The San Francisco 49ers are a trendy pick to make the playoffs in 2018. They have been since their five-game winning streak to close last season.
The hype continued to build following Jimmy Garoppolo's massive contract extension in February. Then came Richard Sherman. Jerick McKinnon and Weston Richburg followed. An intriguing rookie class featured the team's new starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey and other interesting pieces – namely Fred Warner and Dante Pettis. Reuben Foster, who once seemed destined to miss most (if not all) of 2018, will now be suspended for just two games.
All of this is to say that nothing has happened this offseason to remove the spotlight away from San Francisco. It's all projection and conjecture at this point, but there's ample reason to suggest the 49ers can return to relevancy this season.
Robert Saleh sees it, too.
"There's a lot of momentum going into this (season), and we all feel really good about it," Saleh told 49ers.com.
San Francisco's defensive coordinator used recent history as an indicator for how the 49ers might fare in 2018. There's no denying the team's potential, but it's also hard to see it all coming together right out of the gate. That's because building an identity takes time.
Saleh pointed to three breakout teams from the past decade.
Exhibit A: The 2012 Seattle Seahawks
Seattle figured out its identity at the end of 2011 – running the ball and defense. The team had the personnel to be dominant in both aspects. But the Seahawks still came off the blocks slow with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson under center. Seattle found itself at 4-4 following back-to-back road losses to the 49ers and Detroit Lions. But things clicked down the stretch as the Seahawks won seven of their final eight games (including each of their last five). Seattle drubbed their opponents a combined 150-30 from Weeks 14-16. Saleh, who was a defensive quality control coach in Seattle at the time, maintains that the Seahawks should have won the Super Bowl that year. They'd go on to win one the following season.
Exhibit B: The 2016 Atlanta Falcons
It took some time for Kyle Shanahan, Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons offense to click. An 8-8 season in 2015 was followed by a 4-3 start in 2016. Atlanta had lost two in a row ahead of a Week 8 home game against the Green Bay Packers. The Falcons edged the Packers, 33-32, and never looked back. Atlanta boasted an offensive juggernaut that ranked among the most productive groups in NFL history. It propelled the Falcons to an 11-5 record as Atlanta coasted to Super Bowl LI.
Exhibit C: The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville had been stockpiling talent for years. The sleeping giant awoke last season and posted a 10-6 record. The Jaguars won the AFC South and narrowly lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. But even Jacksonville sputtered to a 3-3 start before taking off. A 27-0 route of the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 jump-started a stretch of seven wins in eight games. Jacksonville's vaunted defense should have staying power in the years to come.
"When a team is trying to make the jump, the first half of the year they make the jump is a beast. You're going to win and lose some crazy games," Saleh said. "I feel like in the second half of the year, it's going to take off again."
Saleh's point is accentuated when taking a look at the first eight games on San Francisco's schedule. The 49ers play three of their first four games and five of their first eight on the road. The 49ers will potentially be underdogs against the Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams.
As long as the 49ers endure that grueling slate, they'll be set up nicely to make a playoff push down the stretch. San Francisco finishes with three of its final four games at home.
"If we are sitting at 4-4, don't be surprised. But the run is going to happen," Saleh said confidently. "There's no doubt in my mind that the end-of-season run is going to happen. It's just about how quickly we can get that run started."