The 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season last year, barely edging out the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. San Francisco should be good again in 2020, and certainly capable of contending for a playoff spot — if not more. That said, there’s reason to believe the Niners will have a worse record in the season ahead, even if they’re not necessarily a worse team.
A few days after San Francisco’s heartbreaking loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, early NFL season win totals were posted, and the 49ers were given an over/under of 10.5 victories. Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager recently examined some of his favorite values based on those early win total projections, and San Francisco’s ‘under’ was among the select few.
“The 49ers are in a very similar place to where the Los Angeles Rams were a season ago,” Eager wrote. “They have a great, young offensive mind, a quarterback who is good but needs infrastructure to succeed and a defense that was among the league’s best, especially up front.”
In explaining his reasoning for the under, Eager focused on some of San Francisco’s pending free agents.
“With Emmanuel Sanders, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward set to be free agents, and with only $13 million in cap space and a situation where the team likely needs to get better fundamentally just to stay the same, look for the 49ers to remain a good team in 2020 but, like the Rams, fall short of double-digit-win expectations against a schedule that includes non-NFC West opponents New England, Dallas, Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay.”
That last bit is important, too. As part of the league’s effort to create parity, the 49ers had a third-place schedule last season, after finishing in third place in the NFC West in 2018. That obviously won’t be the case in 2020, as San Francisco will play a first-place schedule as the reigning NFC West champions.
So, Eager brings up several good points. The 49ers will not only have a tougher schedule in the coming season, but also might be without one or more marquee players that helped them reach the Super Bowl. Add in the fact that San Francisco won’t be sneaking up on any teams in the year ahead, and it’s easy to understand why the Niners are expected to win fewer games in 2020 than they did in 2019.
However, I’d caution against comparing the 2020 49ers to the 2019 Rams.
Whereas San Francisco reached the Super Bowl with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo carrying a $20 million cap hit, Los Angeles did so while Jared Goff still was on his rookie contract, which carried a cap hit of just under $3 million. That’s an extra $17 million the Rams could comparatively spread around their roster to build a Super Bowl contender that the 49ers didn’t have.
This is why good quarterbacks on rookie contracts are so valuable.
Los Angeles ran into trouble once Goff’s rookie contract concluded — prior to the start of last season. He carried a $26 million cap hit this past season, and without that additional financial flexibility, the Rams had to cut costs elsewhere, which significantly deteriorated their overall depth. The end result? Going from Super Bowl runner-up to a 9-7 non-playoff team.
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While the 49ers will have to make some tough decisions due to their salary-cap constraints as Eager noted, the space they have already has been accounted for their QB’s large salary. Yes, they still need to re-sign some big-money players, but they should be far better able to retain the depth that made them so formidable than the Rams proved capable of.
The odds are against San Francisco reaching at least 13 regular-season wins in 2020. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a worse team, though, and expecting a three-victory dropoff (or more) seems a bit extreme for a team that was minutes away from winning the Lombardi Trophy, and should return most of what made them so dominant.
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