The 49ers cleared out their lockers Monday, a day after finishing another disappointing season at 4-12. Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch spoke to the media. Here are 10 takeaways as the team begins its offseason:
Team is better set going forward
The 49ers took a step backward, record-wise, after going 6-10 in the first year of the new regime. Shanahan and Lynch sound confident about the team being better equipped to make a playoff run next season with another offseason to help fortify the roster – and the No. 2 pick in the draft – along with more than $60 million in cap space.
“I think there’s more competition,” Lynch said. “There will be this offseason, once we get healthy. I think we’re poised to be able to add to that. I think the more we do of that and continue to add good players, the more we’re able to allow guys to compete.”
The 49ers dealt with several injuries, including to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which forced the front office to dip into the practice squad for healthy bodies. The silver lining is many of those young players, such as quarterback Nick Mullens, gained meaningful experience that could help elevate the competition for playing time and roster spots.
“Now, you’ve got two years of young guys that are going into an offseason to compete with each other,” Shanahan said. “We plan on bringing in some veterans. We plan on drafting a whole new group of young guys. That now puts three years together of getting better, and I expect that to show with our record.”
Saleh will return as defensive coordinator
Shanahan was staunch in his defense of coordinator Robert Saleh despite the defense’s struggles and said he plans to have Saleh return for a third campaign.
“I’m with him every day,” Shanahan said. “So I know how good of a coach he is. I know how he is schematically. I know how he is dealing with the players. I know what he can handle just with his personality and how smart he is, and that’s a lot.”
San Francisco’s defense finished 13th in yardage and 28th in scoring. That discrepancy can be tied to setting a record for fewest takeaways in a season, paired with the offense giving away the ball 32 times, the third-most in the NFL.
The 49ers started eight safety combinations, dealt with the loss of 2017 first-round pick Reuben Foster following his November arrest on domestic-violence allegations and had a revolving group of cornerbacks opposite Richard Sherman.
The belief: With more continuity, better health and a chance to improve the roster in the spring, the defense has a chance to make significant strides.
Team announces annual award winners
Len Eshmont Award: DeForest Buckner
This is the most prestigious award given each year, as voted by the players. Buckner has established himself as the team’s best defender and has taken strides in earning respect in the locker room as a leader and captain. Veteran left tackle Joe Staley offered praise of Buckner, comparing him to former 49ers running back Frank Gore.
“He goes about his work every single day. He’s the same guy on the practice field and the meeting room. He hasn’t acted like he’s arrived, or he’s a superstar,” Staley said. “He has all the right to, because I feel like he’s one of the best players in the NFL. He has that same kind of hunger and desire to get better that I saw with Frank — and the way that he worked on the practice field, was one of the hardest workers and super competitive. There’s no one in this locker room that’s more deserving as him.”
Bill Walsh Award: George Kittle
Coaches vote on this award to the player “who has best represented the standard of professional excellence established by Walsh.”
Kittle on Sunday broke the NFL season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377. Shanahan and Lynch believe the second-year tight end can still take significant strides.
“There’s things that he can develop in his game that can make him an even stronger player. That has George excited,” Lynch said. “It has us very excited. But I think the biggest lesson for our team, you watch that guy, that guy outworks people … and it starts not only out on the field but the way he prepares his body. He’s learned that in short order, and that makes you really proud.”
Bobb McKittrick Award: OL Laken Tomlinson (voted by offensive linemen)
Hazeltine Iron Man Award: Buckner (most courageous defensive player, voted by defensive coaches)
Thomas Herrion Memorial Award: QB Nick Mullens (rookie award, voted by coaches)
Ed Block Courage Award: CB Richard Sherman (award for commitment to sportsmanship and courage)
Perry/Yonamine Unity Award: RB Raheem Mostert (award for promoting team unity)
Tomlinson injury not as bad as feared
The 49ers were fearful left guard Laken Tomlinson suffered a torn right ACL when he was carted off the field in the second quarter Sunday. Turns out the news isn’t as bad.
Tomlinson sustained a torn MCL and won’t require surgery. He’ll be out roughly three months and should return in time for OTAs and training camp.
“That’s what they had a hunch (Sunday) night,” Lynch said. “… The scans did confirm that his ACL was intact. That was really good news for us.”
