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State of the 2023 San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl or bust in Bay Area despite lingering QB question

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the 49ers organization, 49ers fans around the world and those who have a photo of me on their camera roll picking the 49ers to go 3-13 years ago ...

2022 was another great season, but yet again, we are stuck in the kind of quarterback uncertainty that seems to have followed the team since the days of Joe Montana and Steve Young. If the 49ers were a pop singer, they would be Harry Styles -- having more options than most of us mere mortals could hope for. What's in store for San Francisco this season? Good question.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Making it to the NFC Championship Game. If I had to pick one play that I think every 49ers fan looked to as the high point of the season: the final play of the Divisional Round game against Dallas, when Ezekiel Elliott lined up at center, paving San Francisco's path to the NFC title bout. That worked out like an ironic teen movie where you thought the heroes were going to line up in some crazy formation for the winning score, only to fall flat. And yeah, now that I write that, I'm not sure who viewed the Cowboys as the heroes in that scenario.

One low from last season: Having to play in the NFC Championship Game without a healthy quarterback. The good news is that this inspired a rule change. But it was still a shame. A lot of San Francisco fans were convinced they could have won that game if Brock Purdy had been healthy, and they should feel that way. I'm not saying the Niners would have beaten the Eagles, but considering they were within two scores of Philly until just before the fourth quarter despite their starter being physically unable to throw a football, that game was damn closer than it should have been.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Who knows?! The 2022 49ers were the second NFL team all-time to post a 100-plus team passer rating in one season with three different QBs starting multiple games. The other team was the 2016 Patriots, who won Super Bowl LI. Both squads featured Jimmy Garoppolo. But he signed with the Raiders and is in Las Vegas now. That leaves Trey Lance, Brock Purdy and free-agent signee Sam Darnold in San Francisco. I will tell you Purdy has resumed throwing as he continues to recover from the injury he suffered in the NFC title game. Last year's rookie sensation is expected to be the leader in the QB competition going into training camp, according to general manager John Lynch. I know that might not seem fair to Lance, whose season was prematurely ended by injury last September; he hasn't really had a true opportunity to start since the Niners selected him third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. I mean, even Lance's Week 1 performance against the Bears didn't really tell us anything, because it was raining so hard in Chicago. If Purdy does indeed prove to be the guy in 2023, that will set up a pretty interesting scenario with Lance, who has at least two more seasons remaining on his rookie contract. It's not like San Francisco can trade him at this point, unless another team's starter goes down with injury before the season starts. Would the Niners even want to trade him? We don't know how Purdy is going to rebound, and Lance and Darnold are pretty good insurance options. My feeling is one of these guys is going to set himself apart this season, and one of them will eventually be traded next offseason.

Projected 2023 MVP: Christian McCaffrey, running back. Some folks laughed when I said CMC was going to be a great fit for the 49ers as an October trade acquisition. Oh, they had jokes about his health and availability coming off a two-season stretch in which he logged just 10 total appearances. But he played 17 games in 2022 (six with Carolina, 11 with San Francisco). As you could expect, he led all running backs with 741 receiving yards last year and was the only player with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards and 10-plus scrimmage touchdowns from Week 8 (when he made his first start with the 49ers) to Week 18, per NFL Research. Can't wait to see what he's going to do in his first full season in San Francisco.

New face to know: Javon Hargrave, defensive tackle. The 49ers managed to snag one of the stars of free agency when they inked Hargrave to a four-year deal worth $84 million. They have clearly long valued depth on the defensive line, but if there was one weakness on last year's No. 1 defense, it was on the interior. Adding one of the best interior pass rushers league-wide was quite a move.

