SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For a team that’s been in the NFL’s final four two of the past three seasons, there’s no need for equivocation when it comes to the goal for the San Francisco 49ers‘ season.
“The only thing that’s really driving me right now is I’m trying to get to the Super Bowl,” defensive end Samson Ebukam said. “I feel like that’s what’s driving everybody as a team. Everybody’s kind of like on edge right now, but in a good way.”
Winning the Super Bowl is every team’s goal, but for the Niners, it’s one that has been tantalizingly close recently. This year’s training camp offered consistent reminders that San Francisco believes it’s ready to get over the hump and avenge heartbreaking losses to the Kansas City Chiefs (Super Bowl LIV to conclude the 2019 season) and Los Angeles Rams (last season’s NFC Championship game).
That edge which Ebukam was referring could be seen in how key players such as linebacker Fred Warner and receiver Brandon Aiyuk openly joked about Warner’s efforts to annoy Aiyuk as a way to help him get better. It’s also why, at the end of some practices, the Niners can be heard breaking down the huddle by yelling “Championship.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Niners are positioned to make another deep run. The roster is loaded with established stars such as Warner, offensive tackle Trent Williams, defensive end Nick Bosa, receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk and backed with a mix of young talent and established veterans. But with preseason and training camp behind them, the 49ers are still facing significant questions, ones that go beyond injuries and quarterback play.
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Speaking of injuries, the Niners made it through the preseason with most of their key players in good shape but lost free safety Jimmie Ward to a hamstring injury that could keep him out at least the first four games, while right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been slowed by a knee issue. Those injuries come at the Niners’ most uncertain position groups.
On the offensive line, the Niners nearly underwent a complete makeover in the offseason. Left guard Laken Tomlinson departed for the New York Jets in free agency and center Alex Mack retired. Daniel Brunskill returned at right guard but spent camp competing for the starting center job before a hamstring injury put him on the sideline, too.
Last season, the Niners’ offensive line was middle of the pack despite Williams’ consistent dominance. The starting five ranked 14th in pass block win rate (61.2%) and 18th in run block win rate (69.9%) while yielding 33 sacks (tied for 11th best in the league).
That performance came with McGlinchey playing just eight games after a torn quadriceps ended his season in early November. If McGlinchey can get — and stay — healthy, the Niners should be better at tackle, but if they must play without him, they’ll likely have to turn to Brunskill or Colton McKivitz to fill in.
The offensive line remains unsettled and the Niners will continue evaluating their options, be it by re-adding Brunskill into the starting lineup, making a move for outside help or a combination of the two.
“We’re not there yet,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think that’s obvious. … But what I’m excited about is all these young guys who are getting these opportunities and playing. They all have the ability to be very good in this league.”
Protection will be of particular importance this year, as quarterback Trey Lance takes over for his first full season as the starter. Lance had an up-and-down preseason and though the Niners believe that their supporting cast (including a proven backup in Jimmy Garoppolo) can help offset any growing pains, Lance’s success is inherently tied to the line’s performance.
“I never picture our quarterback being the exact reason why we’re going to win or lose,” Shanahan said. “If you can stay healthy there and you have the right team and stay healthy at other spots, then I don’t think it does come down to that. If you do struggle in some areas and you get a lot of guys hurt in some areas and you have to put all that pressure on that position, then yeah, it does just like it does with every team. And usually when it comes down to just the quarterback … that’s tough for most teams.”
One other area it could come down to for the 49ers? The secondary. In 2021, they were 26th in the NFL in QBR allowed (51.3), tied for 26th in interceptions (nine) and had the most defensive pass interference penalties in the league (20, six more than the next closest team).
In hopes of solving that issue, the Niners let nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt depart and spent $40.5 million over three years on cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was signed from the Chiefs. They also drafted slot corner Samuel Womack III in the fifth round to replace Williams and plugged second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga into Tartt’s former spot.
Many of San Francisco’s secondary issues last year stemmed from recurring injuries, and though they’re mostly healthy besides Ward, both starting cornerbacks (Ward and Emmanuel Moseley) missed time in camp with their own ailments.
Undoubtedly, more issues will arise as the season goes, but if the Niners can provide affirmative answers above, a return to the Super Bowl should be in reach.
“When you come that close to actually being in the big dance, it’s hard to take down your expectations for the next year,” Trent Williams said. “Especially when you think the team is just as good, if not better. We’ll see.”