NFL

San Francisco 49ers 2023 NFL Season Preview and Picks

By Scott Kacsmar

The San Francisco 49ers have no shortage of quarterback drama these days. But head coach Kyle Shanahan is moving forward with Brock Purdy in one of the more anticipated sophomore seasons from a quarterback in NFL history.

Purdy is a legitimate question mark after his quick ascension last year from Mr. Irrelevant to one game away from becoming the first rookie quarterback to start a Super Bowl. But the sportsbooks are still very high on the 49ers in a weak NFC, making them one of the heaviest favorites for a division winner this season.

The 49ers also are tied for the fourth-best Super Bowl winner odds, and they have better odds to get to the Super Bowl from the NFC than anyone but the Eagles.

Is this finally the year for Shanahan’s talented squad, or will the quarterback position be a shortcoming again? We look back at 2022’s rollercoaster ride, the key offseason changes, the chances that Purdy fails, and the best 49ers bets for 2023.

2022 Season Recap: Needed a Fifth Quarterback

The 49ers were all over the map last year. They started with maybe the worst loss in the Shanahan era in Week 1 when they lost 19-10 in Chicago in a monsoon to a team that would finish 3-14 with the worst defense in the NFL. The weather played a factor, but that was a rough loss that did not look any better when the team also lost to the Broncos (5-12 team) and Falcons (7-10 team).

But somehow after starting 3-4 for the second year in a row, this shaped into what looked like the best team in the NFL last year. It just took one of the wildest journeys to get there as starting quarterback Trey Lance broke his ankle in Week 2.

Fortunately, Jimmy Garoppolo has been so reliable for Shanahan since 2017. It took a few weeks to get him comfortable again, but Garoppolo’s solid history against the Rams combined with the No. 1 defense’s destruction of LA’s offensive line led to a sweep of the defending champions and a 4-4 record.

The 49ers also traded for Christian McCaffrey from the Panthers, a perfect weapon for Shanahan to incorporate in this offense with Elijah Mitchell often getting injured. The defense was rocked by 44 points from the Chiefs in Week 7, but the 49ers came out of the bye with Garoppolo and McCaffrey leading a successful attack with a defense that got back on track quickly.

Just when the 49ers were on a roll, Garoppolo broke his foot against Miami. Brock Purdy, the last pick of the 2022 draft, had to come in and play. It was not his NFL debut as he threw a pick late in the Kansas City loss, but he came in against a solid Miami team and played well in a 33-17 win.

It was going to be Purdy the rest of the way for this team. His first start was against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady, and he opened up a 35-0 lead in that game, something no one had ever done before to Brady in his 23-year career. The 49ers won easily, 35-7, against a weak Tampa Bay team.

The next test was a rematch on a short week with Seattle, and Purdy passed that test too in a lower-scoring 21-13 win as Seattle still struggled to score on the 49ers. But the 49ers continued to roll with 37, 37, and 38 points in their final three games of the regular season, finishing 13-4 and claiming the No. 2 seed.

The 49ers did not beat any great teams down the stretch, but they were elite on both sides of the ball and playing as well as anyone. Purdy really saved his best game for the wild card round against Seattle. He passed for 332 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Brandon Aiyuk was a drop away from giving Purdy a 4th touchdown in that 41-23 win. No rookie quarterback has had numbers like that in a playoff game since Sammy Baugh did it way back in 1937.

In a playoff rematch with Dallas in the divisional round, the 49ers needed more from the defense and run game as it was the first time in 7 games where Purdy did not throw multiple touchdown passes. But McCaffrey scored a go-ahead touchdown run to start the fourth quarter, and the defense held on for a 19-12 win.

This set up the NFC Championship Game that the season deserved with the 49ers going to Philadelphia. But what could have been a classic quickly turned into a dud. The Eagles got away with a dropped pass on fourth down on a game-opening touchdown drive, then just 6 snaps into his first offensive series, Purdy’s elbow was blown up on a quick pressure by Haason Reddick.

That knocked Purdy out of the game and put backup Josh Johnson in as Garoppolo was just not ready to return from the foot injury. Johnson was soon concussed, and the 49ers were left without a quarterback who could throw for nearly half the game. Down 21-7, the 49ers had no excuse but to put Purdy back in the game. But he mostly just handed off due to the elbow, and the 49ers lost 31-7 in a major dud and disappointment.

It was a shame because the 49ers were rolling and a Super Bowl rematch with Kansas City would have been very interesting. Purdy was that close to becoming the first rookie quarterback to start a Super Bowl and doing it as Mr. Irrelevant and a third-string quarterback with an undefeated record would be the stuff of legends.

