49ers X-factors and players to watch
The San Francisco 49ers are fresh out of wide receivers — particularly on the outside — except for second-year receiver Kendrick Bourne. Bourne has seen a strong uptick in his snap count with Mullens under center, and has now seen the field for over half of the 49ers’ offensive plays this season. With 428 receiving yards on the year, Bourne will need to step his game up on Sunday, as the 6-foot-1 wideout will rarely leave the field, given the fact he will be the team’s only option with a decent combination of size and experience at the wide receiver position.
One of those wideouts lacking both size and experience is rookie wide receiver Richie James. Given his standout preseason, his electric touchdown return, slot wideout Trent Taylor’s sophomore slump and the injuries sustained to the 49ers’ wide receiving corps, it’s surprising that Shanahan has kept James on the sideline for most of 2018. But now that the Niners’ wideout cupboard is bare, James should see his most extensive action of the year in Week 17. James, who will surely face competition at the position in 2019, will be aiming for a breakout performance on Sunday.
What a difference a play can make. Prior to Week 16, quarterback Nick Mullens found his way onto our list of players to watch partially due to the excessive praise the QB was receiving from some in the media:
"Mullens’ respectable play has even caused some to question whether the former undrafted free-agent will force the 49ers to abandon franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While the argument is more provocative than realistic, it’s quite telling that six weeks after playing second fiddle to backup QB C.J. Beathard, Mullens is now being compared to the NFL’s elite."
Days after we were forced to laugh at the over-the-top glowing coverage of the 49ers’ third-string quarterback, suddenly everyone was laughing at Mullens after his ill-advised hail-mary pass landed out-of-bounds on a key fourth down. As much as Mullens would like to pretend that last week never happened, it did, and the only way to get fans to forget his blunder is to give them something impressive to remember. Unfortunately for the young quarterback, he has just one game to do so, and if Mullens fails, it’s going to be a very long offseason.
Shanahan’s job isn’t in jeopardy this offseason, but it will be next year if the team has another poor showing in 2019. Matt Barrows of The Athletic may have summarized it best in an article earlier this week:
"The honeymoon has ended. The hot seats are plugged in. The electricity is on. Welcome to 2019 when there will be plenty at stake."
After going out with a bang at the end of 2017, Shanahan didn’t even fizzle in Week 16 of 2018. Last week, the 49ers’ unofficial offensive coordinator and offensive mastermind was outcoached by both of the Bears’ coordinators, and even his own defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who had much of the 49ers’ fan base calling for his head just a month prior. Shanahan isn’t the type of coach who would intentionally tank a game, but he sure coached like it last Sunday. Hopefully, Shanahan brings a little more passion in Week 17, no matter the outcome of the game.