3 49ers Players Who Need to Step Up for a SF Playoff Push

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistOctober 13, 2021

3 49ers Players Who Need to Step Up for a SF Playoff Push

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    It's only five games into the NFL season, but Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers' 2021 campaign is on the ropes. 

    That's what happens when you start 2-3 in the toughest division in the NFL. After starting the season with two wins, the Niners are now at the bottom of the NFC West and have lost three straight games. 

    The Week 6 bye couldn't be coming at a better time. 

    It gives the team a week to regroup and get healthy with a tipping-point game coming up in Week 7. The Niners will play the Colts on Sunday Night Football, and while it's hard to say a game in Week 7 is do or die, the 49ers' would certainly be up against it with a loss. 

    That gives the Niners two weeks to figure out some things and be healthier and rejuvenated in time to get things back on track. 

    While adjustments need to be made and some players just need to get healthy, getting more from these three names would certainly help San Francisco get into the playoff picture over the next month. 

QB Jimmy Garoppolo

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    You could put Trey Lance on this list as well. He got the start in the 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals after Jimmy Garoppolo was ruled out with a calf injury. 

    It wasn't pretty, though. The rookie completed just over half of his passes for 192 yards and threw a pick while taking two sacks. He did add 89 yards on the ground, but the offense generated just 10 points. The young signal-caller completed one pass on the touchdown drive. 

    If the Niners are to make the playoffs, it feels like it will be with Garoppolo starting the majority of the games the rest of the way. 

    Starting Lance is not necessarily the wrong decision. It might be best for the team's long-term development, but it's clear he is going to come with the highs and lows you'd expect from a rookie quarterback. 

    At this point, injuries are to be expected for Garoppolo. He's struggled with staying healthy his whole career, but he has to play better when he's in the lineup.

    According to PFF charting, the 29-year-old has one of the worst ratios between what they deem "big-time throws" and turnover-worthy plays. In essence, he isn't making difficult throws and yet turns over the ball. 

    So, while Garoppolo's stats look OK on the surface, he's going to have to prove he's worthy of his $26.3 million cap hit if the Niners are to turn things around. 

WR Brandon Aiyuk

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    It doesn't help either quarterback that Brandon Aiyuk simply hasn't made the leap that was expected of him from Year 1 to Year 2. 

    Five weeks into the season, the 23-year-old is on pace for 26 catches for 288 yards and three touchdowns. In his rookie campaign, he had 60 catches for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. And that was with Nick Mullens throwing to him the majority of the time. 

    The offense hasn't fully felt the effect of Aiyuk's disappointing start thanks to dominant performances from Deebo Samuel. At some point, though, the offense has to be better, and it's going to need Aiyuk to emerge as a legitimate second playmaker for that to happen. 

    Head coach Kyle Shanahan has preached patience with the second-year player. 

    "We know Aiyuk can be a weapon," he told the Tolbert, Krueger and Brooks Podcast (h/t Josh Schrock of NBC Sports). "That's why we've got him here. I'm a big fan of Aiyuk, but he's not there yet. He's still coming along. At times, he does it at a high level. We just want him to be a little bit more consistent, and I think his time will come. It's a matter of time."

    That was before the loss to the Cardinals in which the Arizona State product had two catches for 32 yards. A 26-yarder was his longest gain of the season.

    Perhaps it's a sign that Aiyuk is going to finally step into the role he was projected to have at the beginning of the season. 

DT Javon Kinlaw

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Aiyuk isn't the only 2020 first-rounder the Niners need to step up. Javon Kinlaw was brought in as the replacement for DeForest Buckner, but he isn't performing at that level right now. 

    If the Niners are going to be a playoff team this season, it's going to be on the back of a dominant defense. Specifically, they have the ability to be one of the most disruptive defensive fronts in the league. 

    Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa are among the most productive edge defenders in the NFL. They are ranked as the third- and fourth-graded edge players in the league by Pro Football Focus

    What would take them to the next level is having a defensive tackle who can take advantage of the one-on-ones created by those two. So far, Kinlaw has been lackluster as a pass-rusher. He has two hurries and three hits on the season with no sacks, per Sports Info Solutions

    The 24-year-old has been hindered by a knee injury, so there's still hope he turns things around. The Niners unlocking their potential on defense demands it. 

            

    All advanced statistics and snap counts via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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