers franchise is once again loaded with one of the most complete rosters in the NFL and should be regarded as one of the front-runners to reach the Super Bowl.

How the 49ers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Starting the season 4-3 despite a number of injuries. The 49ers were beset by numerous ailments early on, but back-to-back wins over the hated Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots moved San Francisco to 4-3. This was the last time the 49ers were above .500 for the rest of the season.
  • Knocking off the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 to keep the Birds out of the playoffs. As a Bears fan, I sort of appreciated that. And for you Niners fans, it's always fun to keep a divisional rival out of the playoffs. Also, I started Jeff Wilson, who rushed for 183 yards and caught a TD in that game, in my fantasy championship. Unfortunately, I was going against Alvin Kamara, who scored six -- SIX! -- touchdowns one day prior. Yes, I lost.

The lows:

  • Pretty much the entire season. Nick Bosa tore his ACL in Week 2 against the Jets. After that, nearly every prominent 49ers player was injured at one time or another. I would list them all here. But it seems excessively cruel. Let's just say it was a bad season. It's almost a miracle the 49ers won six games.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Kyle Shanahan. I think most people would agree that Shanahan is one of the bright young minds in the NFL today, but it's weird to think about how his career record is just 29-35. In four seasons as coach of the 49ers, he's produced just one winning campaign: in 2019, when San Francisco went 13-3 and hit the Super Bowl. To me, it's kind of like looking at Cody Rhodes in AEW. He might not have the best win-loss record in the company, but there is no doubt he is among the very best at his craft. And maybe that analogy was just for George Kittle and me, but you can't tell me that Shanahan isn't an offensive savant.

All that being said, this feels like a pretty big year for Shanahan. I mean, he's not in danger of losing his job. And injuries really derailed the team last season. But at some point, you have to start consistently putting victories up on the board. And I feel like he can do that; he just needs to show us. His biggest test this coming season will be navigating the quarterback situation. Speaking of which …

Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo. You know, the Rams and 49ers weren't exactly thrilled with their quarterbacks last season. Two guys who recently took them to Super Bowls. The Rams addressed their displeasure more directly, shipping Jared Goff to Detroit in a trade for Matthew Stafford. The 49ers are not quite there yet, apparently willing to keep Jimmy G around after spending the No. 3 overall pick on Trey Lance. I'm not sure if it's fair or not. I'd say Jimmy G was much more present in his Super Bowl appearance. I mean, if the vaunted 49ers defense had been able to hold on to a lead, then we'd be talking about Super Bowl champ Jimmy Garoppolo. And Lance probably isn't even on the roster. But, you know, Garoppolo also missed Emmanuel Sanders late in the fourth quarter, which could've made the defensive collapse moot.

If we look at this statistically, the 49ers are 22-8 in games with Garoppolo as the starter -- that's the fourth-highest winning percentage among active quarterbacks since 2017 with at least 10 starts, per NFL Research. San Francisco's 7-27 without him in that same span. Jimmy G also ranks top five in passing yards per attempt (8.3) and completion percentage (67.5) among all quarterbacks with at least 25 starts since 2017.

The biggest rub on the 29-year-old signal-caller is that he's been injured. Missed 10 games last year and 13 in 2018. And we've seen Nick Mullens (16 starts), C.J. Beathard (12) and Brian Hoyer (six) forced into action. Garoppolo has proven he's a winner. He needs to prove he can stay on the field. Because the last time he started all 16, the team went to the Super Bowl. And then there is Lance, whom we'll get to shortly.

Projected 2021 MVP: Nick Bosa, defensive end. Bosa showed up for 49ers workouts earlier this spring, but he couldn't do much because he was still rehabbing. Bosa was amazing during his rookie season, with 16 tackles for loss, nine sacks and 25 quarterback pressures. A true game-changer right off the bat, he played a crucial role in San Francisco's Super Bowl run. Now, the 49ers still did alright defensively last year without Bosa. This isn't a one-man defense. Not even close. But he was the guy who took the defense from good to very good. Like, going to Disneyland is good. Having a fast pass to jump the lines is even better. The 49ers had just 126 quarterback pressures in 2020 -- the fourth-fewest in the league -- and allowed a league-worst 3.3 seconds time to hurry (per Next Gen Stats). Bosa's return to action will turn those lackluster figures around real quick.

2021 breakout star: Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver. The Arizona State product was one of my favorite receivers coming out of the draft last year and he didn't disappoint. Aiyuk led the team in targets (96), receptions (60), receiving yards (748) and receiving touchdowns (five). He led all rookies in targets per game (8.0) and had the second-highest averages in receptions (5.0) and receiving yards (62.3) per game, behind only Justin Jefferson. Now, some people (i.e. fantasy dorks) are afraid that George Kittle and Deebo Samuel being healthy will cut into the second-year pro's target share. OK, but I believe having Kittle and Samuel on the field will open things up for Aiyuk. He's a dynamic playmaker. If this 49ers offense is cooking and fully healthy, Brandon is going to eat. And then next year, a bunch of you will deny that I said this. And I'll have to take a screen grab and post it on IG. So let's just cut to the chase where you believe what I'm telling you.

New face to know: Alex Mack, center. The 49ers had injuries everywhere, and the offensive line was no exception. The team did lock up Trent Williams on a long-term deal, which was huge. Another move I really liked, though, was bringing in Mack to be the anchor of the offensive line. Mack played under coach Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland and Atlanta, and he'll be a big addition to San Francisco's offensive line. Seriously, this was one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. He's 35 years old, sure, but he had played in 90 consecutive games before missing the last two games of this past season.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Not that Kyle Shanahan is on the hot seat or anything. But this is obviously a crucial campaign for Jimmy Garoppolo, among others. And the 49ers have constructed a really good roster. They are expected to compete. For the Lombardi. So the urgency is high.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 vs. Packers (Sunday night). I feel like every time I put down something with Green Bay, I have to ask myself who is going to be the Packers' starting quarterback. But let's say it's Aaron Rodgers. Remember that the 49ers dismantled the Pack twice in 2019. And I would say one of the key reasons Green Bay earned the No. 1 seed last year was because San Francisco had so many injuries.
  • Week 8 at Bears. Another contest where we can only speculate who the quarterbacks are going to be at this point of the season. Justin Fields and Trey Lance will always be tied together.
  • Week 18 at Rams. The Rams come to Santa Clara in Week 10. To me, these are two of the top three teams in the NFC, along with the world champion Buccaneers. I expect the NFC West race to come down to this final game. No disrespect to the Seahawks or Cardinals, but these are my top two in a brutally tough division.

Will the 49ers be able to …

Leave Trey Lance on the bench? I don't mean this in a negative way at all. Allow me to explain a bit. Lance is definitely an exciting prospect. He had 28 touchdown passes and no interceptions in 2019. NO PICKS!!! His team went 16-0 and won the Division I FCS Championship. Even though he played only one game in 2020, he has a lot of talent. But Lance still lacks experience. And his game is raw in some areas (see: accuracy). Also, as I described earlier, the 49ers have a great record with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. The ideal situation is that Jimmy G starts all 17 (maybe you bench him in Week 18 because you've wrapped up the No. 1 seed) and you cruise to the playoffs. In the meantime, you use this season on the practice field and next offseason to determine if Lance is your guy of the future. Like what the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes. Because what you don't want to do is rush the 21-year-old rookie into action before he's ready. Not that Shanahan can't work his magic. But I think many Lance backers would love to see Jimmy do well while the 49ers win and the rookie marinates.

Survive without defensive coordinator Robert Saleh? Allow me to speak for all of us who root for an NFC squad when I say "GOOD RIDDANCE" to Saleh, who is now the head coach of the New York Jets. Over the past two seasons, only one defense allowed fewer than 300 total yards per game: Saleh's 49ers. Amazingly, the unit allowed fewer than 200 passing yards per game during that span -- 188.6, to be exact. And I know they were playing in a division with Jared Goff, but that's still pretty impressive. The 49ers promoted linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to the position of defensive coordinator. Yes, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year. He joined the team four years ago as a defensive quality control coach. Now he has worked his way up.

The 49ers also lost Kerry Hyder to Seattle. He led the 49ers with 8.5 sacks last season. Richard Sherman is also gone -- well, at least he's still a free agent. That means some other guys are going to need to step up. Dee Ford missed the final 15 games of last season and has missed 20 of 32 possible games with the 49ers. Javon Kinlaw, who faced the unenviable task of replacing DeForest Buckner, posted 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss as a rookie. A whole bunch of defensive players will need to step up and raise their games. Well not you, Fred Warner. You're already great!

Get the most out of George Kittle? Stone Cold Kittle is one of my favorite players in the league. Even though he lives by that Stone Cold mantra of "don't trust anybody" and hits me with the occasional stunner on Twitter. But if you think the 49ers need George this year, give me a HELL YEAH! He had 48 receptions for 634 yards and two touchdowns in eight games last year. That's great production over the course of an entire season for most tight ends, but we're talking about Stone Cold Kittle here. He's averaged 80.6 yards per game since 2018. He had more than 1,000 receiving yards and five touchdowns in both 2018 and '19. Bosa's the defensive MVP, while Kittle plays that role for the offense. And that's the bottom line because, well, everyone agrees on that point.

One storyline …

… people are overlooking: How much George Kittle matters to the running game. I know we are amazed by what Kittle does in the passing game. But he's huge for the running game (and he really does take pride in blocking, which not every pass-catching tight end can say). When Kittle was on the field in 2019, the 49ers faced lighter boxes more often and were a more effective rushing team. The Niners averaged 5.0 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns when George was on the field. They averaged 3.5 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns without him. Those figures come courtesy of Next Gen Stats.

… people are overthinking: Who the RB1 is. The 49ers went from the second-best rushing team in 2019 to 15th last year, dropping from just over 144 rushing yards per game down to 118.1. I mean, they are still going to focus on the run this year. And I'll grant you that the people concerned about who'll be the leading rusher are mostly fantasy dorks. Like me. But last year, Raheem Mostert missed eight games. Jeff Wilson led the team in carries (126), rush yards (600) and rushing touchdowns (seven). But the wild card might be third-round pick Trey Sermon, who was a monster for Ohio State down the stretch last season. And that might make you think of Carlos Hyde, who led the 49ers with 938 rushing yards in Shanahan's first year as head coach.

For 2021 to be a success, the 49ers MUST:

  • Get to the Super Bowl. A year ago, I talked about the 49ers heading into the season with title aspirations. The biggest thing that hurt them was, well, the injuries. I know it's tough to say that a 6-10 team should have the Super Bowl in its sights, but that's how good this roster is. The 49ers need to at least get back to Super Bowl Sunday or this season will seem like a waste.

In closing

This is a very good 49ers team. One that should once again be considered among the top NFC contenders. But again, I put this down last year. The 49ers had a great run under Jim Harbaugh last decade, but never could cash in on their Super Bowl window. Gotta finish the job. And this looks like a special group. Even with a quarterback of the future waiting in the wings, San Francisco needs to take advantage of the present.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

Related Content