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State of the Franchise: Free of expectations, 49ers can grow

Where does every NFL franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set 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 San Francisco 49ers organization, fans of the team worldwide and those who are here just to see George Kittledeliver a Stone-Cold stunner:

The 49ers franchise is one of the most storied of the Super Bowl era, the first in NFL history to win five Lombardi Trophies. But it's been awhile since they've reached those heights. The Niners came tantalizingly close in Super Bowl XLVII (seriously, try Frank Gore at least once), but ultimately, San Francisco hasn't won a title since the 1994 season. Well, at least in football. The Bay Area could celebrate the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum, and in hoops, there's the Warriors. But let's talk Super Bowl.

How the 49ers got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The highs:

-- Beating the Raiders, 34-3, on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 9. Former practice-squad guy Nick Mullenswas dealing, throwing for 262 yards and three touchdowns and compiling a passer rating of 151.9 while filling in for an injured C.J. Beathard, who himself had been filling in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, and it looked like perhaps Mullens was going to *Matt Flynn* his way to a huge contract in the offseason. Seriously, Mullens should have walked off after that. Because, like a microcosm of the Niners' season, the rest of Mullens' campaign did not live up to the expectations set by his debut. Setting that game aside, his numbers from 2018 looked like this: 63.5% completion rate, 10:10 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 85.0, with a 2-5 record.

-- Beating the Seahawks in overtime in Week 15. Seattle had won four straight and was desperately trying to make the playoffs. San Francisco had won three games all season and had just been rolled by the Seahawks in a 43-16 loss in Week 13. And yet, the Niners hung on to beat Seattle for the first time since December of 2013. As late bright spots go in otherwise lost seasons, this was pretty solid.

-- Signing Richard Sherman. In 13 games heading into the 2018 offseason, Sherman had collected 41 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defensed in 13 games against San Francisco. So it must have been nice for the Niners to add him to their side and snatch up a veteran leader who had reached four Pro Bowls for the division-rival Seahawks. If nothing else, it ensured more of those revenge games we love to scream about.

The lows:

-- Jimmy Garoppolo tearing his ACL. The 49ers had high hopes heading into the season, but they were pretty much squashed when Garoppolo went down in the fourth quarter of a 38-27 loss at Kansas City in Week 3. We'll delve further into this below, but for now, let's just say the plan was not to have Mullens and Beathard combine to throw five times as many passes as Jimmy G. It didn't help that, in addition to losing the quarterback, San Francisco also was without prized free-agent running back Jerick McKinnon, who tore his ACL before the season started.

-- Reuben Foster getting released. When Foster was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence battery in November, it marked the third incident that resulted in criminal charges since the linebacker was drafted in the first round in 2017. The team subsequently released him, ending a Niners tenure that never really got off the ground. The second pick of the Shanahan-John Lynch era left the Niners with just 16 appearances, 101 tackles and zero sacks to his name. (The charge was later dropped, and Foster wound up with the Redskins before tearing the ACL in his left knee this month.)

-- Getting swept by the Arizona Cardinals. On the season, San Francisco scored 117 more points than Arizona and gained 1,904 more yards. And yet, the Cardinals won both of their games. Add to this indignity the twist that Arizona -- and not the team that lost twice to Arizona -- ended up with the top overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, because San Francisco won four games to the Cardinals' three. I mean, come on. Imagine if the Niners had been able to make the Cardinals pay through the roof for the right to draft Kyler Murray.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Kyle Shanahan. He enters his third season with the 49ers after arriving with high expectations in 2017, as both the son of (soon-to-be Hall of Fame?) coach Mike Shanahan and one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. But Shanahan hasn't translated that promise into wins. Yet. The 49ers overachieved down the stretch in 2017, which set expectations unrealistically high for 2018. And then all of the unpleasantness happened with the injuries, and we never got a true gauge of where this team is. I still believe in Shanahan, and I feel like if he were a free agent right now, he'd be gobbled up like free pizza in the breakroom.

Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo. He has progressed well from his injury, and he's on track to be ready for training camp. He even took time away from reveling at the Kentucky Derby to speak to Tom Brady, his former Patriots teammate, who returned from a similar injury suffered in 2008. So that's the good.

But Garoppolo, who signed a five-year, $137.5 million deal in February of 2018 after being traded from New England in October of 2017, is going to need to step up this season. He threw three interceptions in the season-opening loss at Minnesota, and he was fortunate that a potentially crushing pick-six was wiped out by a penalty in the team's win over the Lions in Week 2. That said, he played really well against the Chiefs before suffering the ACL injury; in fact, he led the 49ers on three consecutive scoring drives before his season ended. Had he not been injured, could the 49ers have won that game, improving to 2-1 instead of embarking on a six-game losing skid? It's possible.

I'm a huge believer in Garoppolo. But it's fair to ask if he's the guy who won his first seven NFL starts, including five to close out 2017, or the guy who stumbled out of the gate in 2018.

Projected 2019 MVP: George Kittle, tight end. The 2017 fifth-round pick was quite the revelation for the 49ers last year. Kittle finished 2018 with 88 receptions and five touchdowns -- and, more importantly, he broke the long-standing NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end. You know, one of the most-storied marks in NFL history, a record you thought would never be broken: the record set by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelceless than an hour before Kittle snapped it.

It's worth noting that earlier in the season, Kittle was poised to set the record for most receiving yards in a game by a tight end -- but Shanahan failed to make sure Kittle got the ball, and he ended the game a few yards short. It's safe to say Shanahan wasn't going to let something like that happen again.

