New season brings higher expectations for 49ers

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SANTA CLARA — No more pingpong in the 49ers locker room. They finally got rid of the table that symbolized their indifference to losing the past few seasons. That’s how you know this season is different.

Since 2015, the 49ers played pingpong as a mental escape from misery. They didn’t expect to win football games — they were rebuilding — so they distracted themselves from the pain of defeat by playing a different game midweek.

Now, the 49ers expect to make the postseason. If they don’t make it, people could lose their jobs, including general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and even quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Time to focus on football.

This offseason, The Press Democrat ran a series called “Focus on the 49ers,” which posed 10 questions that could determine the success of the upcoming season. Let’s revisit those questions and examine where the 49ers stand.

Question No. 1: Will the new Wide 9 alignment improve the defense?

A: Probably.

The 49ers tweaked their defensive alignment by moving their defensive ends farther outside the offensive tackles. This alignment will give the D-ends more space to rush the quarterback, but also will give the opposing offense more space to run the ball up the middle.

Will this change compromise a run defense which ranked a praiseworthy seventh best in the NFL last season?

So far, the answer is, “No.” The Wide 9 alignment stifled the 49ers’ running game throughout training camp sessions. And during the preseason dress rehearsal, the 49ers’ defense held the Kansas City Chiefs’ first-string offense to just 2.7 yards per carry. And the 49ers didn’t even have their top two defensive ends: Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.

“I just like how aggressive the defensive linemen are,” linebacker Fred Warner said.

The defense has a chance to be special.

Question No. 2: Will Nick Bosa play a full season?

A: Doubtful.

Bosa suffered a high-ankle sprain on the eighth day of camp and missed the entire preseason. Before that, he also tore a bilateral core muscle and missed most of his final season at Ohio State, then pulled his hamstring and missed all of OTAs and minicamp with the 49ers.

Bosa’s high-ankle sprain doesn’t seem serious. But he still hasn’t decided if he will play in the regular season opener. “It feels really good right now, but sometimes soreness comes in later on,” he said. “I’ll hit it with ice and anti-inflammatories and see what happens. We’re going day by day. Still ramping it up. Taking it slow.”

Nick’s older brother, Joey, who plays for the Los Angeles Chargers, has a reputation for “taking it slow” with injuries. Last season, Joey missed nine games with a mere foot sprain. The Niners can’t afford Nick Bosa to miss nine games this season. They need him to play through an acceptable amount of pain without jeopardizing his career.

Question No. 3: Can Dee Ford repeat his pass-rush production from 2018?

A: Doubtful.

Last season, Ford had incentive to play through injury. He was in the final year of his contract with the Kansas City Chiefs and needed a new deal. So, he played 16 games and recorded 13 sacks.

Now, Ford has a new deal — the 49ers traded for him and gave him $19.75 million guaranteed. And now, he has less incentive to play through injury. He shut himself down after just three days of camp and missed the entire preseason with knee tendinitis, which he has had for years.

“It got to a point where I was dysfunctional,” Ford explained in the locker room recently. “That’s a bad sign. It feels good now, but never pain free.”

Sounds like Ford has self-doubt. Is he damaged goods? If he’s physically OK, the 49ers may have scored a coup.

Question No. 4: Will Jason Verrett improve the secondary?

A: Probably, if he’s healthy.

The 49ers signed Verrett to compete with Ahkello Witherspoon for a starting cornerback job.

Verrett never got to compete. He spent OTAs and minicamp rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon. Then, he practiced for two days in training camp before he sprained his ankle. Then, he missed the entire preseason.

He made the team anyway.

“Everyone knows the ability he has,” Shanahan explained. “He’s one that we can be more patient with. He’s as good of a guy and as good of a competitor as I’ve been around. We’ve got ultimate trust in him.”

As opposed to Witherspoon, whom the 49ers don’t seem to trust ultimately or anyway. Witherspoon struggled in camp and was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL last season. Verrett could take his job and improve the secondary drastically when healthy. But he has played just five games since 2015. Troubling.

Question No. 5: Do the 49ers have enough depth on their offensive line?

A: Doubtful.

They thought they’d have three experienced backups this season: center Ben Garland (seven career starts), guard Joshua Garnett (11 starts) and tackle Shon Coleman (16 starts).

Garland made the final roster, but Garnett didn’t — he missed most of training camp with a finger injury, then the 49ers released him. And Coleman broke his leg and will miss the regular season.

