How have the San Francisco 49ers set themselves up for the final eight games of the season? Will there be any lineup changes? Can they continue to lean on Christian McCaffrey as heavily as they have?
Those are some of the questions in this rare Saturday edition of the weekly mailbag. (The author was walloped by a nasty November bug, which disrupted his week. He’ll spare you the details.)
Thanks for all the great questions, which as always have been lightly edited for clarity and content.
Did Ambry Thomas solidify himself as a starter for the rest of the season? – Bill H.
It’s clear the 49ers are nervous about their depth at outside cornerback. They brought in Anthony Brown early on with the hope that he could regain the form he had when he was the Dallas Cowboys starter. He didn’t and was released. There were all sorts of reports that the 49ers were interested in trading for a cornerback, including the Chicago Bears’ Jaylon Johnson, who ultimately stayed put. The team also worked out former 49ers cornerback Jason Verrett this week with Kyle Shanahan saying Friday that he hopes Verrett is added to the practice squad next week.
The 31-year-old cornerback is a little more than a year removed from the Achilles tear he suffered during practice that ended his 2022 season.
“JV has been one of the most respected guys in our building — just the way he carries himself, how talented he is,” Shanahan said. “Guys always looked up to him in that way. I think he was a mentor to a lot of guys.”
Which is to say that, yes, Thomas had a good game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that likely gives the 49ers more confidence that they can use Deommodore Lenoir at nickel cornerback when the matchup calls for him there. But I don’t think Thomas’ performance means he’s a lock to be the No. 3 cornerback for the rest of the season.
If it comes down to it, do the 49ers pay Brandon Aiyuk or Chase Young? — Adam W.
Aiyuk. Have you noticed how long it takes Shanahan to mold a receiver to his liking? Cities are built more quickly. There’s no way he wants to start that process with another youngster. For example, the 49ers went into the season expecting Danny Gray to be Aiyuk’s understudy and there’s a possibility this could turn into a lost season for Gray.
Retaining Young would be great. I know it would make Nick Bosa happy. But my prediction is the team will once again try to find a bookend edge rusher with their top draft pick.
You stated in a recent piece that you consider DE a higher priority than OT for the upcoming draft. Does the play of the offense sans Trent Williams change your opinion? — Mike H.
I don’t think I said it’s a higher priority. I just think it’s the more realistic option — there are likely to be more and better defensive ends at the end of the first round than there are offensive tackles.
Chiefs, 49ers stand as Super Bowl odds co-favorites
What is going on with Danny Gray? Is he becoming the ghost of the SAP Performance Center, or is there any hope we will see him striding down the field in red and gold at some point? — Christoffer A.
Shanahan on Friday said that Gray was fully healthy but that the 49ers don’t have a roster spot for him at the moment. It might take a long-term injury to one of the receivers to get Gray off injured reserve.
I’m hearing a lot about the three losses putting a dent in the hopes of a No. 1 seed. I say, who cares? The 49ers have shown they can go deep into the playoffs regardless of seed. Are we overblowing the whole No. 1 seed thing? — Thiago V.
I don’t know. The 49ers were the No. 1 seed the last time they went to the Super Bowl. And they fell to the No. 1 seed in the NFC Championship Game in January. They’ve also already had fatigue issues this season. Getting that first-round bye and making a team — I think we all know it’s going to be the Philadelphia Eagles — fly to the Bay Area would be tremendous advantages.
Hey Matt, what’s the main drawback with the five defensive linemen look that teams have been incorporating more? Seemed like the Niners had a lot of success with it against Jacksonville, so wondering if there is a reason they haven’t used it more this season? — Dean R.
I asked The Athletic’s X’s and O’s guru, Ted Nguyen, to watch the 49ers-Jaguars game, particularly the handful of plays on which the 49ers used five defensive linemen. Ted notes that it’s a good alignment against the run, which is why the 49ers have used it on early downs.
The disadvantages? Because there are only two linebackers on the field, the 49ers would be more vulnerable on the second level if a running back broke through the defensive line.
The same holds true if it’s a pass play: There’s one less second-level defender in coverage. And even if the defense drops someone into coverage, it would be dropping a defensive end, which isn’t ideal. Ted said the defense also won’t ever get a free rusher with a five-man front — the offensive line knows exactly where everyone is coming from.
‘Back to being us’: 49ers rediscovered complementary formula against Jaguars
Why haven’t Ji’Ayir Brown or Jalen Graham seen playing time? — Kurt N.
Short answer: Because they’re rookies and the 49ers, never eager to give rookies playing time, are especially stingy this year because of their veteran-laden roster.
Long answer: Brown is the fourth safety behind Tashaun Gipson Sr., Talanoa Hufanga and George Odum, and because Gipson and Hufanga have been healthy thus far even Odum has rarely gotten on the field on defense (37 snaps).
Graham, meanwhile, picked up the defense quickly in the offseason and seemed more ready to play defensively than fellow draft pick Dee Winters. But Winters is faster, which makes him more valuable on special teams. Which is why he’s been active on game days and Graham has not. (It’s a bit of a Jordan Mason / Tyrion Davis-Price situation).