But it was not to be last year, a familiar tune for the 49ers who have now appeared in 6 of the last 12 NFC Championship Games without a Super Bowl win to show for it.

Offseason Review

The 49ers were able to return most of their core, which is great as it’s one of the best rosters in the league, if not the best. Jimmie Ward is gone at safety after a long run since 2014, and not every coach returned.

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was poached by the Texans to be their head coach after two successful years as DC with the 49ers. The team already went through this change when Robert Saleh took the Jets job in 2021. They will be fine with Steve Wilks, a veteran defensive coach who did a solid job as the interim coach with the Panthers last year.

Wilks also gets a new defensive tackle in Javon Hargraves, who had a career-high 11 sacks for the Eagles last year. The rich get richer when you can add a player like that to the front line with Arik Armstead and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.

Do not expect much out of the rookie draft class for the 49ers. Their highest pick was No. 87 where they took safety Ji’Ayir Brown, but the polarizing pick was Michigan kicker Jake Moody with the No. 99 pick. If you could get Justin Tucker with the No. 99 pick, you do it in a heartbeat. But Moody was not that good of a prospect, and he has already had multiple misses in the preseason. Putting unnecessary pressure on these kickers with picks that are too high for them is not a good thing, but hopefully Moody will not crumble like Roberto Aguayo, the bust who Tampa Bay drafted 59th overall in 2016.

Finally, the 49ers lost their quarterback safety net with Jimmy Garoppolo going to the Raiders. Sam Darnold is the new No. 2 to backup Purdy, and he has been a major disappointment in his career. But if someone can get adequate play out of Darnold, it would be Shanahan.

Trey Lance is still there as the No. 3 quarterback, and what more can we say about him at this point? It was a horrible decision to trade up to the No. 3 pick to take such an inexperienced quarterback from a weak college conference. It was bad luck for him to get seriously injured 5 quarters into his second season. But it’s all about Purdy in San Francisco for now.

This Year’s Area of Interest: Is Brock Purdy the New Tom Brady or RG3?

Thanks to a Drew Bledsoe injury, Tom Brady’s first NFL start came against Peyton Manning in 2001. Brock Purdy’s first NFL start came against Brady last season. Purdy was starting because Jimmy Garoppolo, who was drafted in 2014 to be Brady’s successor, was injured.

Is Purdy destined to be the new Brady, a late-round pick with no expectations who takes advantage of his situation to have an absurdly successful career?

Well, if Purdy was the next GOAT or LOAT (Luckiest of All Time), he probably wouldn’t have watched his elbow explode 6 snaps into his first title game start. Oddly enough, Brady left his first AFC Championship Game injured against the 2001 Steelers, but Bledsoe was healthy enough to play and helped New England win that game.

No such luck for these 49ers with Garoppolo still out. Now with Garoppolo in Vegas and Trey Lance an afterthought, this is the Purdy show in 2023 with defenses having tape to watch and expectations to make this seventh-round pick look like Mr. Irrelevant.

It should be a highly-anticipated sophomore season after how close Purdy was to having the most improbable rookie success story ever at quarterback. Everyone knows the Shanahan system is great for quarterbacks, helping players like Matt Schaub, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Garoppolo to some of the best statistics of their careers.

Even when Nick Mullens, irrelevant in his own way, had to start 16 games for Shanahan in 2018-20, he averaged 7.9 yards per attempt, which is one of the highest marks in NFL history. But Mullens also was 5-11 as a starter and had 25 touchdowns to 22 interceptions.

Before Purdy, Shanahan did not win with his quarterbacks not named Garoppolo. In fact, after Lance lost last year’s opener to Chicago, Shanahan was a disgusting 8-29 in games without Garoppolo starting.

But that record is quickly improving after the 49ers went 7-1 in Purdy’s starts, only losing after he injured his elbow, which required offseason surgery. The other complaint about Garoppolo was his lack of playoff production, but Purdy instantly had a better playoff game against Seattle than Garoppolo ever had for Shanahan. We were robbed of seeing what he would have done against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

Success as a rookie quarterback is a great indicator for long-term success in the NFL. But in some of the cases where this did not work out, injury was a huge factor. Unfortunately, one of those cases was Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft by Washington, which had Shanahan as his dad’s offensive coordinator. That postseason, the Shanahans infamously put a hobbled RG3 back in the game, and he tore his ACL.

Griffin was never the same in his NFL career. It is really the most famous case of a rookie quarterback ruined by injury since Greg Cook, who shined with the 1969 Bengals and could have been Joe Montana before there was a Joe Montana. But after his absurd rookie season where he averaged 9.4 yards per pass (still the rookie record) in the AFL, Cook threw just 3 more passes in his NFL career due to shoulder injuries.

