San Francisco 49ers 2018 Stats Review:
Pythagorean Wins: 5.6
ATS: 5-11; average line 3.8
Over/Under: 9-7; average total 46.7
Close Games Record: 3-6
Turnover Differential: -1.6
Adjusted Games Lost (injuries): 105.5 (29th)
Offense: 24th in EPA per play (-0.021); 5.87 yards per play
Defense: 26th in EPA per play (+0.084); 5.58 yards per play
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Same Procedure as in 2017
I could easily take my write-up from last year and plug it in. The 49ers were once again the victim of bad injury luck and lousy defense. Sometimes I think John Lynch has no clue how to build that team – a lot of questionable moves, especially signing so many players with injury histories. But never mind. The Niners season was over when Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL, but we still don’t know whether he’s consistently good or not because we don’t have enough data.
Even though it was a bad season, we also got to see the genius of Kyle Shanahan. Quarterback Nick Mullens was an undrafted free agent in 2017 who can’t throw the ball outside the numbers. But he finished the season ranked 21st out of 33 qualifying players in QBR and – I am not kidding – 11th in EPA per drop back among 34 qualifying signal-callers. The gap can be explained, too: QBR includes any rushing/scrambling attempt and tries to separate QB performance from receiver performance, by weighing air yards and yards after the catch. Nick Mullens benefited from a lot of yards after the catch while the Niners also suffered from injuries. Kendrick Bourne had the second-most receptions (42), full back Kyle Jusczyk had the third-most.
The reasons the Niners didn’t win more than four games are as follows: 1) it was still Nick Mullens. 2) They were one of the most injury-plagued teams. 3) Their defense was historically bad at producing turnovers. The Niners defense had six (!) takeaways and two (!) interceptions on the year. I couldn’t find worse numbers in a database going back to 2001. And it wasn’t even close. The second-worst defense since 2001 had eleven turnovers. Without the slightest help from your defense, it’s nearly impossible to win eight games with Nick Mullens and a depleted receiving corps. As a result, San Francisco had a league-worst -1.6 turnover margin. Also, the Niners had terrible luck in close games, going 3-6 in matchups decided by one possession.
Many Unproven Players
The sample size for Jimmy Garoppolo is still too small to draw any real conclusions. Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold have thrown more NFL passes than Jimmy who has only 439 career plays under his belt. Surprisingly, it’s not all that easy to distinguish between Jimmy’s and Nick Mullens’ numbers over the past two years. Garoppolo was slightly better but not by a mile. He has posted a QBR of 62.5 which is better than Mullens’ 54.2, the EPA differential is 0.08. We could argue that Jimmy has been the better signal-caller and the upside is there, but there is a lot of uncertainty involved. Especially coming off an ACL tear with little on-field experience. That’s the biggest reason the Niners have a wide range of outcomes, in my opinion.
Kyle Shanahan will do his best to get his offense prepared to attack opposing defenses, and he is one of the best at his job. My only critics on him are his obsession with a high run rate. I understand that the staple of his offense is to run play-action off particular run looks and use formations in multiple ways. But last season, Kyle Shanahan called the 9th-most runs in the first half, despite the 49ers offense being the 3rd-worst at running before halftime, as measured by EPA per run (non-scrambles). But they ranked 4th in play-action yards per play. The Niners establish the run when they leave the locker room, so I think 120 first-half runs would have been enough, instead of 190. However, his scheme and the way he attacks opposing defenses is unique.
The offensive line is strong at tackle with Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, but weak at the interior. I would pencil that group in as a slightly below-average unit that shouldn’t prevent the Niners from winning a lot of games but doesn’t whip defenses around either. At wide receiver, the Niners are already dealing with an injury to Trent Taylor, Garappolo’s favorite receiver. Rookie Deebo Samuel has a way to go whereas Dante Pettis – who was expected to have a breakout season – hasn’t been having a good camp and didn’t see many first-team snaps in the pre-season.
The Niners have a bunch of promising, but unproven receivers. I didn’t even list Jordan Matthews because I had to cut somewhere. My best-educated guess is that we are going to see three-receiver sets with Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, and rookie Jalen Hurd in week one. Aside from that, tight end George Kittle is a stud, and guys like Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Kyle Jusczyk will somehow contribute in the passing game.
Kyle Shanahan is a proven play-caller; the offensive line is stable enough. Jimmy Garoppolo and the receiving corps are unproven. The latter combination will be responsible for the offensive upside this year.
It Can Only Go Up
The 49ers defense will inevitably contribute more this time. They have an improved pass rush, and simple regression should take care for more turnovers. Nick Bosa is a stud who should turn into one of the premier edge rushers like his brother Joey did. SF acquired Dee Ford via trade – he’s a good pass rusher but lacks run-defending ability, which is one of the reasons the Chiefs got rid of him. On the interior, DeForest Buckner has established himself as one of the best defenders in the NFL, Arik Armstead is good, too. In full strength, this can be a top-five defensive line. But Nick Bosa is most likely going to miss week one, and Dee Ford has been dealing with a knee injury. It might take a couple of weeks until we see that unit in full strength.
Kwon Alexander is a high-priced acquisition who doesn’t fit the eye-test as he leads the league in missed tackles since his draft, despite missing 18 games in four years. He barely excelled in coverage. There’s a chance that second-year linebacker Fred Warner is going to be the better player in 2019.
The best case for the secondary is the following: Jason Verrett plays like his former self before his injuries and locks down opposing wide receiver opposite of Richard Sherman who doesn’t show any age decline. As a whole, this bunch collects several interceptions. The worst case is that Verrett can’t stay healthy or doesn’t reach his former performance level at all. That way, this secondary is still a massive problem for the Niners and will get shredded by pass-first teams who avoid the pass rush. All in all, it can only go up for this defense. The ceiling is the question mark. A below-average defense would probably be enough for a Shanahan offense.
The schedule for the San Francisco 49ers is going to be the 21st-hardest by Pinnacle win totals at .4964. It’s going to be the 10th-hardest in terms of 2018 offensive EPA per play. When you consider that it includes two matchups against the Cardinals who are inevitably going to be more efficient on offense, that’s a concern for their defense. With the AFC North, the NFC South plus Green Bay, they drew a tight schedule. Four road games will be played at 1 PM, and the 49ers are going to travel the 5th-most miles. A lot of those offenses will test Their defense, and Jimmy Garoppolo needs to keep pace. Keep their second road game in a row in week two in mind, teams have a lower win rate than usual in these games.
San Francisco 49ers 2019: Wide Range of Outcomes
The ceiling of the Niners offense with Jimmy Garoppolo will define the wide range of outcomes for the 49ers this year. I can honestly see everything from 6-10 to 11-5 and see them as an 8-8 team. They are set for positive regression in close games and on defense. Their defense expects to grab more interceptions and get more fumble recoveries this year which should help the offense. However, there are some teams on their schedule like the Bucs, Steelers, Rams or Packers – to name a few – that could force this defense into a shootout. Jimmy Garappolo barely played from behind thus far, and it remains to be seen how this offense can deliver in shootouts. The floor should be six wins; the ceiling is a playoff ticket. I think the market has the regular-season win total right at around 8.1.