With 2018 in rearview mirror, Jimmy G looks toward 2019

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SANTA CLARA — Jimmy Garoppolo reclaimed the 49ers locker room Monday morning.

Garoppolo mostly had stayed out of it since he tore his ACL on Sept. 23. He let the healthy players shine and lead the team the remainder of the season.

But, on Monday, as the 49ers closed the book on 2018 and packed up their belongings for the offseason, Garoppolo reappeared at his locker, his hands behind his back and his chest high. He looked like Captain America.

“It feels good,” Garoppolo said, referring to his surgically repaired knee. “Obviously, there are some things we’re limited with. Side-to-side lateral stuff is still questionable. But, I’m happy where I’m at right now.”

Garoppolo said his recovery is on schedule, but would not say when the schedule will allow him to begin throwing. “That’s all on (49ers rehabilitation coordinator) Ryan (Donahue). He has a schedule for me for when we can throw, when we can run. Just following his protocol right now.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan recently said Garoppolo could start throwing passes as soon as May or June. “My understanding is he has a real good chance to do stuff in OTAs (organized team activities),” Shanahan said. “Hopefully, we can get him in some seven-on-seven (drills) and he can throw the ball. We’ll see if that works out that way.”

Garoppolo tore his ACL during a 38-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the season’s third game. He avoided a sack in the pocket, rolled out to his left, looked for a receiver downfield, decided to scramble up the sideline, saw cornerback Steven Nelson and chose to run into him instead of running out of bounds. Garoppolo lowered his shoulder, planted his left leg and snapped his ACL.

Garoppolo said he doesn’t think about that play anymore. “It’s over. You don’t want to look back in the past and get tied up with that stuff. It was a learning experience. Got to move on to the next thing. I tried to take advantage of my time off as much as I could. Not being able to go out on the field, you have extra time in the film room. Little things like that. I get to as many meetings as I can when we don’t have rehab. Mentally, you do as much as you can.”

If Garoppolo suffers no setbacks this offseason, he could be ready to play in the season opener — less than a year after he injured his knee.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson recently recovered from a torn ACL in less than a year. He suffered his injury on Nov. 11, 2017. Then, in 2018, he played all 16 regular-season games, and his quarterback rating was 103.1 — sixth best in the NFL.

Garoppolo said there are multiple examples of quarterbacks bouncing back from ACL tears. “Deshaun had a tremendous year,” Garoppolo said. “ACL is a little different for a quarterback. We’re not moving as much as a normal football player.”

When Garoppolo returns next season, many will expect him to lead the 49ers to the playoffs, just as Watson led the Texans to the playoffs this season.

Garoppolo said he doesn’t mind the expectations. “We went through a whole offseason of that last year, so I think we’re prepared. We’re going in the right direction. That’s the encouraging thing,” he said.

Notes

The 49ers will not fire defensive coordinator Robert Saleh this offseason. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch made this clear on Monday.

“Kyle wanted someone from that (Seattle Seahawks) style of defense,” Lynch said. “So, we went and found Robert Saleh who was familiar with that style. But, you still have to make that scheme your own and that sometimes takes some time. I saw that happening and I’m encouraged by that.”

The season before Saleh took over the 49ers defense in 2017, it ranked dead last in the NFL. This season, it ranked 13th out of 32 teams. But, it also set the record for fewest interceptions (two) and takeaways (seven).

“Not something we’re proud of,” Lynch said. “We do need to improve there.”

Third-year defensive tackle DeForest Buckner won the 49ers’ prestigious Len Eshmont Award for inspirational and courageous play, as voted on by the players. Buckner finished the season with a team-high 12 sacks.

“I know my teammates respect me,” Buckner said. “They know my ability. I’m just happy the organization recognizes that.”

Second-year tight end George Kittle won the Bill Walsh Award for professional excellence, as voted on by the coaches. Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards as a tight end this season.

Starting left guard Laken Tomlinson, who won the Bobb McKittrick Award for the team’s top offensive lineman this season, tore his right MCL last Sunday during the 49ers’ 48-32 loss to the LA Rams.

“It’s good news in terms of what we might have feared,” Lynch said. “His ACL is intact, so that’s a good thing. They are talking three months (recovery time).”

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