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Wait, hold on — it’s football season already?

Well, in that case, welcome to the 2020 NFL season! The 2019 season felt like it ended a different lifetime ago, before what felt like the longest offseason in NFL history.

Because there were no preseason games due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 49ers jump right into Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, who are on the rise, and a popular breakout pick. Here’s what you need to know:

They definitely got better, but to what extent?

The short answer to that question is “I don’t know.” The long answer is that they added a couple of pieces on offense and defense that should have a big impact, but it’s hard to tell just how good of a team they really are.

First off, they traded for one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in DeAndre Hopkins. A superstar at the position, Hopkins immediately upgrades an offense that was already on the rise.

49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh will have his hands full preparing for Hopkins. Here’s what he had to say about the Cardinals newest receiver:

“We were blessed to be able to play [DeAndre Hopkins] when we were in Jacksonville. He’s an alpha dog. Phenomenal wide receiver, very, very physical. It’s fun, you get the most physical receiver in the game in Week 1, and it’s going to be a tremendous challenge. I’m sure that they’re excited and they’ve got a million ways that they can already use him. We’ve just got to play our game and do the best we can.”

In the NFL Draft, Arizona selected star LB Isaiah Simmons with the eighth overall pick, and OT Josh Jones in the third round. Those were two positions that they needed upgrades at, and they got it done. Expectations for those two should be tempered, just because they are rookies and it takes a little while for most rookies to come into their own, now more than ever without preseason reps.

Overall, a team that had a bright future did get better this offseason. How much better? Time will tell.

The 49ers aren’t fully healthy, but that shouldn’t be an issue.

No football team is ever 100% healthy, but the 49ers had a little bit of a stressful training camp when it came to injuries to key players.

In the spring, star wide receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a foot injury (Jones fracture) that has kept him out for months, and all of training camp. He has yet to take the field in practice, and his status for Week 1 is in doubt.

The second of their first-round picks, Brandon Aiyuk (mild hamstring strain), suffered an injury as well. Fortunately for the 49ers, he returned to practice Thursday before the Week 1 opener on Sunday. He was having a great camp before he got hurt, so it’ll be interesting to see what his role will be on Sunday if he plays.

Nick Bosa suffered a muscle strain halfway through training camp and has been back at practice for a few days now. The team, and Bosa, were never really worried about his status for Week 1, and he should be a full-go.

In a Kyle Shanahan offense, center is one of the most important positions. The 49ers starting center, Weston Richburg, is on the Physically Unable to Perform list and will likely miss most of the first half of the season. His backup, Ben Garland, suffered an ankle injury in training camp and has slowly worked his way back to practice. There’s a good chance he plays Sunday, but that’s a position that’s worth monitoring moving forward.

This wasn’t an injury, but it’s worth mentioning that LB Fred Warner, who was placed on the Covid List, has since been activated and is a full go at practice. The list is for players who test positive or had been exposed. The team did not comment on which of those caused Warner to go on the list, but nevertheless he has returned.

The 49ers defense should be fine, but its the offense that may need to shake off the rust.

The 49ers success on defense is due in large part to their defensive line. The defensive line is healthy, and their job is to get after the quarterback, and that’s what they’re going to do. Everything else should fall into place.

In 2019 though, the 49ers did struggle against mobile quarterbacks. They’re facing one right out of the gate in Kyler Murray, who should be even better after his Offensive Rookie of the Year season last year.

49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan had this to say about the defenses approach to containing Murray:

“That’s always going to be a challenge. Anytime you’ve got guys who can run around like this one can in particular and how good of a thrower he is, that’s always going to be a huge challenge. So, you get used to going against this stuff. We had it twice last year, but I know there will be a bunch of new wrinkles this time, especially with the first game and having all offseason to think about it. But, our defense knows what to expect from the personnel and you’ve got to be ready to react to the new stuff, but he’s going to get some of his, and we’ve just got to make sure we get more.”

Offensively though, the lack of a preseason dress rehearsal may lead to a little bit of rust from the 49ers offense. For the most part its the same crew, but its important for an offense as complex as Shanahan’s to fine-tune itself as much as possible heading into a season. And they haven’t had that opportunity.

Because the 49ers defense is so good, I believe that if the offense does start off slow, it won’t necessarily sink their chances in this game. Jimmy Garoppolo has great numbers against the Cardinals, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they favor the running game on Sunday.

Prediction: 49ers 27, Cardinals 17

Week 1 and the following two weeks (NY Jets and Giants) give the 49ers a relatively easy first three games, with the Cardinals being the most difficult of those three teams in my opinion.

As I said, I believe the 49ers’ defense will be as advertised, and the offense will score enough points to get the job done. I really do expect the offense to focus on the ground game.

Players to watch: Garoppolo, TE George Kittle, and the entire 49ers running back group.

Random predictions: Garoppolo throws an interception in the first quarter. Tevin Coleman scores the first 49ers touchdown.

Notes

  • With no preseason games, no fans in the stands, and the endless list of rules and regulations teams must follow, this first week of the season is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Garoppolo had this to say about how different everything is:

“Yeah, obviously there’s a ton of differences this season and it’s really up to everyone to just adjust to it as best you can on the fly. I think you can’t put too much thought into it, but you have to realize that it is a different week. We had no preseason, so approach is a little different, but it’s basically the same. Once we get to Week 1, it’s all game prep and getting ready to roll now.”

  • As is the case with other major sports, no fans equals artificial crowd noise. Shanahan hasn’t been a fan of what the 49ers have tested thus far:

“I think it’ll be a huge adjustment for everyone out there. You don’t realize just what constant noise is like. It’s not about being loud or too low. It’s about just constant. I mean, usually, when the play starts, you get to hear the pop and you get to hear football. When things aren’t going on, you can have conversations with people and stuff. So just the constant noise, it’s a little tough to deal with, but fans won’t be having to deal with it. That’ll just be us. So hopefully we can make sure that doesn’t affect our game, which it shouldn’t. It’s more about just the irritation of it and you embrace it and realize that that can’t affect you unless you let it affect you and you just go back to playing football.”

  • It doesn’t sound like Richard Sherman is calling it quits anytime soon…

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