One overthrown pass. That was the difference between the 49ers possibly winning their sixth Super Bowl and falling just short of their goal. Down four points with exactly 100 seconds left in Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers faced a third-and-10 from the Chiefs' 49-yard-line. Jimmy Garoppolo, who had out-played Patrick Mahomes for two-thirds of the night, overthrew Emmanuel Sanders on a play that would have likely went for a touchdown had Garoppolo not overthrown his receiver. The QB was sacked on fourth down, and the Chiefs scored the game-clinching touchdown two plays later.
Injuries derailed the 49ers' defense of their NFC title and chance of redeeming the Super Bowl LIV loss. Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Brandon Aiyuk, Ben Garland, Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair, Kwon Alexander, Ezekiel Ansah and Jaquiski Tartt missed a combined 149 games in 2020. Despite those (and other) injuries, the 49ers were 5-6 after beating the playoff-bound Rams in Week 12. And while their final record was an underwhelming 6-10, five of the 49ers' losses were decided by eight or fewer points. If not for the mountain of injuries, San Francisco likely would have claimed one of the NFC's seven playoff spots.
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, the 49ers have already started the process of building next year's roster with the hope of returning to the playoffs in 2021. Here are five things San Francisco can do this offseason to help make that a reality.
Step 1: Keep Jimmy G
The 49ers' brass have stated they have their starting quarterback in Garoppolo, who will still be on the south side of 30 years old at the start of the 2021 season. He has two years remaining on the five-year, $135.5 million contract he signed in 2018. And while his $26.2 million cap hit is significant, Garoppolo's current contract makes him the NFL's 13th highest-paid quarterback, according to Over The Cap.
He's not Mahomes, but Garoppolo has proven that he is capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl. He made several timely completions at critical moments during the 2019 regular season. He is also extremely familiar with Kyle Shanahan's system, and does not mind handing the ball off 50 times to his running backs if that's what it takes to win.
Staying healthy is Garoppolo's greatest challenge after missing 23 games during his first three full seasons in San Francisco. He recently said that improving his durability is his biggest focus this offseason. If healthy, Garoppolo is a quality quarterback whose best seasons may still be ahead of him.
Step 2: Draft a QB
The 49ers can and should keep Garoppolo -- but they should also draft his successor. The Packers did just that during the 2020 draft, and it resulted in Aaron Rodgers having quite possibly the best season of his Hall of Fame-bound career. The 49ers have the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, which means that they will likely miss out on having the chance to select Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields and BYU's Zach Wilson. San Francisco may be in position, however, to select Alabama's Mac Jones or North Dakota State's Trey Lance. CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson has the 49ers selecting Lance in his most recent Mock Draft.
"Kyle Shanahan said recently that Jimmy Garoppolo is his QB for 2021, but that doesn't mean the team can't (or won't) plan for the future," Wilson wrote. "Trey Lance has the athleticism and arm strength to be a legit NFL QB, he only lacks experience. But if anyone can get the most out of his abilities it's Shanahan, who did just that with Robert Griffin III during his rookie year in Washington back in 2012."
As Wilson wrote, Lance falls under the category of rookie quarterbacks that would benefit from observing before being thrust onto the field. That makes him an ideal pick for the 49ers, who have Garoppolo under contract through the 2022 season. Lance would give Shanahan a chance to groom Garoppolo's possible successor while also giving Garoppolo an added incentive to have a breakout season.
Step 3: Add talent to the OL and secondary
While the 49ers will ultimately re-sign some of them, the team currently does not have a cornerback under contract for the '21 season. If they don't draft a quarterback in the first round, the 49ers may be in position to draft either Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley or Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, the two top-rated corners in the draft. They cupboard won't be bare if the 49ers choose to wait until the second round to take a corner: Clemson's Derion Kendrick, South Carolina's Jaycee Horn, Florida State's Asante Samuel Jr., and Ohio State's Shaun Wade are all in the top 50 of CBS Sports' 2021 draft protect list. The 49ers would also be wise to re-sign Sherman, who could serve as a mentor for the team's new corner. Several possible free agents the 49ers could pursue include cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Brian Poole, Mackensie Alexander and Cam Sutton, among others.
Similar to the corner position, the 49ers will also be in position to take one of the top-rated offensive lineman if they choose not to take a quarterback with their first pick. While Oregon's Penei Sewell will be off the board, USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker might be available when San Francisco is on the clock with the No. 12 overall pick. If they decide to address the quarterback and cornerback positions with their first two picks, look for the 49ers to use multiple picks on their offensive line. Several possible late Day 2/early Day 3 draft options at offensive line include Ohio State's Josh Myers, Alabama's Landon Dickerson, and Iowa's duo of Alaric Jackson and Tyler Linderbaum.
Step 4: Sign a veteran WR
The 49ers benefitted from having Emmanuel Sanders on their roster during the home stretch of the '19 season. The 49ers would again benefit by having a proven veteran in their receivers room. This would also give them some flexibility if the team loses Kendrick Bourne in free agency.
Several veterans that are slated to become free agents include T.Y. Hilton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Will Fuller, Willie Snead and Marvin Jones. Smith-Schuster, a California native, is still just 24 years old after being drafted by the Steelers at age 20. But if Smith-Schuster's price point is too steep, a better option might be the 31-year-old Jones, who has caught nine touchdowns each of the last two seasons. Jones' estimated market value is $38.2 million over four years, according to Spotrac. That number is substantially lower than Smith-Schuster's estimated market value, which would pay him nearly $19 million a season over six seasons.
Step 5: Find the best replacement for Saleh
It appears to be a foregone conclusion that an NFL team will tab Robert Saleh as its new head coach sometime soon. Saleh's head coaching prospects improved this season after his defense finished fourth in the NFL in passing, seventh in rushing, fourth in third down efficiency and ninth in red zone efficiency. Losing Saleh is going to hurt, but the 49ers can soften the blow by choosing the best possible successor.
San Francisco may not have to look beyond its own facility to find Saleh's replacement. Shanahan recently said that he would "absolutely" consider promoting linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to defensive coordinator. The 36-year-old Ryans is just five years removed from being on the field himself; he was a two-time Pro Bowler during a 10-year career that saw him start in 139 of 140 regular season games. Ryans has enjoyed a successful start to his coaching career after joining the 49ers as a quality control coach in 2017. Under Ryans' watch, Fred Warner earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2020. The 2018 third-round pick filled up the stat sheet, with 125 tackles, two interceptions, six passes defensed, a forced fumble, a sack and two fumble recoveries.
"It's a matter of time before DeMeco is a coordinator in this league, a matter of time before he's a head coach," Shanahan said earlier this month, via The Athletic.