Grant Cohn: Five 49ers who must exceed expectations in 2018

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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.

When Witherspoon became a starter Week 8, other teams didn’t seem to notice or care. They were too busy wearing out Johnson, the corner on the other side of the 49ers defense. They mostly didn’t throw at Witherspoon. Next season, that may change.

Quarterbacks will throw at Sherman early on, just to test his Achilles and see how he moves. But if he passes that test, quarterbacks will shift their focus to Witherspoon, the unproven corner. Can he handle the greater focus on him? Really how good is he?

Sherman’s presence may make Witherspoon a target by default.

4. OG Joshua Garnett

One of Garoppolo’s finest achievements last season was staying healthy for five starts behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

The 49ers replaced three-fifths of the offensive line this offseason. They signed center Weston Richburg to replace Daniel Kilgore, signed guard Jonathan Cooper to replace Brandon Fusco and drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey to replace Trent Brown.

The two remaining starters on the offensive line are tackle Joe Staley, the leader of the group, and guard Laken Tomlinson, the weakest link.

Tomlinson is bad. He’s had 39 starts in the NFL — we know what to expect from him. Not much. If he starts next season, the 49ers will be in trouble.

That’s why they need Joshua Garnett to beat out Tomlinson in training camp. The 49ers drafted Garnett in the first round in 2016, and he started 11 games as a rookie. Although he was inconsistent, he showed promise. But, he missed all of 2017 with a knee injury. He still is a mystery.

If Garnett plays well, and Tomlinson doesn’t play much, the 49ers offensive line will be good.

5. WR Pierre Garcon

Garcon is a steady player who’s good for about 1,000 receiving yards per season when he’s healthy. But, he broke his neck last season, and missed eight games. In August, he will turn 32.

What kind of factor will he be at his age, and coming off a broken neck?

If he’s a non-factor, who will replace him at flanker? Dante Pettis, a rookie? Or Kendrick Bourne, a substitute from last year who really still should be a substitute?

The 49ers don’t have a good replacement for Garcon. Marquise Goodwin, the other starter, is a split end, not a flanker. And he’s not a bona-fide No. 1 receiver. Garcon is the closest the 49ers have to a true No. 1.

The 49ers need him to make a full recovery for his sake, for Garoppolo’s sake, for pity’s sake.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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