At this time a year ago, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the most-hyped teams in the NFL. The Niners had just had an aggressive free-agency period, used a Top 10 pick in the 2018 draft on offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey and handed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a (at the time) record-setting five-year, $137.5 million contract.
Then the wheels fell off. Free-agent tailback Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL in training camp. Three weeks into the season, Garoppolo followed suit. And all that preseason hoopla faded into a 4-12 disaster of a campaign.
Now, the 49ers have again attacked both sides of the ball in free agency and the 2019 draft. On paper at least, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan appear to have assembled a relatively formidable roster.
But unless Garoppolo can stay healthy and play up to that contract, it's not really going to matter how many players the 49ers have added around him. Whom the team signed or drafted.
For better or worse, the 49ers will go as far in 2019 as James Richard Garoppolo takes them.
For his part, Garoppolo told reporters his rehab is progressing and he's hoping to be medically cleared for training camp in July.
"I think it's a process," Garoppolo said. "Every movement, throwing, cutting, jumping, whatever it is. But, once you've done it a couple times, your body reacts pretty quickly and remembers how to do it.
"I'm willing to do whatever. Whatever they say, I'll do."
As Jennifer Lee Chan reported for NBC Sports, while Garoppolo's been rehabbing, he's also been working on improving his game—including spending time under the tutelage of Kyle Shanahan's father, Mike, a two-time Super Bowl winner in his own right as a coach.
"It's been a very productive offseason," Garoppolo said. "Whether it was in the film room or out on the field. Even trying new things. Different drops, how your movement is. It's been a very productive offseason."
Garoppolo's progression as a player in 2019 is as important as his knee checking out. After going 5-0 as the starter down the stretch in San Francisco in 2017 after coming over in a midseason trade with the New England Patriots—a run that landed Garoppolo that big contract—the 27-year-old took a step back last year. In those three games prior to getting hurt, his completion percentage dropped from 67.4 to 59.6. His QBR free-fell from 80.7 in 2017 to 26.9 a year ago.
Garoppolo wasn't going to win every start a la 2017, but he needs to find a better middle ground between the highs of 2017 and the lows of 2018.
Most of the 49ers offseason has been geared toward helping Garoppolo find that middle ground.
On offense, Lynch took a number of steps to improve the skill-position talent around Garoppolo. The 49ers brought in veteran tailback Tevin Coleman on a two-year, $10 million contract after he averaged 4.8 yards a carry and topped 1,000 total yards from scrimmage for the first time in his career.
The Jerick McKinnon era may well be over before it even starts.
The 49ers also double-dipped at the wide receiver position on Day 2 of the 2019 draft. The second of those picks, Baylor wideout Jalen Hurd, is a bit of a project—Hurd's a 6'5", 226-pound converted running back with just one year of experience as a wide receiver.
South Carolina's Deebo Samuel, on the other hand, is a much more NFL-ready prospect. There's a reason the 5'11", 214-pounder was the third player at his position drafted this year. He's a polished route-runner who is tough at the catch point and has good hands. Assuming things progress as planned, Samuel should be the Week 1 starter in the slot for the 49ers.
San Francisco has undergone an even more dramatic overhaul on the defensive side of the ball. With the addition of Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs and Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, the 49ers now have no fewer than five former first-round picks on the defensive line. Two of those players (Ford and DeForest Buckner) racked up double-digit sacks in 2018.
It has the makings of one of the better front fours in the league.
The 49ers weren't done there. After the in-season release of Reuben Foster last year, Lynch replaced him in the offseason by signing Kwon Alexander to a four-year, $54 million contract. Alexander tore his ACL in October in Tampa Bay, but the 24-year-old led the NFL with 108 solo tackles as recently as 2016.
In 2018, the 49ers finished a full nine games behind the division-winning Los Angeles Rams and six games behind the wild-card Seattle Seahawks. But on paper at least, the 49ers aren't that much worse than those playoff contenders.
Of course, NFL games aren't played on paper. And all the changes the 49ers made this offseason and last aren't going to amount to much if Garoppolo doesn't play up to his paycheck—doesn't perform like the sixth-highest-paid signal-caller in the NFL.
Unless Garoppolo completes a lot more than the 59.6 percent of his attempts from a year ago and improves a touchdown-to-interception ratio of just plus-four over the last two seasons combined, it's not going to matter how many offensive weapons the team added around Garoppolo or how much the defense has improved.
Those weapons may help the 49ers move the football, and those new additions on defense may help keep the team in games. But at some point, it's going to fall to one person to lead the Niners to victory.
The aforementioned James Richard Garoppolo. It's why he makes the big bucks.
There's a flip side to that coin, though. Garoppolo's been put in a better position to succeed than he was a year ago—and light-years better than 2017. The offense is better. The defense is better. And Kyle Shanahan remains one of the brightest offensive minds in the game.
Garoppolo may be 27 and have a hefty salary, but he's not exactly a known commodity. We're still talking about a quarterback who has made all of 10 career starts.
If Garoppolo's healthy and takes the next step as a quarterback in 2019—if he takes full advantage of the upgrades around him—then the San Francisco 49ers just might become the dark-horse playoff contenders this year that so many expected them to be a season ago.
Better late than never.