Armstead’s future is blurry
The front office last spring picked up defensive lineman Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option for 2019, which would pay the 2015 first-round draft pick upward of $9 million, guaranteed for injury only.
That’s a big number for a player with an extensive injury history (he missed 18 games in 2016 and 2017) who logged just three sacks in 2018. But Armstead appeared in all 16 games and earned praise from Lynch and Shanahan. He was arguably the team’s second-best defensive lineman.
But that doesn’t guarantee he’ll return. The 49ers could cut him before his salary becomes guaranteed in early March. Or, he could get a multiyear contract extension, which could shrink his overall salary for next season.
“All those decisions aren’t as simple as how do we feel about Arik, because if it was, then yes,” Shanahan said about bringing Armstead back. “Arik’s done a good job, and you don’t want to lose good players. Those decisions are based off of how do you want to balance and allocate all the money because you can’t do whatever you want. What are the options out there, what’s our depth chart look like and what’s the best way to do it?”
The 49ers could decide to save the money and go with younger players such as Jullian Taylor and fourth-round draft pick Kentavius Street, who missed all of 2018 recovering from a pre-draft ACL tear.
There’s another variable: Armstead suffered a fractured right hand in the loss to Chicago in Week 16. He played with a club on his hand against the Rams. Armstead wouldn’t say if he needs surgery, but if he did and can’t pass a physical at the start of the new league year in March, his salary would become fully guaranteed and the team couldn’t cut him.
A hard no on “Hard Knocks”
The 49ers are one of five teams that can’t turn down the NFL if they’re requested to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” reality series in the summer. But Shanahan made it clear he wants no part of participating in the show.
“It’s a hard, hard, bad stance, ‘Hard Knocks,’” he said. “You will see the worst entertainment possible by me.”
Shanahan lukewarm on Senior Bowl
The 49ers, owners of the No. 2 pick in the draft, will coach the South team in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala., the league announced Monday. The Raiders will coach the North team.
Shanahan didn’t sound overjoyed but indicated there is value to getting a hands-on look at some of the country’s most talented NFL prospects, although several possible first-round picks are underclassmen who won’t be participating.
“This will be my third time. Not proud of that. It’s the same thing as the Combine to me,” Shanahan said. “It’s not as much about the players. It’s not about the athletes and stuff because you can see that on tape pretty well. You can see that when we work them out.
“It’s about being around people. It’s hard in the interview process to fully get to know someone. It’s hard to get tricked when you’re with someone for seven straight days. That’s my experience and what I’ve gotten the most out of it. You know that group of guys better.”
The 49ers broke the record for fewest takeaways in a season with seven – and the fewest interceptions with two. The feeling from players is turnover numbers typically don’t carry over year to year, and the lack of turnovers was a combination of injuries, bad luck and happenstance.
“It’s very tough to win games when you don’t get turnovers, but it’s almost impossible when you don’t get turnovers and the offense turns it over,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan also said the team’s focus on turnovers might have led to bad tackling early in the season.
“Once that does happen, guys are not going for the ball as much, but you can’t do both. It’s not easy,” he said. “You’ve got to get better and more experienced at it. There’s a lot of savvy veterans in this league who know how to poke the ball out but also make the tackle, too. I think a lot of our guys what we went through this year, hopefully have learned both ways and that will make them better next year.”
Shanahan thought team left three wins on the table
Shanahan maintained a realistic outlook throughout the year, indicating credible playoff run without Garoppolo would be nearly impossible. But he also thought the team came up short in winnable games.
“We were close in a lot of games, but there were three in particular that really bothered me,” he said. “I think we should have finished them and won. I think things might have been easier if we had our quarterback.”
Those three games: Oct. 15 at Green Bay, Oct. 28 at Arizona and Nov. 12 against the New York Giants. The common thread: The 49ers gave up fourth-quarter leads.
Injuries may lead to changes in training staff
The 49ers have dealt with several injuries the past two seasons.
Shanahan and Lynch noted the injuries have been problematic and indicated there could be changes to the training staff.
“It’s been too big of a deal for two years. Injuries are pretty random, but it’s also affected us huge,” Shanahan said. “So that’s something that we definitely have to sit back and really look at it from all angles and put a lot of time into.”