Pro Football Reference has a stat called Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt Index (ANY/A+), which accounts for sacks and era. If you look at the 10 rookie quarterbacks with the highest ANY/A+ in the Super Bowl era, Purdy is prominently featured on a list with Cook, RG3, and seven other players you can call the real deal:

  • 1. Dan Marino, 1983 Dolphins – 131
  • 2. Greg Cook, 1969 Bengals – 127
  • 3. Dak Prescott, 2016 Cowboys – 125
  • 4. Brock Purdy, 2022 49ers – 123
  • 5. Robert Griffin III, 2012 Redskins – 120
  • 6. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004 Steelers – 119
  • 7. Matt Ryan, 2008 Falcons – 116
  • 8. Russell Wilson, 2012 Seahawks – 114
  • 9. Deshaun Watson, 2017 Texans – 114
  • 10. Justin Herbert, 2020 Chargers – 108

Purdy wears the No. 13 in honor of Dan Marino, so let’s hope he takes after him in his career. It is a bit scary to see Purdy join Griffin and Cook as the only quarterbacks here to have surgery after their rookie season. A torn ACL ended Deshaun Watson’s rookie year, but that was also midway through the year. An ACL feels less troublesome for a quarterback than anything relating to his throwing arm. Purdy suffered a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament.

Purdy has not played much this preseason, but he did complete 4-of-5 passes for 65 yards against Denver last week. When the 49ers are the best offense at getting YAC plays with some of the best YAC players in the world, it is not like Purdy needs a strong gun of an arm to throw deep all over the field. They will scheme receivers open and make his job easier.

Purdy will hopefully have worked on his decision making after getting away with several dropped interceptions last year. That happens in this game, but Purdy is in an enviable position with an offense and defense built to win a Super Bowl now.

If Purdy does what he was doing last year for a full season, then the whole quarterback evaluation process may need to be trashed and rebuilt. Because if San Francisco’s “QB Whisperer” that saw so much potential in Trey Lance only took a late flyer on Purdy and only started him because Lance and Garoppolo broke a bone, then what does that say about the state of evaluating the most important position in football?

Best Bets for the 2023 49ers

The path back to the playoffs starts with winning your division, which the 49ers are in a great position to do again, which would be their first repeat since 2011-12.

  • The Seahawks have their own quarterback legitimacy question to answer with Geno Smith coming off a career year, they haven’t had a top 10 defense since 2016, and rookie wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba is already injured.
  • The Rams are basically Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp playing catch while Aaron Donald plays with 10 NPCs on defense.
  • The Cardinals are projected to be the worst team in the league and may just go full tank mode this season as Kyler Murray does not sound like he is coming back any time soon.

Even if Purdy bombed this year, can’t you see Shanahan sticking Darnold or Lance in there and having enough success to win this division? The skill players are extremely talented, and the defense should still be one of the best in the league. It is the best spot for a quarterback to be in right now.

But does this team beat the Eagles this year? They meet in Week 13 in Philadelphia again. They also meet the Cowboys again in Week 5, and that could be big for Dallas after having to prepare for this team cold the last two playoffs. Maybe getting everything on tape favors Dallas in a playoff rematch this time.

The 49ers played a league-low 5 games against teams with a winning record last regular season, and that includes a pair of games against 9-8 Seattle. That number could end up being 8 or 9 such games this year.

That is why it is hard to trust the 49ers to be a good Super Bowl pick. But over 10.5 wins and division champs? Yes, those feel like safe bets this year. Even if the 49ers lose to the Steelers, Cowboys, Bengals, Seahawks, Eagles, and Ravens, that would be enough to go 11-6. They may even win half or most of those games. Remember, this team lost to three double-digit losses teams early last year, so it’s not all about the tough matchups.

Rather than be like the 49ers of the 1980s or 1990s, the Shanahan-era 49ers feel more like the 1970s Rams, who turned 7 straight division titles into an 0-1 Super Bowl record and 1-4 NFC Championship Game record because they kept changing quarterbacks every few years.

In fact, the Rams and 49ers are tied for the 2nd-longest streaks in NFL history of Conference Championship Game appearances without a Super Bowl win. The last 7 times the 49ers have been to the NFC Championship Game, they have no Super Bowl wins. The only longer streak is Minnesota, turning 9 appearances in the NFC Championship Game into zero rings.

Maybe the 49ers figure it out this year and Purdy is a unicorn you should consider a little MVP bet for. But I would not go all in on the 49ers for the Super Bowl this year.

NFL Pick: San Francisco 49ers to win NFC West (-165 at FanDuel)

NFL Pick: San Francisco 49ers over 10.5 wins (-162 at FanDuel)

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