It's also worth noting that, while Kelce racked up his yardage total with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, Kittle played with a consortium of Mullens and Beathard. That's kind of like winning the Daytona 500 in a Prius.

2019 breakout star: Nick Bosa, pass rusher. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but yeah -- the No. 2 overall pick was considered the top prospect in the draft by some, and he addresses the biggest need for the 49ers, which is the pass rush.

Another rookie to know: Deebo Samuel, receiver. Being a wide receiver for the 49ers carries sky-high expectations, considering the lineage includes Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. The current regime would be cool with the second-round pick being a more physical/versatile version of Pierre Garcon.

Free-agent addition: Kwon Alexander, LB. Like Garoppolo, Alexander is a key player coming off an ACL tear. San Francisco made him the league's second-highest paid inside linebacker (average of $13.5 million per year) this offseason, so expectations are high, but he's going to form a nice tandem with Fred Warner. They'll be one of the NFL's most athletic duos at ILB. Alexander relies a lot on his speed and can make players in coverage, hence the six career interceptions.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. With the Rams and Seahawks drawing attention at the top of the NFC West, the 49ers will be afforded the opportunity to float by, like one of those quiet house guests on "Big Brother" who just seems to hang around all season, before you realize they are going to end up in the finals. The 49ers were a hip playoff pick last year after winning five straight to close out 2017, even though there seemed to be some huge question marks about the team. This year, they'll get a chance to actually play some regular-season games before folks begin making declarations about them.

Will the 49ers be able to ...

Get to the quarterback? The 49ers tied for 22nd last year with 37 sacks. And that is where Bosa and Dee Ford (who was acquired in a trade with the Chiefs) should be able to help. Maybe the two of them can help inspire former first-round pick Solomon Thomas. Remember when people clowned on the Bears for moving up to get Mitch Trubisky at No. 2 overall by swapping spots with the Niners, who drafted Thomas at No. 3 in 2017? Yeah, well, Thomas has just 72 tackles and 4.0 sacks in two seasons since, so it's time for him to start making some noise.

Get an interception from a cornerback? Seriously, the 49ers had two picks last year as a team -- that was five fewer than the next closest team. And none of those interceptions were recorded by a corner. In addition to signing Sherman last year, the Niners re-upped Jimmie Ward (who suffered a broken collarbone last week but is expected to be ready for camp) and inked Jason Verrett to a one-year deal this year. Ultimately, you'd like to see 2017 third-rounder Ahkello Witherspoon take a step.

Find a role for Jalen Hurd? The selection of Hurd in the third round of this year's draft was a frisky pick by the 49ers, who lack offensive firepower outside of Kittle, and Hurd could be a lot of fun for this team. He's the kind of versatile offensive weapon Shanahan could truly take advantage of.

Three key dates:

-- Week 1 at the Bucs. The 49ers will see a familiar foe when they face new Bucs coach Bruce Arians, who used to face them regularly when he helmed the Cardinals. San Francisco's first two games are on the road (at the Bengals in Week 2), providing a strong test for this team.

-- Week 5 vs. the Browns. The 49ers get their bye in Week 4, then play host to the Browns, who are rolling into this season as this year's version of the 2018 49ers: a team heavy on hope and hype but light on proven success.

-- Week 6 at the Rams. It's the old Ric Flair adage: If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man.

One storyline people are overlooking:The 49ers have a sneaky-good running back situation. Free-agent signee Tevin Coleman was a nice pickup from Atlanta. After all, Shanahan was part of the Falcons staff that drafted Coleman, so this is an obvious fit (and Coleman thinks Shanahan is even more creative than he used to be, which is cool). Because of Coleman's arrival, the 49ers can ease McKinnon back into the rotation after his recovery from the ACL tear that cost him 2018. And then you also have Matt Breida and one of my favorite fullbacks, Kyle Juszczyk. It'll be one of those situations where fantasy enthusiasts get really heated about not knowing which running back to start, but it'll work out well in real-football terms.

One storyline people are overthinking:The potential of a rift developing between general manager John Lynch and Shanahan. Reports of such a rift were quickly dismissed by Shanahan. And there is no reason to doubt him. After all, Lynch played for Kyle's father, and Kyle presumably had a say in Lynch's hiring in the first place. But you can't blame 49ers fans for being a little edgy when you consider the way the Jim Harbaugh era ended.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the 49ers MUST ...

-- Get to at least .500. After the team fell so far short of expectations in 2018, let's try to hit this more attainable benchmark.

-- Not lose to the Cardinals this year. Or at least, they can't get swept again.

-- Split with the Rams and Seahawks. I'm not saying the 49ers need to win the NFC West or make the playoffs. (Not that you would turn down any of those things.) What I believe 49ers fans would love to see is some progress, something tangible to point to and say, "Hey look, we're almost there." The 49ers' roster isn't as complete as those of the Rams and Seahawks. But there is the talent to compete. All the fans are asking for is to that have that one moment where they can laud a hard-fought victory over their friends. I mean, when the Bears were bad (so, so long ago) I wouldn't let my Steelers friends hear the end of it when Chicago beat them. And sometimes that's all you need. Those small victories.

In closing

The 49ers are in a great spot. People were too excited last year, and there was no way to deliver on those expectations. Now they're back to being the quiet underdog, in position to under-promise and over-deliver. I know some of you will look back to 2017 and say this team should be a top-10 squad when everyone's healthy. But there are a lot of areas of concern. I could easily see San Francisco winning 12 games or scuffling to seven wins. The most important thing, to me, is demonstrating that the Niners are moving in the right direction.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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