Jimmy Garoppolo, DeForest Buckner, Reuben Foster. Those three are givens.
The 49ers won’t make the playoffs if one of those players underperforms or gets injured. All three are essential to the upcoming season.
But, so are other, less obvious players on the 49ers. Players who aren’t necessarily the best on the team, but ones who must step up and play well for the 49ers to make the playoffs next season.
These are the five unheralded, most important players on the 49ers:
1. DE Solomon Thomas
We’ve got to start with the defense — it was dreadful last season.
The 49ers recorded 30 sacks, which tied for sixth lowest in the league. And their sack leader, Elvis Dumervil, isn’t on the team anymore.
It’s time for Thomas to become an elite pass rusher. That’s what the 49ers thought he’d be when they drafted him with the third pick last year. A game-changer the opposing team has to block with two or three people.
Last year, opposing teams routinely stopped Thomas with only one blocker, because his pass-rush technique was terrible. He rushed directly into the chest of bigger, taller offensive linemen who had longer arms than Thomas, and he didn’t have a spin move or any counters after his initial move. He just sort of stayed there.
And he used a four-point stance, which practically paralyzed him as a pass-rusher. When Thomas lined up before the snap, his feet were parallel, and both hands were on the ground in front of him. He looked like he was doing the downward-dog yoga pose.
Explosive pass-rushers use a “jet” stance, which looks like a sprinter’s stance — one hand down, one hand up behind the body and one foot behind the other. Ready to take off.
Thomas needs to fix his technique, needs to give the 49ers no fewer than eight sacks next season. Because if he becomes a threat, then he will free up Buckner, one of the most talented defensive linemen in the NFL.
2. CB Richard Sherman
Even if Thomas improves and the 49ers’ pass rush holds its own next season, the defense won’t be good enough without a healthy Sherman.
Sherman has to be close to the player he was before he tore his Achilles.
Teams can slow down pass-rushers by blocking them with two people. And a quick, three-step passing game can eliminate the threat of a pass-rush entirely. Especially if the corners are no good.
Last year, receivers were always open against the 49ers. Opponents feared none of their corners. They all were bull’s-eyes. Sherman needs to change that.
When he was at his best, opposing quarterbacks didn’t throw to his side of the field. They just conceded it. That’s all they could do. If Sherman returns to dominance, he will force opposing coordinators and quarterbacks to make that same concession, and that would help the 49ers defense big time.
3. CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Let’s say Sherman makes a full recovery and starts 16 games.
In that case, teams will target the other corner, Witherspoon, at a much higher rate than last season. Last season, everyone went after Dontae Johnson.