Are you worried about Christian McCaffrey’s usage? I’d like to think Mason and Elijah Mitchell are good enough to give CMC more rest. Thoughts? — David D.
He’s on pace for 289 carries, which would be a career high. That’s due to several factors:
• The extra game the NFL plays now versus when his career began in Carolina.
• The fact that the 49ers are able to stick with their running game longer than the Panthers typically could.
• Mitchell, his top backup, was unavailable at times during the first nine games.
I think McCaffrey can handle the load. He prepares himself as thoroughly as anyone in the league. Look how strong he was in last season’s NFC Championship Game in running over Eagles defenders for a 23-yard score.
However, I do think his workload will start to come down a bit because of Mitchell’s availability. Mitchell entered the game in the second quarter in Jacksonville and would have played all of the fourth quarter if the 49ers hadn’t been trying to get McCaffrey a late touchdown. If McCaffrey hadn’t gone back into the game, it would have been his second-lowest snap-count game this season.
Brock Purdy welcomed Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers, and it’s still paying off
According to the last Minutia Minute (see, I read it) every DL had at least 20 snaps in Jacksonville. That seems ideal to keep everyone fresh. Under Steve Wilks, does Kris Kocurek still employ the strategy of having Alpha, Bravo and Turbo units? And if so, which players make up each unit? — Allan B.
Yes, for now those units are:
Alpha: Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Clelin Ferrell
Bravo: Randy Gregory, Kevin Givens, Javon Kinlaw, Ferrell
Turbo: Bosa, Hargrave, Armstead, Young
Young, however, is so big and physical that he ought to become an asset on running downs, too, which could put him in the Alpha group. It seems it’s just a matter of time before he replaces Ferrell as a starter.
Seems to me the 49ers have an elite core of about 10 guys, but they need all of them to be healthy for the team to play at an elite level. Is that the real weakness of this team? That it requires a level of overall health that it’s unlikely to maintain come playoff time? — Harry B.
Yes, but isn’t that true of any team? The Cincinnati Bengals, for instance, were missing Tee Higgins and Sam Hubbard in Week 10 and fell to the Houston Texans. Then they lost Joe Burrow on Thursday and lost to the Baltimore Ravens.
I think the 49ers have so many offensive weapons that they could lose one guy and still be elite. Aiyuk, for example, was in and out of the Week 2 game in Los Angeles and didn’t play at all in Week 3, and the 49ers scored 30 or more points in each game. (And he’s been a Pro Bowl-level receiver this season).
Guys they could least afford to lose? Brock Purdy, Fred Warner and Bosa come to mind. I also could make a really strong argument for Charvarius Ward.
What’s up with Charvarius Ward in terms of discipline? I mean … the guy is a baller, but the penalties are taking away some of his brilliance. — Ricardo P.
You’re right. He’s had 10 penalties so far, which leads the 49ers. But he also has 10 pass breakups, which also leads the 49ers.
If he makes one play in Minneapolis — and I think you know the play — we’re talking about him making the Pro Bowl. If Ward had come up with that end-of-half interception, the passer rating against him this season would be a lowly 52.42. And even with that play turning into a touchdown, quarterbacks still only have a 74.5 rating when targeting him.
There haven’t been that many standout seasons for 49ers cornerbacks in the last 20 years. Carlos Rogers had a great 2011 season. Richard Sherman was terrific in 2019. I think Ward still has a chance to wind up with something similar.
Is this offence built to come from double-digit deficits in late-game situations? Works well when they’re playing with a lead but, as stats show, this Shanahan offence generally never recovers late-game deficits compared to a Kansas City Chiefs offence with Patrick Mahomes. — Ryan D.
First, I’m assuming you’re from Canada or the UK, so I will let your spelling of offense slide.
Yes, the late-game comeback remains missing from Purdy’s resume — and Shanahan’s, for that matter. According to TruMedia, the 49ers are 0-37 when trailing by eight or more points in the fourth quarter since Shanahan was hired in 2017. And yes, they’ve always been a team that relies heavily on its run game. But it seems like Purdy has all the improvisational skills — and the weaponry — to check off that box. It’s not a plodding offense. Look how quickly the 49ers scored on the opening drive in Jacksonville: four plays, 125 seconds.
What do you think the offensive line will look like by Week 17 if everyone is healthy? Does Spencer Burford get benched? Does Colton McKivitz lose his spot? — Travis T.
Heading into Week 10, it sounded like the 49ers were poised to start alternating Burford and Jon Feliciano at right guard once Aaron Banks was back from his toe injury. They did that last season, of course, with Burford and Daniel Brunskill.
But Burford seemed to hear the message loud and clear. He had his best game of the season against the Jaguars. McKivitz? I think he’s been exactly what the team has expected. I don’t think they’re disappointed in him at all.
How important is sleep to the 49ers? — Cameron B.
Very. Rest assured (see what I did there?) they’re getting way more z’s than you and me. I’m working on a story about all the ways they do that and who on the roster is the king of slumber.
What’s Steve Wilks’ nickname? Sideline Steve? — Dave L.
Gone Wilks-Booth. (Too soon?)
(Top photo of Christian McCaffrey: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.