Barber: Why aren't 49ers' young players getting better?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


SANTA CLARA — "We’re still going at it. There’s five more games,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “I think our young guys are playing even more now.”

Indeed they are. But are those young guys any good? And an even more important question: Are they getting better?

We know this has been a hugely disappointing season for the 49ers. We know everything went into the landfill with about 5:30 left in the game at Kansas City in Week 3, when newly minted franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scrambled for 13 yards and tore the ACL in his left knee as he approached the left sideline.

The jury was still out on Garoppolo and the 49ers at that point, but the team was interesting. Without him, there is no need for a jury. The Niners have pleaded guilty to being bad and boring. They are 2-9 and bearing down hard on the first pick in the 2019 draft.

Garoppolo’s injury makes any broad evaluation of the 49ers’ season elusive. So much of the hope swirling around this team was based upon its discovery of Jimmy G last year. The 49ers simply weren’t strong enough to survive the loss of their starting quarterback — or the other absences that have piled up along the way, such as season-ending injuries to halfback Jerick McKinnon, defensive backs Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward and special-teams whiz Raheem Mostert.

But that doesn’t mean the 49ers are impossible to evaluate. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said so himself at team headquarters Wednesday.

“I think it makes it a little harder maybe for you guys and stuff. Not just you guys, but the whole world, because people base performance always off of results,” Shanahan said. “Results are stats, for the most part. We watch how guys move, how they run, how they execute from a blocking standpoint, from a route-running standpoint and, since we’re talking quarterbacks, offensively. With the back, where they’re hitting the holes and things like that. So, you can evaluate talent.”

Shanahan was making the point, a correct one, that his criteria probably differ from mine, and yours. He continued: “That’s why I don’t make a big judgment on when things happen: ‘Well, this guy was this last year. Why was he so bad this year? He’s really good this year. How much did he improve?’ A lot of that is just opportunity. You don’t sit there and go through all of it with everyone, but that’s why I don’t know stats a lot, because we really try to look at the tape.”

I don’t break down tape with Shanahan’s depth of understanding, but I do watch rewinds of 49ers games. I also look at statistics and monitor scouting services. And it’s pretty clear that in at least one narrow regard, Shanahan and his staff are falling short this season: The 49ers’ younger players are not developing on schedule.

Shanahan disagrees, it seems. In response to my question Wednesday, he ran down a rather thorough list of young Niners who have excelled during this trying season.

Here is his internal scouting report: “We played our right tackle throughout the whole year. (Running back Matt) Breida is in his second year and he’s been able to play this whole year. Raheem I wouldn’t say is a real young guy, but in terms of running the ball he is. He got a lot more opportunities and I think he was getting a lot better, but he went on IR. (Running back) Jeff Wilson got his first opportunities last week, and I thought he came in and showed a lot of promise and did some good things. That was exciting. (Right tackle Mike) McGlinchey’s played well all year. He’s been up and down battling through things, and I think he’s continued to get better. You look at (linebacker) Fred Warner, he’s gotten better throughout the year. I’d like to see hopefully (defensive back) Tarvarius Moore get some more reps eventually. We’ve had some safeties be in and out there that have got some playing time. I thought Dante (Pettis, a wide receiver), last week was the first time that he got to play really a whole game. I think I said this on Monday, but he was the main guy who I thought took a step forward in Tampa.”

I wouldn’t disagree with anything Shanahan said there, but the coach did some cherry-picking. It’s true that Breida and Mostert have made the most of greater opportunity, and yes, several of this year’s rookies look highly promising. Shanahan could have added tight end George Kittle, a budding Pro Bowl tight end in his second season. For the most part, though, the 49ers’ young players have stalled in 2018, or even regressed.

That’s how it had seemed to me, anyway. I got a second opinion from Pro Football Focus, which grades players on every NFL snap.

According to PFF, of the eight 2017 draft picks who have seen action for the 49ers, three grades have gone up from last year to this year, while five have gone down. And the only player to take a big jump was Kittle, who went from 65.8 to 85.0 on a 100-point scale. C.J. Beathard has risen from 59.5 to 64.9, but looks like the same tough, scattershot quarterback we saw in 2017. Solomon Thomas has improved incrementally, from 55.0 to 66.7; most observers would agree that he hasn’t come close to justifying the No. 3 overall draft choice.

Meanwhile, Colbert (before he got hurt) had plummeted from 73.1 to 31.7, and cornerback Akhello Witherspoon from 74.5 to 43.5. Linebacker Reuben Foster had tumbled from 81.2 to 42.9 before the 49ers cut him for being an off-the-field disaster. Slot receiver Trent Taylor is down from 68.4 to 57.5 (it feels like more to me), defensive lineman D.J. Jones from 56.5 to 50.9.

Remember, players are supposed to show a pretty big jump between Years 1 and 2 if they remain healthy.

And the 2017 draft picks aren’t the only curiosities. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and linebacker Elijah Lee have shown improvement, but how about guard Joshua Garnett? How about defensive back Greg Mabin? The overall picture is one of stagnation.

If the 49ers aren’t finding the right young players, that’s on general manager John Lynch and his scouting staff. But if the guys they find aren’t getting better from one year to the next, that’s on San Francisco’s position coaches — and if those assistants aren’t properly developing talent, that’s on Shanahan.

Granted, some of the players I’ve mentioned here are small pieces of the puzzle. The trend is significant, though. Garoppolo will be back next year, ready to resume his role as 49ers savior. But he can’t get this team back to the playoffs by himself. He needs capable teammates. Some of those will be draft choices and undrafted free agents.

Rookies rarely arrive fully formed. They need to be molded and built up by a capable coaching staff. Maybe Shanahan’s staff is up to the task. They haven’t really proved it this year, though. And the disappointment of the Jimmy G injury shouldn’t distract us from that.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine