Roster turnover is inevitable in the NFL. However, the 49ers were able to bring back a majority of their roster from last season’s deep playoff run. Let’s look at a few players on offense and defense who need to step up their game for the 49ers to have early success.
49ers Wide Receiver, Brandon Aiyuk
Third-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk is poised to break out in 2022. He is an intricate piece of Kyle Shanahan’s offense and the 49ers need to target him in the passing game. He worked relentlessly this offseason to build trust with starting quarterback Trey Lance. In training camp, Aiyuk illustrated his growth as a football player, widely regarded as the most improved player on the field.
Early in 2021, Aiyuk was in the “doghouse” for unknown reasons. He did not receive many targets despite the 49er offense putting up points. Aiyuk only had one game last season with double-digit targets, Week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals and one 100-yard game coming in a playoff-clinching victory in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams.
Deebo Samuel emerged as the leading offensive weapon for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Partially to the limitations of Jimmy Garoppolo, Brandon Aiyuk could not impact the game on a week-to-week basis. With Trey Lance, the 49ers will likely target Aiyuk deep and on the outside more frequently.
Aiyuk is what you could call a “tactician” or in other words, an elite route runner. While he is not the fastest player on the team, he creates more separation downfield than any other 49er receiver. Some of his best route-running was displayed in last season’s NFC Wild Card matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.
Aiyuk also has one of the best release packages in the NFL. He synchronizes his hands and feet, not allowing press coverage to halt him at the line of scrimmage. Lance connecting with Aiyuk early and often will be a key to success for the 49ers’ offense in 2022.
49ers Left Guard, Aaron Banks
The 49ers were not able to re-sign Pro-Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson, who signed a massive contract with the New York Jets. He was reliable and a rock solid piece for the 49er offense. Tomlinson played in every single game as a 49er, playing 100% of possible snaps four out of five seasons. The only season he did not play every snap was in 2018, of which he played 97%.
Second-year guard out of Notre Dame, Aaron Banks is a huge question mark heading into the 2022 season. The 49ers drafted Banks with their second-round pick in 2021, a surprising draft choice as there were many other players available at pressing needs. Regardless, Banks steps in as the starting left guard replacing Laken Tomlinson, and will have the responsibility of protecting Trey Lance this year.
In the past, general manager John Lynch spoke highly of Banks.
“Aaron Banks, in my belief, is going to be a great player for us going forward,” Lynch said. “I’m very confident in that.”
Banks does not need to be elite this year, but he needs to prove he can be reliable going forward.
The 49ers open their 2022 campaign on the road against Chicago. This is a great opportunity for Banks to dominate a lackluster Bears interior defensive line. Robert Quinn who will be lining up outside poses the only threat along the front. However, if Banks struggles or exhibits signs of inconsistency, the 49ers could be in trouble and should look to sign or trade for a guard or elevate Jason Poe from the practice squad.
49ers Defensive Tackle, Javon Kinlaw
The 49ers lost D.J. Jones in free agency signing a 3-year $30 million contract with the Denver Broncos. Jones, undoubtedly one of the most underrated run defenders in football, played in all seventeen games last season. Can Javon Kinlaw produce at the same level as Jones in 2022?
The franchise selected Kinlaw with their first-round pick of the 2020 NFL Draft after trading All-Pro DeForest Buckner. Kinlaw came out of South Carolina with huge upside, but there were questions regarding his health. Which unfortunately came to fruition in 2021 as Kinlaw missed most of the season with a knee injury.
In eighteen games, the 49ers defensive tackle accumulated only 1.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss. Kinlaw needs to perform now as the franchise may not pick up his fifth-year option. However, in the 49ers’ second preseason game, Kinlaw looked unstoppable evading the Vikings right guard and sacking Kellen Mond for a huge loss.
Kinlaw might be the most important player on the defense this year. For the 49ers defense to dominate this season, Kinlaw needs to do the following: stop the run efficiently, demand double teams, and explode off the line of scrimmage. If he cannot allow Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead to work on third down in one-on-one situations, the Niners’ defense will struggle to get off the field.
49ers Safety, Talanoa Hufanga
A few weeks ago the 49ers longest tenured player, Jimmie Ward, sustained a major hamstring injury, leaving him on the short-term injured reserve and will miss at least four games. Additionally, the 49ers chose not to re-sign Jaquiski Tartt, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles. This is a head-scratching move as the organization gambles heading into Week One with only three safeties on the depth chart.
The 2021 fifth-round draft pick out of USC, Talanoa Hufanga becomes an important piece for DeMeco Ryans. While he is not the flashiest player, his football IQ and positioning make him a formidable NFL player. Hufanga improved throughout the season and made two game-changing plays in the 2021 NFC Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers. First, Hufanga maintained outside leverage on a blocked punt and positioned himself for the game-tying scoop and score. On the very next drive, Hufanga ran stride for stride with Davante Adams leading to an incompletion.
Hufanga exhibited a relentless work ethic in training by taking the field before any other 49er. There are two new players in the 49ers’ secondary, George Odum and Charvarius Ward making Hufanga’s vocal leadership vital to the unit. Ryans commented on this.
“[Hufanga] is doing a great job being more vocal that’s what I asked of him,” Ryans said. “Be more vocal being in more of that leadership role in the safety position, we ask a lot of those guys.”
Hufanga will have to hold down the fort until Jimmie Ward returns from injury. Thankfully, the 49ers do not face an elite wide receiving core for the first two games.
The 49ers will rely on Aiyuk, Banks, Kinlaw, and Hufanga as core pieces of the team this year. Individually, these players have the opportunity to elevate themselves from role players to Pro-Bowl caliber players and warrant contract extensions in the near future. Who will elevate their game? We’ll just have to wait and see.