2023 breakout star: Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver. San Francisco is flush with talented pass catchers. It's easy to overlook Aiyuk, who had career highs in receptions (78), receiving yards (1,015) and touchdown catches (eight) last season. He was the only player on the team with 70-plus receptions and 800-plus yards. The scary thing is that the fourth-year pro is likely just starting to reach his potential.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Kyle Shanahan
General manager John Lynch
Passing game specialist Klint Kubiak
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks
Special teams coordinator Brian Schneider
  • Shanahan is one of my favorite coaches in the league. Is it the hoodie and trucker cap? Maybe. But the dude can coach, and I've felt that way since he started as an offensive coordinator years ago. Shanahan led his team to a second consecutive NFC Championship Game appearance despite having to start three quarterbacks during the 2022 season. The 49ers finished 10-0 after their 3-4 start to the year. One thing you might want to keep in mind with Shanahan this season regarding the quarterback position: Since arriving in San Francisco in 2017, Shanahan is 43-17 with Purdy and Garoppolo as his starting quarterback. He's 9-29 with the others, including Lance.
  • The 49ers hired Wilks as their new defensive coordinator for 2023 after DeMeco Ryans left for the head job in Houston. Wilks went 6-6 as the Panthers' interim head coach last year after he replaced Matt Rhule.
  • The 49ers traded three first-round picks and a 2022 third-rounder to get Lance in the 2021 draft. That's the kind of move that would normally devastate a team if it didn't work out. Yet, here are the 49ers, rich in talent, despite getting just four starts out of Lance so far. And then they moved a bunch of picks to get CMC ahead of the trade deadline last season. Lynch is in the Hall of Fame as a player. He might someday get consideration for what he's been able to do as a GM.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the 49ers' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Ji'Ayir Brown, S, Penn State (3-87) Sam Darnold, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
Jake Moody, K, Michigan (3-99) Jon Feliciano, OL Mike McGlinchey, OT
Cameron Latu, TE, Alabama (3-101) Clelin Ferrell, DE Samson Ebukam, Edge
Darrell Luter Jr., CB, South Alabama (5-155) Javon Hargrave, DT Charles Omenihu, Edge
Robert Beal Jr., Edge, Georgia (5-173) Isaiah Oliver, CB Hassan Ridgeway, DL
Dee Winters, LB, TCU (6-216) Myles Hartsfield, DB Azeez Al-Shaair, LB
Brayden Willis, TE, Oklahoma (7-247) Emmanuel Moseley, CB
Ronnie Bell, WR, Michigan (7-253) Jimmie Ward, S
Jalen Graham, LB, Purdue (7-255) Robbie Gould, K

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 5 vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday night). The Cowboys will come in seeking revenge. That is, if Mike McCarthy can convince his team to get on the plane. What?! You saw the playoff game last year -- don't get mad at me.
  • Week 8 vs. Cincinnati Bengals. Man, I thought this was going to be the Super Bowl matchup two years ago. It would have been an all-timer, that's for sure. This game is right before the team's bye week. The roadie in Jacksonville in Week 10 could be huge, too.
  • Week 13 at Philadelphia Eagles. This will likely be personal for the participants, for obvious reasons. Keep an eye on Deebo Samuel, who wasn't shy about sounding off about the Eagles. Did you know Samuel leads all qualifying NFL receivers with 64.1 percent of his receiving yards coming after the catch over the last two seasons, according to Next Gen Stats? He also leads the NFL with 85 forced missed tackles on receptions since coming into the league in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus.

Will the 49ers be able to ...

... survive without DeMeco Ryans? The 49ers' defense allowed 18.9 points per game under Ryans since 2021, the second-lowest total in the NFL. The 49ers led the NFL in scoring and total defense in 2022. It's worth noting there have only been four teams in NFL history to lead the league in scoring and total defense in back-to-back seasons. Obviously, I bring this up as a Bears fan because the 1985-86 teams did it. The most recent team to do it was the 2013-14 Seahawks, who also went to back-to-back Super Bowls. The 49ers have the talent. We talked about Javon Hargrave, who will likely turn Javon Kinlaw into a rotational piece. Nick Bosa is coming off his best season. The 2022 Defensive Player of the Year led the NFL with 18.5 quarterback sacks and 48 QB hits in 2022 while also posting a league-leading 73 quarterback pressures, per NGS. There have been just three players in history who have led the NFL in sacks in consecutive seasons. The most recent was T.J. Watt in 2020 (15) and 2021 (22.5). Also keep an eye on the continued development of safety Talanoa Hufanga, who was amazing last year. Comparisons to Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu seem warranted.

... continue to create turnovers? The 49ers had 30 takeaways in 2022, tied for second most in the NFL, behind the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers were 9-1 in games with multiple takeaways. My guy Tashaun Gipson led the team with five takeaways. It's also important to note the 49ers' pass defense allowed a 65.6 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and 222.9 passing yards per game last season, both 20th in the NFL. But the turnovers helped a lot. One area the team could clean up is at slot corner. The 49ers allowed 131 receptions to players targeted in the slot last year, third most in the league, per NGS. Minor complaints, I know.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: How great George Kittle was down the stretch last season. This is mostly for the fantasy enthusiast who likes to throw around the phrase "injury-prone" like Dave Meltzer likes to throw around five-star match ratings (trust me, George would love this analogy). Kittle had a career-high 11 touchdowns last year, including seven in his final four games of the season. He was amazing.

For 2023 to be a success, the 49ers MUST:

  • Get back to the Super Bowl. The 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game in three of the last four postseasons, losing in each of the last two. The 49ers have made six NFC title game appearances over the last 12 postseasons. That's great. But they are 2-4 in those games, without a Super Bowl win to show for it. The Patriots and Chiefs are the only other teams with at least five conference championship appearances over that span. Both have won multiple Super Bowls. I don't mean to rub that in or anything. I'm just stating the facts. But the point remains: It's Super Bowl or bust for the team.

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