The San Francisco 49ers lost by three points in the NFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and will be looking to improve on that in 2022. The 49ers are dealing with an unsettled quarterback position, trade rumors swirling around their best offensive weapon from last season, and a secondary with significant question marks. Below, we assess each position group on the San Francisco roster heading into 2022.
QB: Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nate Sudfeld, Brock Purdy
The unremarkable grade at this position is less about the ceiling or even the floor of this position group – both exist in theory – but more of an indictment as to the uncertainty that abounds. It is well-documented that the 49ers traded multiple first-round picks for the right to draft Lance third overall in 2021, then had him sit behind Garoppolo for all but two games due to injury. The rumor mill has long counted Garoppolo’s exodus from the Bay Area a done deal, but an offseason shoulder surgery has complicated his trade market.
All signs towards Lance being the Week 1 starter, a decision full of tantalizing upside, and a Tower of Terror-esque floor for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The hope is that a full offseason of first-team repetitions prepares Lance for a full-time role in 2022 and that his mobility gives defenses nightmares. Until it actually happens, though, a C+ is the most realistic grade.
RB: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., Trey Sermon, Tyrion Davis-Price, JaMycal Hasty, Jordan Mason, Kyle Juszczyk (FB), Josh Hokit (FB)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s backfield has always been his calling card, as he’s been known to ride the hot hand in a system that can turn any running back into a serviceable starter at a minimum – the 49ers have had eight different leading rushers for a game in just the past two seasons. 6th-round pick Mitchell took over the backfield down the stretch in 2021, recording at least 21 carries in each of his last five games of the season. Behind him, Wilson and Sermon proved to be serviceable at times, though none of this trio is a particularly noteworthy pass-catcher.
Third-rounder Davis-Price will get his opportunities as the team continues to employ a committee approach. Juszczyk remains a pivotal part of this backfield, playing over 55% of offensive snaps in 2021. Deebo Samuel did have seven rushing touchdowns in his last eight regular-season games, but reports have stated that he doesn’t want to play his hybrid “wide back” position as much moving forward.
WR: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Danny Gray, KeeSean Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, Austin Mack, Malik Turner, Marcus Johnson, Taysir Mack, Tay Martin
Samuel was one of the biggest stories of 2021, notching a first-team All-Pro selection as he recorded 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns. Trade rumors have swirled about the 2019 second-round pick, who is set to play on an expiring deal. Behind him, Aiyuk found himself in Shanahan’s backfield to begin the year but ended the season by stringing together multiple productive performances. The depth behind these two is severely lacking, though the deployment of Juszczyk does mitigate the importance of a third wide receiver in this offense.
Jennings and Sherfield played the most snaps out of the other wideouts last season but had less than 400 yards between them. Third-round pick Gray out of SMU has a learning curve ahead of him but has the physical tools to make an impact as early as the second half of 2022.
TE: George Kittle, Tyler Kroft, Charlie Woerner, Ross Dwelley, Troy Fumagalli, Tanner Hudson, Jordan Matthews
At a position where much of the league is devoid of a difference-maker, it helps to have an elite talent – and few tight ends in recent years have the ability to change the game as George Kittle does. An elite receiver and a marvelous blocker, the only thing that can keep Kittle down is injuries. He hobbled his way through 14 games last season and played in just eight regular-season games in 2020. Behind him, the 49ers signed Kroft (who has topped 16 catches just once in seven seasons) and have Woerner and Dwelley who have just five combined starts in their career.
OL: Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey, Colton McKivitz, Daniel Brunskill, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford, Justin Skule, Aaron Banks, Nick Zakelj, Jaylon Moore, Dohnovan West, Keaton Sutherland, Alfredo Gutierrez, Sam Schlueter, Jason Poe
San Francisco has one of the best tackle duos and arguably the best left tackle in the game which means that a B grade is clearly indicative of concerns on the interior offensive line. Williams will be 34 before the 2022 season but showed no signs of slowing down, surrendering just one sack and responsible for just seven penalties in 936 snaps. McGlinchey played in just eight games due to injury but was his usual dependable self.