Now, the 49ers backup guard AND backup tackle is Daniel Brunskill, who never has appeared in an NFL game. Expect the 49ers to sign a veteran backup lineman during the next few weeks. Until then, the 49ers desperately need all five starting offensive linemen to stay healthy. When healthy, these five constitute a strong offensive line, capable of protecting Jimmy Garoppolo.

Question No. 6: Has the red-zone offense improved?

A: Probably.

It couldn’t get worse. Last season, the 49ers ranked 32nd out of 32 teams in red-zone offensive efficiency. They scored a touchdown only 41.2% of the time they drove the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

“It’s hard down there to get guys open, because the zones are all smaller,” Shanahan explained. “Versus man-to-man coverage, (cornerbacks) don’t have to defend the deep route, so they can hold you. When you do have a bigger receiver, he can defeat holding.”

Aside from George Kittle, the 49ers didn’t have many big receivers last season, but now they have Jalen Hurd (6-foot-4), Ross Dwelley (6-5), Kaden Smith (6-5) and Levine Toilolo (6-8). These four can “defeat holding” and make contested catches. They are a significant upgrade over last season and exactly what the 49ers’ offense needs in the red zone.

Question No. 7: Will George Kittle exceed his production from last season?

A: Yes and no.

Last season, he set the record for most receiving yards in a season by a tight end — he gained 1,377. He probably won’t gain more this season, because opposing defenses will double-cover him frequently and the 49ers know it.

“If he’s getting double teamed, he’s not yelling at us for not getting him the ball,” Shanahan said. “He’s telling other guys they’ve got to make plays to help get him open.”

Meaning Kittle isn’t a diva. He won’t complain if he gains fewer yards than last season. But he’ll be pleased to know he might catch more touchdown passes. Last season, he caught just five, because the 49ers rarely threw him the ball in the end zone. This offseason, they threw him lots of balls in the end zone and he caught most of them.

Question No. 8: Will a consistent receiving threat other than Kittle emerge?

A: Maybe, but one hasn’t emerged yet.

The 49ers held a competition in camp to determine who the starting wide receivers will be. No one has won. All the receivers have been inconsistent. The competition continues.

“We’ve got some guys who need to get more confident in the physical part of the game,” Shanahan said. He meant Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin. “And then we’ve got some guys who have no issue with the physical part of the game — they’ve got to quit trying to kill people and execute.”

He meant rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd.

Rookie wide receivers rarely make big impacts, so the 49ers probably can’t count on them to start right away.

Pettis played well last season when Nick Mullens was the starter, but lacks chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo. Pettis caught only 37% of Garoppolo’s passes in camp.

Garoppolo’s favorite target is little Trent Taylor, who has a broken foot.

Will a consistent, healthy receiver please stand up?

Question No. 9: How many players will successfully return from season-ending leg injuries?

A: Not as many as the 49ers would have hoped.

Starting linebacker Kwon Alexander is coming off a torn ACL, and will play Week 1.

Starting cornerback Verrett is coming off a torn Achilles, and probably will miss Week 1 with a sprained ankle, but could return Week 2.

Starting running back Jerick McKinnon will miss his second season in a row with an ACL injury. It needs another operation. He might never play again. Fortunately for the 49ers, they don’t need him anymore, because they signed a replacement — Tevin Coleman.

Starting quarterback Garoppolo is coming off a torn ACL. The team says his knee is 100 percent recovered. The injury is old news.

Question No. 10: Will Jimmy Garoppolo improve his decision-making?

A: To be determined.

Garoppolo is a bit reckless. He has thrown eight interceptions in eight starts with the 49ers, and he threw 10 picks in camp, including five in a row one day.

When the 49ers traded for Garoppolo in 2017, they needed him to play with reckless abandon to win, because they lacked talent. He was their best player. Now, they have a good defense and an efficient run game. They don’t need their quarterback to take unnecessary risks. They need him NOT to throw interceptions.

“Interceptions lose games,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to make plays for your own team. You can’t make them for both teams.”

If Garoppolo eliminates the picks, he could lead the 49ers to their first playoff appearance since 2013.

But if Garoppolo continues to throw lots of picks, the 49ers could replace him with Nick Mullens, an underrated quarterback and capable game manager. And Mullens could lead the Niners to the playoffs.

No pressure, Jimmy.

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