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The San Francisco 49ers’ 2018 campaign likely ended the day quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in his left knee, but there were other roster holes that ultimately sunk the ship.
There was little-to-no pass rush presence on the edge. The offense lacked proven playmakers outside of breakout star tight end George Kittle. The secondary was leaky and oft-injured.
The 49ers spent the 2019 offseason plugging many of these holes with big-name contributors: The pass rush was bolstered with the acquisition of Pro Bowl edge rusher Dee Ford and second-overall draft pick Nick Bosa, a banged-up backfield was supplemented with former Atlanta Falcons standout Tevin Coleman, and the linebacker corps was given a new starter in former Pro Bowler Kwon Alexander.
However, the wide receiver and defensive back positions were not overhauled in the manner many 49ers fans clamored for after the 2018 season. That isn’t to say the 49ers did nothing — they used their second- and third-round draft picks on receivers – but the team clearly appears to be banking on internal improvement from several young players at these positions.
Assuming Garoppolo is able to return to form, the other acquisitions can at least partially meet expectations and there are no other crazy surprises elsewhere on the roster, these four young 49ers players — two receivers and two defensive backs — could find themselves in a position to make or break the team’s 2019 season.
1. Dante Pettis, wide receiver
Superstar receivers Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. were both available on the trade market this offseason, but the 49ers opted not to make a move for either. General manager John Lynch said that while the team had discussions with the New York Giants about Beckham, they had faith in their current receivers.
“I think we feel pretty good about our receiving corps,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t share our sentiment. That’s not to say we’re done there. We still have a lot of this offseason left, we have a draft left, but we feel good about that and we want to continue to improve it.”
Pettis was the team’s second-round pick in 2018, and had an up-and-down season in which he caught 27 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. He’s currently penciled in as the team’s top wideout, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has made it clear that the team has high expectations for the second-year pro.
“Our young guys, we’ve got a lot of pressure on those guys,” Shanahan said during training camp last week. “We brought in Dante last year, who stepped it up toward the end of the year and helped us. But I keep telling him we have high expectations for him. He needs to get better. He started off a little bit slow in camp, but he’s turned it on here these last couple of days.”
The University of Washington product’s wiry frame did him no favors in 2018, and his route-running was also something 49ers coaches wanted to see refined. Pettis has come back bigger, but the jury is still out on whether his knowledge of Shanahan’s playbook and the intricacies of being an NFL wide receiver have improved.
2. Adrian Colbert, safety
As Jimmie Ward continues to work his way back from a broken collarbone, Colbert and second-year pro Tarvarius Moore have been taking first-team reps at free safety in training camp. If Ward gets injured again (he’s finished four of his five NFL seasons on injured reserve), Colbert will likely be the one to step in, since defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has stated that Moore, who played cornerback last year but safety in college, is “by no means even close to being an NFL-ready safety by Week 1.”
Third-year pro and former seventh-round pick Colbert has yet to intercept a pass in the NFL, although he has only 12 starts spread across his two professional seasons. The former seventh-round pick did not become a starter until near the end of his rookie season, and saw his sophomore season cut short after suffering a high ankle sprain in October 2018.
Colbert is the all-important last-line-of-defense in the 49ers’ Seattle-style defensive scheme (think Earl Thomas), and showed flashes of being a sideline-to-sideline playmaker during his rookie season in 2017. However, his subpar route recognition was on full display in 2018, as he was responsible for far too many big plays (a particularly bad coverage error in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals comes to mind) for the team to feel certain he’s the long-term answer at free safety.
The 49ers have had a revolving door at safety for quite some time now, and it’s likely Colbert sees the field again in 2019. When he does, how he performs will be critical to the success of the 49ers’ defense.
3. Deebo Samuel, wide receiver
The 49ers used their second-round pick on the South Carolina product, who is projected to be one of the team’s top wideouts along with Dante Pettis. Samuel impressed the 49ers at the Senior Bowl, and said he expected the 49ers to take him if he was available in the second round.
“Me and Coach Shanahan and John Lynch connected well there,” he said. “I kind of knew that if I was there around this time that they’d probably be calling my phone. It’s just kind of a feeling that I had.”
Samuel, who is 5-foot-11 and weighs 214 pounds, is a physical receiver who does his best work after the catch. In his senior season at South Carolina, he caught 62 passes for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns, but missed most of his junior season after suffering a broken fibula in September 2017.
Shanahan appreciates Samuel’s physicality, and plans to play him at the “X” receiver position, which is where Pettis played last year.
“Not only can he run but he’s a very physical player,” Shanahan said last week. “He’s got some size to him. He’s not the tallest guy in the world, I think he’s six-foot, but he plays big. He’s built big. He’s a lot thicker than our other guys. He plays physical. He’s got a mentality where you throw him a screen, and he can make you miss, but he also wants to run you over, too.”
Samuel said he models his game after notable yard-after-catch specialists Anquan Boldin and Golden Tate, and the 49ers can only hope he turns into that kind of a reliable, safety-valve target for Garoppolo.
4. Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback
The third-year cornerback is currently battling with free agent acquisition Jason Verrett for the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman. Verrett was a Pro Bowler in 2015, but has played in just five games over the past three seasons after ACL and Achilles tendon injuries.
Even if Verrett beats out Witherspoon for the starting spot, his slight 5-foot-10, 188-pound frame and lengthy injury history makes it more than possible Witherspoon will be starting once again for the 49ers.
Like Adrian Colbert, Witherspoon showed flashes of promise in his 2017 rookie season, but regressed sharply in 2018. Unlike Colbert, Witherspoon had to be benched midway through the season due to his poor play on the outside.
However, cornerback is an NFL position where it’s far from uncommon for players to struggle with consistency before finding their footing as late as year three or beyond (Pro Bowlers Kyle Fuller and Stephon Gilmore are good examples), and Witherspoon said he’s committed to improving his technique in 2019.
“When you have the skill that I do, the ability that I do, you tend to get away from technique just because you’re physically gifted,” Witherspoon, who stands at an imposing 6 feet 3 inches, said of his technique. “And this league demands that you’re technical at all times, or else you will be exposed. That’s probably the biggest focus just giving myself the best opportunity to be successful.”
Witherspoon, Colbert, Samuel and Pettis are all young players the 49ers clearly have faith in, and their respective developments could determine just how far the team goes in 2019.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/49ers/article/Dante-Pettis-Deebo-Samuel-2019-season-prediction-14282776.php.