The retirement of starting center Alex Mack this past week leaves a hole in the middle of the 49ers’ offensive line as he played all but six offensive snaps in 2021. Brendel and West project to compete for the starting center job; West was signed as a UDFA but ranked as The 33rd Team’s fourth-ranked center and 123rd overall player prior to the draft. He is not a special talent by any means but projects to develop into a dependable fulcrum on the offensive line. Inside, the departure of Laken Tomlinson in free agency leaves McKivitz and Skule in an uninspiring competition. Brunskill is set to reprise his right guard spot after a lackluster 2021 though it remains to be seen if 2021 second-round pick Banks can push him for playing time.
DL: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Dee Ford, Kerry Hyder Jr., Drake Jackson, Hassan Ridgeway, Kevin Givens, Samson Ebukam, Maurice Hurst, Charles Omenihu, Kalia Davis, Jordan Willis, Kemoko Turay, Kevin Atkins, Alex Barrett
An intimidating defense is led up front by Bosa, who is one of the few true game-wrecking defensive ends in the league. After a torn ACL in 2020, he recorded 15.5 sacks last season and added four forced fumbles for good measure. He is a nightmare for offensive lines everywhere and one of the best defenders in the league. Armstead began last year as the defensive end across from Bosa but kicked inside to defensive tackle in Week 7, which helped spearhead a defensive turnaround for San Francisco.
Kinlaw projects to start next to him on the interior and will look to turn around what has so far been a disappointing career for the 14th overall pick in 2020. Ford, Ebukam, and second-round pick Jackson will compete for playing time at the other defensive end spot to complement Bosa. The 49ers have impressive depth despite losing multiple defensive linemen in free agency; Turay, Givens, and Willis all figure to be part of a lethal pass rush.
LB: Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Oren Burks, Curtis Robinson, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Segun Olubi, Jeremiah Gemmel, Marcelino McCrary-Ball
The 49ers can lay an only mildly contestable claim to the best middle linebacker in the NFL in Warner, who is an absolute stud and missed a game last season for the first time in his four-year career. His ability to diagnose, tackle, cover in space, and durability make him a marvelous complement to a scary defensive line and the linchpin of a front-seven not even Sourdough Sam himself would have the gall to take on. Talented as he may be, one man is no linebacking corps by himself, and San Francisco’s LB corps earns a stellar grade thanks to the presence of Greenlaw and Al-Shaair.
Greenlaw had a slow 2021 as he spent much of the season on IR, but when healthy is a very solid linebacker. Al-Shaair was a full-time starter in 2021 for the first time and stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of over 100 combined tackles, as well as an interception, five pass deflections, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries, and two sacks. Burks and Flannigan-Fowles project as core special teamers – both were tied for the sixth-most special teams tackles in 2021.
CB: Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Deommodore Lenoir, Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Ambry Thomas, Ka’dar Hollman, Dontae Johnson, Samuel Womack, Tariq Castro-Fields, Qwuantrezz Knight,
Cornerback is where the defensive drop-off begins as the 49ers project to begin the season without the two cornerbacks that played the most snaps for them in Josh Norman and K’Waun Williams. Ward was their biggest free agent signing and signed a three-year deal worth up to $42 million. He does have just four interceptions in 56 regular-season games but has shown some upside. However, counting on him as your No. 1 cornerback is not a recipe for success despite the added benefit of playing behind a dominant pass rush.
Moseley had an underrated 2021 and showed flashes in coverage despite his lack of impressive statistics. Thomas is another young player that has flashed but is not reliable yet while Castro-Fields is a sixth-round pick with a good frame and plenty of experience, but his athleticism is a big question mark.
S: Jimmie Ward, George Odum, Tarvarius Moore, Talanoa Hufanga, Leon O’Neal, Tayler Hawkins
The back end of this defense is the weak link on not only this side of the ball but on the entire team. Ward has steadily improved his play over the past few seasons though his ability to produce game-changing plays is lacking – his two interceptions in 2021 were his first since 2017. Jaquiski Tartt was the starting strong safety last season but remains a free agent as Odum projects to slide into his spot. He is a dominant special teams player but has started just 10 games in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and projects to be a significant liability.
Hufanga made one of the biggest plays of last year with his return of a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers but played just 36% of defensive snaps. Moore projects as depth while O’Neal and Hawkins have an uphill battle to make the roster.